Post-Ferguson Hollywood

by Jeff Menne

Following his relative success in the 2016 Iowa caucus, Senator Marco Rubio was asked in a CNN interview if he thought the year’s Oscars were too white. “I don’t know,” he said, “What does that mean?” Noncommittal on this issue, he wheeled to the “bigger problems” with Hollywood. He said:

“I think the bigger problem with Hollywood, is the values they are trying to ram down our kids’ throats and how hard it’s made it on parents.”[1] [open endnotes in new window]

One might expect him to turn a liberal talking point into a conservative one. Less expectedly, though, he said he still wants to see Straight Outta Compton (Gray, Universal, 2015), the biopic narrating N.W.A.’s rise to fame in the late 1980s. Rubio has been an outspoken fan. Near the release date, he tweeted that “Team Rubio” would need to “clear two hours on my schedule on Aug. 14. Gotta see #StraightOuttaCompton.” It seems that Rubio gives Straight Outta Compton a pass, making it somehow innocent of Hollywood “values.”

I’m less interested in guessing what counts for Rubio as Hollywood values, here, than in suggesting what value “blackness” is given in Straight Outta Compton and more generally in Hollywood’s “Post-Ferguson Cinema.” My analysis rests on Michael Rogin’s famous claim that turning points in Hollywood history have been eased by the “surplus symbolic value of blacks, the power to make African Americans represent something beside themselves.”[2] The problem with the nominations for the 88th Academy Awards was not simply their failure to honor black labor within the industry. The problem, rather, is that this labor is overlooked while the “symbolic value” of black lives outside the industry is ceaselessly harvested by Hollywood.[3]

Take, for instance, a most conspicuous example: in his effort to revitalize the Star Wars franchise, J.J. Abrams cast a black actor, John Boyega, as a turncoat storm trooper, hence recalibrating the geopolitics such that the franchise can satisfy its core audience but reach beyond them too. The franchise, thanks to Abrams, is once again open for business. Relating business and blackness, in fact, has delimited a set of themes that gives recent Hollywood cinema a kind of period integrity. Calling it “Post-Ferguson Hollywood” lets me foreshorten and place in a single framework the concerns begotten by the financial crisis but later aggravated by the policing crisis. Two strains of cinema—one concerning finance capital, say 99 Homes (Bahrani, Broad Green Pictures, 2015) and The Big Short (McKay, Paramount, 2015), another concerning blackness, say Dope (Famuyiwa, Open Road, 2015) and Creed (Coogler, MGM/ Warner Bros., 2015)—seem to have been braided into the commercial logic of franchise moviemaking.

At issue in Dope is Malcolm Adekanbi’s authenticity as a black teenager. In Creed, Rocky, once the “Great White Hope” of Philadelphia, now trains the son of the black fighter, Apollo, who was once his rival.

Oddly, what might best illuminate this commercial logic is the unlikely and largely contrived “beef” between Martin Shkreli and Ghostface Killah. Shkreli, known as the “Pharma Bro” after coldheartedly raising the price of HIV medication nearly 6,000 percent, was unveiled as the winner of an auction for the Wu-Tang Clan’s one-of-a-kind album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin; he paid $2 million to be its sole owner.[4] While the Wu-Tang have been known for stunts of this kind—their innovation of the business model was their calling card from the first—in this instance group member Ghostface felt it had backfired.[5] He insulted Shkreli and walked into a “beef” that Shkreli had been trying to stage with a hip-hop star. The theater of it is mostly insignificant, except for the fact that theater is needed.

Ice Cube in his first movie, Boyz n the Hood. Ice Cube in the hit comedy Friday.

Entrepreneurial capitalism, for Shkreli, needs theatricalizing in order to claim its legitimacy.[6] Shkreli’s insight, it seems, is that hip hop has been a discursive field for capitalism in this mode; this dates back at least to N.W.A., the Compton hip-hop act that popularized the style known as “gangsta rap.” A founding member, Eazy-E had been a neighborhood drug-dealer who wished to turn his capital from bad to good. When he and Dr. Dre recorded the single “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” they transformed illegitimate drug earnings into legitimate record sales: it’s the perfect updating of robber-baron capitalism. But what Straight Outta Compton dramatizes is that Eazy-E’s fatal flaw was to put his trust in an old-fashioned manager still committed to finding the “solo act” within the group. In the process Eazy failed to put the ensemble membership of N.W.A. under contract and was hence unable to produce a franchise for its earnings. Ice Cube was the most important writer in N.W.A. but was unrecognized within its business model—so he got away, discovering in his flight that he could spin a media franchise from his music. First Boyz n the Hood (Singleton, Columbia, 1991), then Friday (Gray, New Line, 1995). F. Gary Gray directed both Friday and Straight Outta Compton, and Ice Cube’s company, Cube Vision, produced both movies; it’s easy to see the latter movie, in turn, as a sly celebration of Ice Cube’s business farsightedness.

What Eazy-E failed to do, however, the Wu-Tang Clang was able to do in an epochal way. Having the leverage of their successful single “Protect Ya Neck,” Wu-Tang leader RZA shopped their first album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) until he negotiated a contract for the band that did not place its individual members under contract but instead left them free to sign individually on the strength of the album. The album was huge, and each individual album to follow—Method Man’s Tical, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and GZA’s Liquid Swords—was negotiated more dearly in turn. In effect, RZA made a franchise.

Here’s where it gets weird. In making the franchise, the Wu-Tang routed their “powers” through the world of comic-book heroes. Ghostface, for instance, took Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) as one of his aliases. The reason he did, I’d argue, is that the comics have a dehistoricizing pull in them; they replace the moral complications of lived history with the moral neatness of heroes and villains. The Marvel Universe can thus reframe geopolitical debates (military action and international law, the United Nations, etc.) in terms of unmistakable choices between good and evil.

What the Wu-Tang Clan did for hip hop, then, is import the good-evil schema of the comics into its world, making of the comics a philosopher’s stone able to transform inner-city struggle into a mass-market object of consumption. The hip-hop artist was in turn less political and more archetypal. And the great trope of the comics—the oscillation between illegitimacy and legitimacy—became its own (i.e. Batman is a vigilante in the illegitimate nighttime world but a millionaire in the legitimate daytime world just as Jay-Z was a drug dealer in the illegitimate streets but a record executive in the legitimate boardrooms). It’s fitting, then, that the “business plan” for the Wu-Tang’s success would be repeated by Marvel a decade later in the movie franchising of their comic-book heroes, and what’s more, that the movies in this franchise would on balance lend themselves to neoliberal readings.[7] As Jay-Z would say of hip hop—“This is black superhero music right here, baby”—so too Ice Cube would say of Straight Outta Compton. “Marvel got their thing, but we got our thing too,” he said, claiming that N.W.A. would be “the real superheroes this summer.”[8]

Perhaps they were. If N.W.A. had become summer superheroes, such that even Marco Rubio wasn’t advised against championing them, then Martin Shkreli was their counterpart. Ghostface called out Shkreli as a “fake-ass supervillain.”[9] He seemed bemused by their tangling. “I don’t even know how it came to this,” Ghostface says, how “in, like, 2016” he should be in a faceoff with “Peter Pan” (as he called Shkreli). Notable in Ghostface’s address of Shkreli is his invocation of the date. In this he implies that in order to understand “how it came to this,” how, that is, Shkreli came to insert himself in a hip-hop imaginary, one would need to add some “real” history to the cultural history that hip hop had developed in parallel.

This essay, though it cannot track the long history of these cultural forms, means to reckon with this moment of late-capitalist theater in which a “soft killer” like Shrkeli can trade on hip hop in an effort to make his right to profit as legitimate as any other black kid in the inner city struggling to survive. Selling drugs is selling drugs, Shkreli wants us to think, from Compton to Big Pharma. My argument is that while Straight Outta Compton might have received Rubio’s dispensation, it’s everywhere been the case that recent Hollywood cinema has churned the symbolic value of blackness. The point of this churning, I believe, has been to imagine the moral order of free enterprise through appeals to the righteousness of black struggle.[10]

Though the Oscars became a flashpoint in our recent debates about institutional racism, they are but an epiphenomenon of the exchange between real and symbolic economies. What they index is urgent, without question, but whether the Oscars remain a relevant index is an open question. Host Chris Rock staged the same joke in this year’s broadcast as he did when hosting in 2005: he went to a black neighborhood (this time Compton, the first time Harlem) and asked if people had seen the movies nominated, and no one had. Hence what I mean to do, here, is offer a survey of recent movies sensitized to the value blackness holds in Hollywood’s symbolic economy, then relate this survey, briefly, to the robust visual culture emerging from the #Black Lives Matter movement. In a sense Straight Outta Compton is the movie of its moment, not so much because it illuminates social events but because it at once divulges the internal logic of the Hollywood system and shows why social events are a matter of indifference to it.  

Raekwon’s first album. GZA’s first album.

From open markets to credit crisis

What gives recent Hollywood cinema a degree of period integrity, curiously, is its return to the Cold War (i.e. a possible alternative to capitalism) in the same moment it reckons with the free-market cataclysm of the Great Recession. Sometimes this has been a matter of communism in Hollywood’s backyard—Trumbo (Roach, Bleecker Street, 2015) tells the story of Hollywood’s blacklist, and Hail, Caesar! (Coen, Universal, 2016) invents a story about Communist writers diverting Hollywood money to Soviet agents—and at these times it seems the movies are weighing whether or not they can or should be politically effective. But at other times, when it’s ostensibly the political systems themselves being weighed, there is a feeling that the history of African-Americans must be effaced if Cold War historiography is to be politically spun in the right way.

Consider briefly Bridge of Spies (Spielberg, Touchstone, 2015). The ideological content of the Cold War is bracketed, largely, so that Spielberg can tell the story of systems by way of the interpersonal story of two equally noble men, US diplomat James Donovan (Tom Hanks) and Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Ryland), both committed to the individual enactment of the best parts of their political systems. Though the movie suggests that, tactically, the U.S. and Soviet systems are equal, its main interest is to declare that these are two good men.[11] But in a rhyming image the movie suggests that if tactically their systems are the same, morally they are not. In East Berlin, Donovan looks out the elevated train window and sees young people rushing for the Berlin Wall, but they are mercilessly shot down by border guards. Back home in Brooklyn, though, Donovan again looks out an elevated train window and sees young people rushing for a fence between one backyard and another, but this time the young people are free to scale the fence and vault carefree to the other side.

This is the difference between a repressive and an open society. The young people in Brooklyn, it bears noting, are white. It’s hard to watch their freedom from repression and not think of the Civil Rights struggles that were coextensive with the Cold War. In this period one might have seen the “Little Rock Nine” on television, or reports of Medgar Evers’s home terrorized in the same way as was the Donovan home. But such struggle doesn’t figure into Bridge of Spies. In its final frames, the movie tells us that Donovan had another diplomatic victory in Cuba, but it does not tell us that as the president of the New York City Board of Education he was unsympathetic to school desegregation. A colleague said that while “Jim Donovan had done some liberal things in his life,” it was nonetheless the case that “he was completely inept in race relations.”[12] Perhaps, then, what we are seeing is the open society not as Donovan had encountered it but as he imagined it. This would be thoroughly Spielbergian: a reconstruction of the patriarch as he appeared to himself. Concerned as he is with patriarchal affect, Spielberg has periodically found ways to square his cinema with African-American history, but it seems that in Bridge of Spies he had to efface it to make Cold War historiography a tidier project.

In the other significant Cold War movie, The Man from U.N.C.L.E (Ritchie, Warner Bros., 2015) remakes a TV show originally run in peak years (1964-1968) of the Cold War. The movie, unlike the show, evokes blackness rather insistently. In its opening sequence, 16 mm footage of East Berlin is scored to Roberta Flack’s “Compared to What,” and then the closing sequence is scored to Nina Simone’s “Take Care of Business.” But these musical cues don’t make sense historically because the movie is set in 1963 and Flack’s song was released in 1969 and Simone’s song in 1965. So the songs aren’t meant as accurate period detail. Nor do they make sense narratively, because the Civil Rights mood they set falls outside the story. It’s worth supposing, however, that the version of the ‘60s that interests the movie is one structured by the availability of blackness as a stylistic option. This, in Tom Wolfe’s cynical account, is the ‘60s as the birth of “radical chic,” from the licentious themes of rhythm and blues music to the iconic fashion of the Black Panthers.[13] In the movie black style seems available to some, but not others; it’s available to Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), for instance, a British spy who does a lip-sync rendition of Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me”. The audience of her song, the Russian spy Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is obviously denied the option—he is without style, even without blood, so the movie jokes.

He blushes at her seductive display. His Russianness, we recognize, is meant not simply as a matter of political unfreedom, but as a kind of bodily and expressive unfreedom. Politics has been coded as style. This has long been part of the ideological history of the Cold War, and we can attend to its form as it has been telescoped for us in the Berlin Wall speeches of Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. The “armed guards and checkpoints” first restrict “the right to travel,” Reagan said, which is to say one’s bodily freedom. But in his speech he quickly converts this from an issue of free bodies into one of economic freedom: the Marshall Plan, the Wirtschaftswunder, reduced tariffs, free trade, and lowered taxes. This trajectory, naturalized by now, is what lets the movie so lightly joke about Illya the Russian spy’s style without it seeming politically committed. It’s the same operation, this historical flattening, that lets the movie make black culture of the Civil Rights era the stuff of style rather than politics. Hence if we are to recover the politics of Gaby Teller’s performance of Solomon Burke, we would have to recall the itinerary of the song: written by Bert Berns and recorded by Solomon Burke, it instantiates the often strained musical partnership between Jewish-American and African-American culture that has marked jazz and rhythm and blues alike.[14] The song was then retailed by the Rolling Stones for white audiences as part of a movement that mined R&B charts for Pop hits. Gaby Teller’s Britishness, hence, reminds us of this buried history at bottom of what culminated in the “British Invasion.” But her Britishness relates, too, to James Bond, the British spy who made espionage a drama of perfect stylishness, not geopolitics, and who was the model for the American Napoleon Solo, protagonist of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.   

The Russian spy is embarrassed as the frisky British spy tempts him to dance with her. Illya must rub his hands together—which, the movie implies, would otherwise be cold as marble—before he touches Gaby’s flesh.

This is how scrambled the politics of contemporary Hollywood, particularly its racial politics, have become. One sees this not only in today’s reassessments of the Cold War, but in the effort to take on the recent financial crisis. In the last year, two movies—the notable The Big Short and the slight 99 Homes—narrated the housing market collapse of 2008-09. These stories might have been expected vehicles for African-Americans, considering how disproportionate an effect the crisis had on black wealth: compare a 31% decline per black household to an 11% one per white household.[17] The predatory practices that drove the subprime market tended to target elderly and minority communities. Black borrowers making more than $200,000 a year, a study found, were “more likely to receive subprime loans than white families making less than $30,000.”[18] But neither movie anchors its narrative in this demographic fact. Rather both movies tell the story, as many other stories were told this year, from the perspective of entrepreneurs—cf. Ex Machina (Garland, A24, 2015), Steve Jobs (Boyle, Universal, 2015), and Joy (Russell, 20th Century Fox, 2015). What separates the movies is their moral regard for entrepreneurs, particularly when their enterprises come out of dispossession. Indeed, 99 Homes feels like a morality play, with the entrepreneur Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) embodying Greed and the dispossessed homeowner Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) embodying Desperation. When driving through a neighborhood of “For Sale” signs and darkened homes, Carver tells Nash that he’s seen “nine opportunities” on the last block, that if Nash tunes his vision this way he too will see opportunity where others do not. Ultimately, the movie hangs on Nash’s decision to emulate Carver or reject him. But it hangs on this, we might say, because it finds dramatic interest in the collapsing ideology of the white property owner whose “family home” is the public mark of his authority. It is of marginal interest—and as a ready supply of pathos—that a black family and an elderly man are foreclosed on, too. The central interest lies in the declassing of the white male, still vital and still capable of building communities, but pushed instead to break them down into assets and sell them at different, more abstract levels of the market.

99 Homes: Foreclosure on a black family is less central to the main narrative. Foreclosure on an elderly man, too, is a dramatic afterthought.

Here is where The Big Short comes in. In it, there is no trace of the social problem film, nor anything of the morality play. Conspicuously, the only black actor is at the top of the hierarchy. Adepero Oduye plays Kathy Tao, the liaison between Morgan Stanley and Mark Baum’s fund, FrontPoint. When Baum’s team actually surveys the damage on the ground to homeowners, they speak with a Latino man (Oscar Gale) who learns he is on the bad end of a rental contract. This man appears in the film’s final scenes, his family and belongings packed into their car. But overall the face of the dispossessed homeowner is a stripper’s. In a comic scene, Baum pays for a private dance so that he can learn the details of a stripper’s mortgages (she has five houses, we learn, and one condo). This is a target market of an unseemly mortgage broker, who likes making loans to strippers because they are cash rich but have no credit history nor any income verification, and hence are susceptible to subprime products.

What this means for the movie, however, is that it can play more comfortably in a comic register. The victim of the “big short” position of the title is not the homeowners who will be evicted, but the entire banking system whose overconfidence in a rigged system left it highly exposed. It’s a comedy, that is, because its protagonists are all lovable misfits (“a few outsiders and weirdos”) who critique the system from within but avoid being crushed beneath it. In fact, the “weirdos” profit. It’s Revenge of the Nerds set in the world of high finance. Only in off moments does the movie force a reckoning with what befalls “average people” on the other side of the process. “You just bet against the American economy,” Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) tell his colleagues, “which means if we’re right, people lose homes, people lose jobs, people lose retirement savings.” And this toll is not something the movie can depict—it tells us this much—because it’s unavailable for depiction as such. Pop culture distorts it, deflects from it. Hence the movie’s joke that Selena Gomez will now clarify for you the function of a synthetic CDO.

Banking, though, manages what pop culture fails to imagine. “You know what I hate about fucking banking,” Rickert asks, “it reduces people to numbers. Here’s a number: every one percent unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die. Did you know that?” The point of the movie is that we do not know that, and that in some important sense we cannot know that because the kind of knowledge we would need to have—the kind that produces action—is qualitative, not quantitative.

The Big Short: Mortgage brokers have found it profitable to lend to strippers, who are cash-rich but have no credit history. Immigrants are another target demographic for unscrupulous mortgage brokers.
Because pop culture deflects our attention from economic injustice, The Big Short imagines a pop culture that would return our focus to it. A cooking show might become a metaphor for financial transactions.