copyright 2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 56, winter 2014-2015

they might be gods

by Tyler Sage

Michael Wadleigh's Wolfen (1981) begins with the murder of a New York City developer after the groundbreaking ceremony of an urban revitalization project. Point of view camera work, filtered lenses, and meaningful shots of the full moon (along with, of course, the title) lead us to suspect that the culprit is a werewolf. Police detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is assigned to the case. Believing that the murder might be the work of political radicals, the police department also assigns young, attractive psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), who specializes in the pathology of violent revolutionaries.

From here, all the familiar narrative tropes spin forward:

  • the detective and the psychologist discover a hard-edged and somewhat surly love for one another;
  • a spiritual advisor (Edward James Olmos) is located who has an insider's knowledge of the animalistic and can guide the detective into his encounter with the mystical;
  • a coroner (Gregory Hines) is stymied by the fact that the only evidence he can find is a single hair, apparently from a non-human source;
  • a biologist identifies the hair, to the surprise of no one but the characters in the movie, as coming from one Canis Lupis.

We've seen this movie, many times. We will see it many times in the future (those of us who watch these sorts of things.) We understand how it unfolds. The wolf stalks humans and is stalked by the detective. Minor characters are devoured. The detective ends up victorious, yet also profoundly changed. The ending leaves open the possibility that this fearsome creature may still be out there.


Wadleigh's only other major directorial effort was the documentary Woodstock, which attempted to capture something of both the joy and faint naïveté of that festival,[1][open endnotes in new window] and Wolfen has a similar political orientation. At base, it's a cautionary horror film, one that wants to warn us of the dangers of human development as it trammels the natural world, and separates us from that world. It is not, however, an entirely simplistic presentation of environmentalist beliefs, and it is aware of the complexities involved in the idealization of nature. Additionally, it is a visually sophisticated film. It plays with the idea of perception by repeatedly breaking the frame with objects in the foreground. It also establishes a pattern of moving back and forth between the monster's vision (the colorized point of view shots established in the opening sequence) and human vision as filtered by various devices—televisions, closed circuit cameras, rifle scopes. Finally, it's a movie with an occasional sense of humor, both visually and in terms of its construction. All of which is to say that while it is not a great film and often not a very good one, it is neither stupid nor without its ambitions.

But inside its attempt at critique, or beneath it, lies something perhaps more interesting: a certain understanding—at points intentionally displayed, and at points unintentionally—of the social structuring and imagining of race in the United States. Much of the action takes place in a post-apocalyptic-looking South Bronx.[2] In the film's eye, this is not an inner city with a complex, poverty-ridden social structure, it is a ghetto presented as a nearly uninhabited desolation. Shots of bombed-out buildings and bleak streetscapes abound. Some of the action takes place in the almost medieval ruins of a church. Stray drug addicts stagger here and there through piles of fallen bricks like wanderers far from civilization.

It is through this wilderness that our monster stalks. And the notion of wilderness here is key: the werewolf, traditionally conceived, is a creature of the European forest or the Scottish moor. It is a creature that arises from a time when the wilderness was a threat, when to step outside of the palisades of one's village was to chance being torn to pieces by the natural forces lurking beyond human society. And yet the werewolf is at once both a thing of the wild and a human actor. Its basic terror does not come from its alien savagery, but from the comingling of that savagery with our human nature, from our fear that we might be contaminated by the wilderness outside the walls.

Much of the intended force of Wolfen arises from this tension between human and the wild being mapped onto the geography of the U.S. urban setting. Wilderness, the film implies visually, and states openly through dialogue, is no longer on the other side of the palisade. It is the inner city. Here is where the monsters now reside.


The decay of New York City during 1970s and early 80s held a deep fascination for the (particularly white) U.S. movie-going public. In film after film, the city was portrayed as a kind of contemporary urban gladiator pit. Consider Death Wish (1974), in which an architect is driven to a kind of righteous homicidal madness by the incessant crime of the city; or The Warriors (1979), in which the entire city suffers from a seething undercurrent of gang violence; or Escape From New York (1981), in which in which the island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison from which there is no return. Even less campy films, such as The French Connection (1971), Serpico (1973), Mean Streets (1973), and Taxi Driver (1976) played on this fascination.[3]

While this was often the general presentation of the city, the South Bronx and other traditionally African American neighborhoods seem to have had a particularly strong hold on the imagination of the time. And it is here that we move from a vision of the city as a whole as violently demented to a vision of the specific racial element of the degeneracy. In Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981), for example, white police officers in predominantly black neighborhoods feel like settlers in a savage "Indian county," as indicated by the allusive title.[4] The genre of "blaxploitation" films kicked off by Shaft (1971) featured black protagonists, and were originally marketed to black audiences, and yet soon came to be popular with white audiences due to their sensationalistic presentation of crime in the city as linked to black life.

This imagining of the poor African American neighborhood as the deepest heart of the wildest wilderness can be felt far beyond the boundaries of films set in New York. Thus the neat summation by the writers of Apocalypse Now (1976): we are told that the poor white sailor on the Naval Patrol Boat is from New Orleans, the blond kid is a surfer from California, and of the black kid we hear that "Mr. Clean came out of some South Bronx shithole, and I think the light and space of 'Nam put a zap on his head." Some thirty years later, in a review of a book on hip-hop, Dan Chiasson notes that, as a white kid growing up in Vermont, "If given the choice between traveling Transylvania to visit Dracula, or walking through the South Bronx, I would absolutely have chosen the former."[5]


In Wolfen what gives this racial imagination a particular pungency is the presence of a third leg of triangulation: the Native American.[6] Here we have the character of Eddie Holt, played by Edward James Olmos, an AIM[7]-style activist who has given up his radical ways and found a proper job. He now works on a crew with other Native Americans, repairing the city's bridges. (The credit sequence of the film shows Holt and his partner atop one of the piers of the Brooklyn Bridge, the modern urbanity of the city spread before them, Holt rhythmically swinging a bullroarer.[8]) When Wilson's detective approaches Holt to ask whether he knows any political radicals who might have committed the film's initial murder, the subject of the animalistic arises, and a racially loaded argument ensues. Holt ends up taunting the detective by claiming that he can change shapes. Later we see him engaged in some sort of vaguely "Native American" ritual, in which Holt seems to believe he has transformed himself into a wolf. He snarls and leaps and goes on all fours to lap water out of a puddle.

Finally, after a traumatic encounter with the monster, Wilson goes to find Holt at an "Native American Bar." (I am not being sarcastic in my titling: this is a bar, named the "Wigwam,"[9] filled with Native Americans.) Here, our detective confronts Holt and learns the shocking truth of the movie: the killers are not werewolves at all.

The story told by the Native Americans of the bar is that, a long time ago, before the arrival of the white man, the Native Americans and the wolves lived in harmony with nature. (As if to reinforce the deep truth of this, we are actually told it twice during the movie, the first time by the white biologist.) Then the white man came. He destroyed the Native American culture and decimated the wolves. Decimated them, that is, except for the most strongest and cunning: the Wolfen. These super-wolves survived the white onslaught, and continued to live, unbeknownst to us, in our urban wildernesses, preying on the sick (or the homeless and drug-addicted who populate the wilderness of the South Bronx), prowling the night and taking their living off of us. "In their eyes," says one of the wise old Native Americans, "YOU are the savages." Adds Eddie Holt, "They might be gods."


One does not have to be particularly perceptive to see here much of the traditional U.S. fever-dream of race.

The South Bronx, with its black population, is the wilderness. It has fallen out of civilization, reverted to a forest filled with predatory wolves. It is scary, yes, but also pitiable—the blacks are poor and addicted to drugs. And what is the solution? Well, from white filmmaker to white audience the initial answer is clear: White largesse. A white police detective, a white biologist, a white psychologist, and the ultimately noble workings of the modern economic machine: the urban renewal project planned by the rich white guy killed in the first scene.

And the Native Americans? They are shamanistic, spiritual beings, closer to nature than we. Degraded, yes, but also admirable. And tragic figures, because of the destruction that was wreaked on them by us. This is an old portrayal, filled with guilt, piousness and false adoration. It began long before the original Fort Apache (1948), and has continued on in various shades through such exercises as Dances With Wolves (1990) and its sequel, Avatar (2009). As a habit of white thought in The United States, this is as deeply ingrained as it gets. As Richard Slotkin notes in his foundational book Regeneration Through Violence,[11] to Puritan eyes the Native American was both a resident of Eden and a minion of Hell; he was wild in a way that bespoke a return to the original state, and yet was close to the horror of untamed nature in a way that could only be understood as demonic. This is a conflicted and deeply powerful response, and it seems clear that the intensity of emotion it generated led to the savagery with which the native population was treated for the four and a half centuries or so after the arrival of the Europeans.

This is also exactly the attitude that helped shape the reactions of Colonial America to the slave population, and has continued to help shape the relationship of white culture in The United States to black culture. From the familiar stock character of the "Magic Negro" (the black character who pops up in U.S. films to aid the white characters with his earthy wisdom[12]), to cultural terror fantasies about the rape of white women by black men, to contemporary reactions towards the U.S. Presidency of Barack Obama, we can see the imprint of the Puritans' initial response to the racial other: fear and fascination. The fear of fascination, or of the possibility of being fascinated. The violence of the response. The masking of that violence through attempts at paternalism, at pity, at separate but equal, [13] at guilt fraught with bitterness.


Much has been written about this; much more still needs to be written. But there is a second question in play: What do these conceptions reveal about the vision and imaginings of the white United States at the time?

One way of getting to this might be to ask: Who are the white characters in Wolfen?

We have the wealthy developer killed (along with his wife and bodyguard) in the first scene. In this character, we are given a tidy summation of the impotent and self-serving guilt of affluent whites towards urban poverty. He is first seen (through the eyes of a Wolfen) at the urban renewal groundbreaking, the spectacle of which is nearly parodic: white politicians in suits and ceremonial hard hats throwing lumps of dirt with golden shovels at the start of yet another round of "urban renewal." This is the type of project that, even by 1981, had acquired the feel of the quixotic—the deterioration of the inner city had been in full swing for two decades and there seemed to be no possibility of stopping it, despite the politicians' assurances that each new attempt would be the one to turn the tide. Later, after his murder, we are treated to a tour of his penthouse, complete with furniture so tacky it can only belong to someone very wealthy. The decor includes silver, reflecting, floor to ceiling blinds covering the panoramic NYC views, a model of the revitalization project in perfect, clean, white plaster (and, of course, a wolf-skin rug.) The developer was deeply distressed by the situation in the South Bronx; at the same time, he would never turn down the opportunity to make a couple of bucks off it.

A second white character we're given is the biologist named Ferguson (played by Tom Noonan) who identifies the mysterious wolf hair from the crime scene. Ferguson is the first person in the movie to explain to us that the wolves and Native Americans lived unencumbered lives and were, basically, very similar beings. He is a different archetype, the other side of the developer's coin: a nerdy scientist, living in a city and yet bemoaning the evils of technology and progress, consumed with adulation of the wild and of wolves. He is the stereotypical New Homesteader (people who move to the American West in order to find some kind of pastoral paradise they've convinced themselves must exist out there[14]), long before that phrase came into common use. Where the developer sees the progressive vision of (white) civilization overcoming the wilderness, Ferguson fetishizes the wild as something greater than himself, some repository of deeper meaning that is being tragically destroyed. In one scene we see him watching film clips of wolves and detailing the amazing abilities of the animal: "Jaw pressure: 1,500 pounds per square inch, pulverizing bones as big as baseball bats…Maximum speed forty miles per hour." If the developer gives us self-serving guilt, then Ferguson allows us a vision of sad, impotent guilt.

The film clips end, unavoidably, with footage of wolves being shot from helicopters and held up as trophies.[15] The message is clear: We are killing them. We! And, thus, only we can save them. This is guilt as empowerment. Guilt as a method of feeling good about ourselves: it's up to us (white culture) to go off and solve all the damn problems in the world. Again. (It is not a coincidence that the early framings of these habits of thought, by Slotkin and others, took place in the context of the Vietnam War; it is perhaps significant that they have not been more pronounced or visible during our current conflagrations.)


The final white character worth pausing on is detective Dewey Wilson. He is, like all most good cop and horror-movie detectives of his era, a down-and-out, blue collar alcoholic, trying not all that hard to recover from some tragedy or another. He's dangerous. He's unpredictable. He's a loose cannon. And yes, he has, like they all do, that dead-eyed, desperate desire for something more; more spiritual, more real, closer to the bone. Something closer, perhaps, to that authentic thing that he once was, before he fell into the gutter and became aware of the world. And where will he find that thing? In a descent into the wild. A descent into the violent. A journey in which it becomes clear what he (and the audience) has been looking for all along: the heart of darkness, that totemistic move to the boundaries of civilization, the earthy, the deadly, the larger, deeper, darker (skinned) world. A journey taken, in this movie, into the new horror and wilderness of the inner city.

Seen from afar, is there not some tragic element in all of this? In the traps, the paradoxes, the desperation of the white consciousness? Perhaps pathetic? And yet terrifying in its consequences. What strange and unhappy people these must be, one is tempted to think, these characters and the audience that sees itself represented in them, whose fantasies seem to consist of denigrating and fearing exactly the thing that they yearn for. Who end up, through these deluded fantasies, these pathologies, wreaking havoc on the world.


The comedian Chris Rock[16] had a bit he used to do about the group of people that have had it the worst in U.S. history: the Native Americans. African Americans, Rock explained, have suffered, while the Native Americans (Indians) have simply been annihilated. "I have seen a fucking polar bear riding a tricycle in my life," he proclaimed, "but I've never seen an Indian family just chilling out at Red Lobster." It was a joke that always got a great laugh, and it was a joke aimed at the white United States, one intended to remind us that the different races are not all equally responsible for the country's sins, and have borne them differently.

There have been moments in which mainstream white U.S. culture seems to have begun to think about grappling with its position and history. This grappling has not always been clearly articulated, and its expressions have not always been even noble or decent ones; they have usually pronounced themselves through fear, guilt, nightmares, and easy, frictionless morality plays. Wolfen is emblematic of this tradition, and of a particular historical moment. The destruction forced onto the Native Americans, the issues of the history of slavery and Civil Rights, the validity of the melting-pot metaphor[17]: these were issues still on the public mind when the movie was made. There was at least some vague uneasiness on the part of white culture with the way in which it achieved its ascendency. There was some awareness of what AIM was, some awareness of Peltier.[18] There was Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.[19] There was the revisionist Western film,[20] there was a Black Panther Party,[21] Bob Dylan's "Hurricane,"[22] the battles over the Bicentennial celebration.[23]

This cultural questioning is the source of the film's visual interest in fractured framing, mirroring, and questions of vision. From the first, we are presented with shots of the faces of the white characters broken up by objects in the foreground and oddly reflected in mirrors. We are also continually confronted with the question of how things are seen, from the many shots from the Wolfen's point of view, to a wide variety of shots in which the vision of (generally white) characters is filtered in a number of ways. This fracturing of the white personality and questioning of what it means to see the world through white eyes (particularly as opposed to the vision of the powerful and pure, but uncivilized, Wolfen) are issues the film is interested in exploring.

This ability of the dominant culture to question its position in a serious way has nearly vanished, despite all of our current talk about "white privilege." The moments of unease along these lines that still pop up occasionally in the United States tend to be so ingrained and exhausted that they've lost all meaning, or they fall prey to the culture of irony, which says that the most that can be done about anything is to mock it. The aforementioned Avatar is an example of the former. It’s a lukewarm and sanctimonious parable about the treatment of the Native American, so morally vacuous and shot through with internal contradiction that it becomes little more than sentiment and nostalgia. Spielberg's Lincoln functions in the same vein: its basic view of the history of slavery as an evil which was purely and nobly overcome, rather than as a historical circumstance that in some way determined today's society. The approach to race on South Park[24] is an example of the opposite, ironic, pole. There the basic assumption is that we all know how terrible everything used to be and often still is, and the great thing now is that we can all laugh it.

The point here is not that white Americans should live in a state of constant guilt and remorse. The point is that perhaps the most tragic aspect of U.S. culture is its tendency to see itself as supreme and inevitable. We see this in current treatments of the issue of race, which assert that we have basically overcome the problem, which you would realize if you would just stop whining. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race," says our Chief Justice, "is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."[25] We see it in the U.S. vision of U.S. democracy as the necessary endpoint for civilization. We see it in the notion that our economic model provides us with nothing but answers. (Have a problem? Look for market solutions. Look for efficiency. Look for the power of statistics.) We see it in the bland confidence that U.S. culture has in its own power, its own rightness, its ability to solve any problem.

In the main, these are habits of historical white thought that have percolated through the national vision. That is, they are the habits of thought of the historical winner. They are the habits of thought of the people who have succeeded in the democracy, and been enriched by the economic system. They are the beliefs of the segment of the culture that has never been a minority. Ultimately, they are habits that reflect a deepening failure of the imagination: they preclude the notion that there are alternatives out there.

And as these habits of thought have become more and more and more widely accepted, we have seen a shifting in our conceptions of history: away from the idea that it might be necessary to deal with the implications of how we got to the position we now hold, and towards the idea that it's inevitable that the Native Americans and the minorities and the other historical losers will eventually come to see the benefits of joining our cultural dream.


Here is the end of the movie: Wolfen: Wilson and Neff (the police psychologist), become trapped by the Wolfen in the penthouse apartment of the rich developer. (To ask how the Wolfen climbed — flew? — to this height would be to deny the film the absurd beauty of its vision.) Wilson has his gun drawn. They circle him and snarl. We have reached the moment when our protagonist is at last at the center of the heart of darkness. The film gives us a sequence that flashes back and forth between close-ups of Wilson's eyes and the eyes of one of the Wolfen. Their vision becomes united. Wilson lowers his gun and sets about destroying the model of the development project. He smashes it to lovingly filmed, slow-motion bits. In 1981, this is still a gesture that is possible. We white conquerors will try to stop our mad development and spare you natural creatures from destruction. And yet we cannot stop it, cannot stop the creation of penthouses and our development projects. We are caught in our own traps. We cannot be cleansed. We are being driven mad. The Wolfen understand. Wilson, in return, comes to understand the vast, ineradicable force of nature, and through that encounter he is in cleansed. The fracturing of his personality is repaired by this encounter with the wild. The film ends with shots the Wolfen running through the streets of New York City. It is the system, the history, which is the problem; the wilderness, the natural spirit, can still be imagined as transcendent. (The fate of the black urban poor upon whom the Wolfen prey is unclear. There is only room here for so much awareness.)

It is a closing gesture of recrimination and impotence, of self-doubt; it is a gesture that both intentionally and unintentionally, as a self-conscious eco-drama and a mid-rate horror film, begins to wrestle with the tangled lines of the cultural imagination.

Is such a gesture is possible now, in a country in which incarceration rates are six times higher for blacks than for whites, in which poverty rates for the Native American population are two and a half times higher than that of the white population, in which life expectancy correlates exactly with race? Perhaps it is. Perhaps the possibilities of recriminating imagination that produced Wolfen have not faded. Perhaps this is all alarmism, and films do not change, things are no worse (or better) than they were. We have our Twelve Years A Slave, after all. Or perhaps our Django Unchained.

But, looking around at the cultural assumptions of our day, at the way the affluent white United States imposes its dreams on the world and then moves on from those dreams, keeping just ahead, letting everyone else trail behind, never thinking about those dreams, simply assuming its own inevitability, I'm reminded of another line from Chris Rock:

"Every town has the same two malls: the one white people go to and the one white people used to go to."


1. (Throughout the essay, I've included footnotes on specific cultural elements of the United States for readers from other countries.) "Woodstock" was an outdoor music festival in the town of Woodstock, New York, in 1969. Attended by some 400,000 people, it became one of the epitomes of the 1960s counterculture "revolution" in the United States. [return to text]

2. New York City is made up of five boroughs, including Manhattan and the Bronx. Since the 1960s the South Bronx has been a mostly African American neighborhood, and has been beset by deep poverty, a situation which still exists. For a useful summation of the continuing discrepancy between neighborhoods in Manhattan (some of the world's wealthiest) and the neighborhood of the South Bronx, see Paul Harris, "Worlds Apart—The Neighbourhoods That Sum Up a Divided America" The Guardian, 17 Sept., 2011. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/sep/18/bronx-manhattan-us-wealth-divide

3. The French Connection is about unscrupulous New York cops chasing international drug smugglers; Serpico is about a police officer struggling to reveal corruption on his own force. Both are a part of a wave of "realist" U.S. films from the 1970s that reflected a deep cynicism about both civil authority and the traditional narratives of the U.S. pursuit of prosperity. Mean Streets and Taxi Driver explore this material from the side of the criminal rather than the cop; Mean Streets does this through a narrative of a small-time, aspiring gangster, Taxi Driver though the story of a man immersed in, and warped nearly out of recognition by, the violence of U.S. culture.

4. The title works in two ways. The first is through a direct reference to John Ford's Fort Apache (1948), which is the first of Ford's so-called "Calvary Trilogy." As with much of Ford's work, these films both participate in, and stand in uneasy relationship to, the myth of the U. West. They take as their subject military confrontations between the U.S. Calvary and the Native Americans in the period after the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). Each film in the trilogy engages with the myth and history of those confrontations, which involve the idea that the annihilation of the Native American was a necessary step in the worthy mission of bringing U.S. ideas of "freedom" and "civilization" into what was seen as an "untamed" land. This mythos is the source of the second, more subtle, reference of the title, which is to the U.S. habit of framing its military adventures in terms of "cowboys" and "Indians." The U.S. soldier abroad, from the Philippines to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, has habitually been referred to as a cowboy, meaning one who brings civilization through violence, and the populations of those countries have been denoted Indians, that is, indigenous populations who will either be pacified or annihilated. The title Fort Apache, The Bronx transposes this entire military history onto the racialized policing situation (white cops, black populace) of New York City.

5. "'Rude Ludicrous Lucrative' Rap," The New York Review of Books, January 13, 2011.

6. The Indigenous American population is often termed "Native American" or "Indian." To avoid confusion for readers outside of the United States, I've generally used "Native American" in this article.

7. AIM is the American Indian Movement. This is a group founded "to turn the attention of Indian people toward a renewal of spirituality which would impart the strength of resolve needed to reverse the ruinous policies of the United States, Canada, and other colonialist governments of Central and South America." In the early 1970s it was involved in a number of confrontations, sometimes violent, with the United States government. It is still an active advocacy group today. Quote taken from Laura Waterman Wittstock and Elaine J. Salinas, "A Brief History of the American Indian Movement," AIM website.

8. A bullroarer is a traditional aboriginal instrument, made of a thin piece of resonating wood attached to the end of a length of string. When swung in circles, the wood vibrates, creating a roaring sound that can carry for great distances.

9. A wigwam is single-room, dome-shaped dwelling constructed by certain Native American tribes.

10. It is worth noting briefly that representations of this sort, in which black or minority inner cities are presented as wildernesses into which (usually white) characters must venture if they are to prove themselves, have not ceased to be made since the 1970s. Cop films from Colors (1988) to Training Day (2001) have used or explored this trope; nearly every decade sees several releases of white-teacher-ventures-into-the-minority-wilderness movies such as The Principle (1987), Dangerous Minds (1995), or Freedom Writers (2007); a host of other representations along these lines range from sophisticated interrogations of the subject matter such as HBO's famously seminal show The Wire (2002-08) to self-congratulations of white U.S. culture like 2009's The Blind Side.

 11. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of The American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

12. Once again, this is a racialized tradition of U.S. storytelling that goes back nearly as long as there have been U.S. stories. The black character Jim in Mark Twain's 1885 novel Huckleberry Finn is often cited as a seminal prototype; characters like Dick Hallorann in The Shining (1980) or Morpheus from The Matrix (1999) are paradigmatic filmic examples. The keys to the character are that he (or she) serves as a helpful adjunct to a white protagonist, and that he does so out of a mysterious reserve of wisdom, spirituality or actual magic; what is revealed by the character is not simply the subordinate nature of black characters to white, but the exoticization of those characters, an ascription to them (and thus to black culture in general) of wisdom in place of intelligence, earthiness in place of civilization, and magic in place of rationality.

13. From the end of the 19th Century until 1954, racial segregation in the United States was both legal and widely practiced. In much of the country, and particularly in the South, blacks and whites attended separate schools, had separate eating areas in restaurants, and were forced to use different public amenities, such as rest rooms. The term "separate but equal," used at the time to justify this policy, has since acquired an ironic charge, since the policy was a de facto means of social control, as the facilities provide for blacks were of course vastly inferior.

14. The term "New Homesteader" refers to the history of the westward expansion of the United States across the continent. This expansion was driven by government policies granting property rights to citizens who put a previously "unowned" piece of land under cultivation. The people who did this were called homesteaders. These policies served as an excuse for the extirpation of the Native Americans residing on the land; they also formed a central part of the national imagination, in which the western part of the continent was seen as a paradise waiting to be developed.

15. This is a loaded image for U.S. environmentalists. The existence and eradication of the wolf has long been a contentious issue in the U.S. West. (The claim forwarded by people favoring the elimination of the wolves is that they pose a threat to livestock and even to people.) One focal point of this confrontation has been the intermittent policy of the state of Alaska to shoot wolves from helicopters.

16. Chris Rock is a black standup comic known for his acerbic, clear-eyed style and willingness to talk directly about issues of race and class in the United States.

17. There is a long-running struggle to arrive at a proper metaphor for the interaction of people of different races in the United States. "The melting pot" was an image of a country in which race was subsumed by national culture; under this view, people's racial identities (or the cultural identities of immigrants) would properly be melted away to some extent, and the resulting U.S. culture would be the result of this comingling. It was often contrasted with the metaphor of "the salad bowl" in which the ingredients of race and culture would mingle but retain their own essential shape and flavor.

18. Leonard Peltier is a member of AIM who was sentenced to serve consecutive life sentences (a particularity of the U.S. judicial system, meant to signify the heinousness of his act) for the shooting of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975. From the moment of his arrest, and continuing to this day, there have been deep suspicions about his guilt and the fairness of his trial.

19. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970) is an influential history of the Native Americans in the second half of the 19th Century; the title refers to a massacre the Lakota Sioux people by U.S. soldiers in 1890. This is often seen as the final moment of the long war between the United States government and the Native Americans; it also took place on the same reservation where, eighty-five years later, the AIM movement and the FBI would be involved in the confrontation resulting in the conviction of Leonard Peltier.

20. A genre in which the tropes of the Western movie, and the myth of the United States inherent in that movie, is critiqued, reconsidered, or reformulated.

21. The Black Panther Party was an African American organization begun in the late 1960s that advocated for black pride and socialist revolution, and was often in confrontation with the U.S. government and the white establishment.

22. A song from Bob Dylan's 1976 album Desire,about the 1966 arrest and conviction for murder of Ruben Carter, an African American boxer who served nineteen years in prison before his conviction was overturned.

23. The 1976 celebration of the bicentennial of the U.S. declaration of independence from England was marked by a great deal of controversy. Many people of color felt that in the anniversary's celebration of U.S. virtues, the nation's history of genocide and slavery, as well as its continuing tradition of structural racism and poverty, were being whitewashed.

24. South Park is an enormously influential cartoon sitcom that first aired in 1997. Its protagonists are a group of kids in rural Colorado, and its approach is to satirize subjects important to all shades of the political and religious spectrums, while maintaining enough sentimentality to prevent its worldview from ever quite being absurdist or nihilistic.

25. This is a line penned by John Roberts, the deeply conservative Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. It comes from one of a series of cases in which the conservatives on the court have made it increasingly difficult for public institutions to take race into consideration when making decisions that affect social policy. Robert's claim is that the government's attempts to remedy the effects of slavery by taking into account the race of citizens (he terms this "discrimination" to slant the argument) are inherently racist.

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