The entertainment industry is now enthusiastically papering over the long-term damage done to the civic edifice by American apartheid. Eager to match the new benchmarks of corporate multi-culturalism established by MTV and the advertising agencies, Hollywood has come up with some overdue analogs of Colin and Condoleeza.
Monsters Ball: desegregation fantasies
Berrys recognition has less to do with her qualities as an actress than the peculiar psychosexual contours of the movie Monsters Ball. The films core is its stubbornly ungrounded fantasy of reconciliation and mutual care. The same therapy is repeated in the increasingly bizarre imagery of a unified cultural and national family constituted around the annual ritual of the Oscars.
Monsters Ball is a simple and sometimes harrowing film directed by Swiss filmmaker Marc Forster, who is more alert than any local to the foundational potency and absurdity of Americas traditional racial categories. The films critique of patriarchy is eloquent, and its presentation of the emotional and philosophical void in white trash life is more sustained than anything that Eminem and the other bards of the trailer park have so far come up with.
It shows how whites are wounded in and by their whiteness. This may not seem like front page news, but it can be devastating in conditions of uncertainty about where old school racial prestige fits into the new new world order. The runaway success of Michael Moores acerbic bestseller Stupid White Men tells the same story.
The films first reel presents a southern prisons downbeat preparations for the killing of a black inmate who has spent many years on death row. Who says postmodern irony died on 11 September? Certainly not entertainment mogul and sometime celebrity felon Sean P. Diddy Combs, who clearly relishes this chance to inhabit the coveted role of victim. His protracted execution triggers a sequence of further tragedies, then opens out into a melodramatic and implausible allegory of reconciliation projected via raw passion between an unaccountably forgiving black woman and a mean white racist prison guard, who re-makes himself as a liberal as easily as he repeatedly downs bowls of chocolate ice cream.
Post 11 September, this oddly representative American couple can really feel each others pain. Their vivid sexual healing seems to have provided an emotional salve that has wider uses. It can, for example, easily appeal to the racially-segregated constituencies of consumers image-hungry for the comfort this short-circuited transcendence of racial divisions can provide.
Pseudo-desegregation inside the movie theatre can be no substitute for the real thing outside it. It is certainly unusual to see wholesale change rather than unbridgeable cultural difference being celebrated, but the processes, motivations and gains involved in the characters decision to love each other all remain utterly mysterious. The pivotal transformations are cheapened by the directors refusal to explore them. There is no liberatory work involved for either the protagonists or the audience. The erotic resolution appears to be an accident, as contingent and baffling as Billy Bob Thorntons preference for chocolate rather than strawberry or vanilla.
Instead, the odd couples choreographed sexual transgressions are an aesthetic event. Their passionate coupling signals a refusal of the racial anaesthetic that has stupefied them both in the brutal atmosphere of the old South and today blocks access to any restorative conception of common humanity. Warren Beattys crafty, subversive comedy Bulworth made the same point more skillfully some years ago in the context of a recognisably political argument, unburdened by nostalgia and ambivalence about the south which swirl in a poisonous fog around the action here.
This rewriting of Jungle Fever for the twenty-first century no longer specifies that sex across the color line is just contamination, catastrophe and betrayal. The hopes of a new generation rest upon this romantic alliance between the damaged, beautiful and lonely stars who can consummate an imaginary American recovery.
Britain has no historical and emotional equivalents of that crucial southern setting, no easily-accessible wellspring of undiluted racial sentiment from which to draw healing psychological waters. The appeal of crude racial hierarchy and absolute racial difference are fading there too, but inter-racial couples are so common as to be unexceptional. Their everyday intimacies and frustrations could not be made to bear the heavy symbolic weight that Berry and Thornton are only too happy to carry, and Hollywood just as eager to present as emotionally-saturated parapolitical progress.
In Britain, mixture is ordinary. Cross-racial sex is no more or less meaningful than multi-racial football. White kids speak patois and borrow strategically from Punjabi. Jamaican-born nutters can become eloquent mouthpieces of political Islam, the leader of the Nation of Islam can be Leo X Chester, an unfunny ex-comedian who has an Asian wife.
Blind to these obvious changes and anxious about how their cultural consequences play in the marginals and shires, New Labours leaders have recently confirmed their detachment from the world the rest of us inhabit by speaking heavy-handedly about the transmission of English norms, the management of national identity and belonging and the necessity of assimilation.
Harry Potter whose class-bound world could benefit from a good dose of mass economic immigration may hold the line for a while. But these desperate gestures cannot conceal the fact that the problematic of assimilation lost its grip on the post-colonial world long, long ago.
Ali G: the comedy of translation
We are awaiting a more sophisticated and complex political understanding of cultural change, influence and adaptation. In the meantime audiences are being entertained by Ali G, whose performances provide a satirical Rorshach blot in which even the most neurotic scrutineers of the national psyche can discover their fears and hopes. His first film, Ali G. In Da House, has just premiered in London. The fact that shapeshifting Ali is funny at all supplies the proof that Britains Home Secretary David Blunkett and company are trying to close the stable door of British culture while the piebald horses of intermixture are disappearing over the horizon.
It is significant that the central unifying joke underpinning all Ali G.s work is supplied by an antipathy towards the stultifying US styles and habits that have all but crushed local forms of the black vernacular in the UK and replaced them with the standardised and uniform global products of hip hop consumer culture.
Likeable Ali shows that the globalised American thug life is ridiculously inappropriate to the life of marginal young Brits. He makes the sad commitment to ghetto fabulous tastes and behaviours appear absurd. Britain had better find another way to go. This element of Alis performances has survived his transition to the big screen and remains evident even now he has fallen victim to the Beavis and Butthead syndrome: a condition of mass popularity in which the original satirical intentions are misrecognised as affirmation of the object or process they try to subvert or ridicule.
No matter how ignorant, idiotic and inept Ali G becomes, there are hordes of illiterate juveniles and sad hedonists who will hail him as a hero: two parts Candide to one part Homer Simpson and one part Peter Sellers. If that was all there was to Alis act, it would not have lasted this long. We cannot afford to overlook the other angles at which his translation jokes become funny.
In his original incarnation as spoof ethnic TV presenter entrapping a string of guests whose desperation to be down with the yoof was only matched by their complete ignorance of the cultural codes he was so patently misusing, Ali G offered a series of possible viewing positions. Apart from the idiotic Ali and the person being duped, there is a third position in which we, guided by the sly Ali, can move across cultural codes and between linguistic games. There, we can accept his invitation to become literate, if not exactly fluent, in an updated British culture.
Popular celebration of the stupid rather than the sly Ali as a hero may eventually defeat him. But it is a consequence of the characters subtleties, as well as of endearing traits like his carnivalesque contempt for the pompous and powerful people he is still able to ambush, manipulate and even humiliate in the interview segments of his TV show. Their hubris and folly has been confirmed. Unlike British political figures such as Rhodes Boyson, Tony Benn and the rest of Alis initial victims, the latest batch of pompous twits must have known what they were up against but still imagined that they could get the better of Ali on his own ground.
The only explanation for their repeated decision to place their celebrity heads on Alis block is that they mistakenly imagine the countrys language and culture to be far more unified than it is. In other words, they do not appreciate how the problems of communication and translation which made Alis original interviews so revealing and hilarious have been deepened and augmented as his celebrity has increased.
A good example is provided by former Labour Minister Roy Hattersley, who unlike The Beckhams did not have the excuse that he was doing an interview with Ali to raise money for charity. He simply cannot have appreciated how foolish he was made to look when Ali tricked him into calling Tony Blair a dong. Too bad that the Reverend Blairs advisers have kept him out of Alis chair.
The best Worst Movie Ever?
It is fitting that Alis over-promoted movie Ali G In Da House has won the distinction of being slammed by Britains Daily Mail as the very worst British film ever made. Their critics portentous denunciation was made primarily on grounds of taste. The fact that he saw Ali as stupid and vulgar confirmed that he had missed the point entirely. He simply did not understand the density and complexity with which Alis Rabelaisian idiom addresses the growing fissures in our public culture.
From what used to be the opposite end of the political spectrum, protesters picketed the films gala opening. They accused Alis creator Sacha Baron Cohen of being a new Al Jolson, exploiting black culture and pimping it into the media mainstream where he, rather than the community to which it really belonged, could turn a profit from it.
The ideas of cultural ownership and experiential copyright on which that criticism depends are now anachronistic. But the resort to them tells us a lot about contemporary anxieties over the integrity of marginal identity and the value of minority culture.
Ali has fastened on to these problems and tried to make them both funny and productive. However, the gag is likely to be lost on those who feel that if they do not maintain an insiders monopoly on public use of ethnic code words like punany, the boundaries of their particularity will have been compromised and their wounded identities will fall apart. Once again, the effects of racism bring out the worst in everybody.
For these angry people, the betrayal that Ali G represents is the culmination of a larger process of dilution and mongrelisation in which the protective purity of largely racial cultures is being lost, leaving them vulnerable to unprotected encounters with difference that can only involve risk, fear and jeopardy.
If the film celebrates anything, it is the routine rhythm of suburban life and the ethnic traditions of Carry On humour that corresponds to it. Ali is not homophobic, macho, aggressive or anti-social. He obeys the speed limit, believes in the healing power of gods green herb and has identified the terminal duplicity of all forms of politricks. He is loyal, decent and honest. When punched by Charles Dances repellent Deputy Prime Minister, he starts to cry.
These admirable qualities are lost on the positive image school of cultural critique which has recently been getting into a lather over the anti-social antics of those real life Ali Gs, the hip hop garage group So Solid Crew. Their South London adaptation of US gangsta moves is surely a symptom rather than a cause of inner-city chaos and gunplay, but it has fed the latest unproductive panic over black culture and yielded a mechanical and unhelpful analysis of how cultures and identities are formed and reproduced.
This common sense view is so simplistic that role models and mentors are the only desperate answer to the ubiquitous failure of black boys who do badly at school, not because of racism, but because their teachers are afraid of them and their fathers are absent from their homes.
Proteophobia: fear of a mixed planet
Mugging is back, and the destruction of a once-great nation is confirmed by the appearance of senior police officers who not only smoke ganja, but subvert the proper order of things by refusing to arrest others for doing so.
On one side, the influential pages of Prospect and The Salisbury Review are groaning with speculations on the pathological characteristics of black culture, black on black violence and the transmission of this anti-social mentality into what remains of white working class life. On the other, huge amounts of energy are being wasted worrying about whether Ali G is a white Jew pretending to be black, a white Jew pretending to be a white pretending to be black, a white Jew pretending to be an Asian pretending to be black and so on and on.
Zygmunt Bauman calls this sort of reaction to the unclassifiable proteophobia. No one knows for certain what Ali is. Hatred, fear and anxiety appear in response to his ability to confound the categories that hold contemporary Britain stable.
The logic of these proteophobic investigations is uncertain, but we are told that they should matter to any final evaluation of Ali. After all, if he isnt in fact pretending to be black, then he can be absolved of the most serious charges of cultural theft and exploitation. It will make it easier to judge him on the basis of whether he can make us laugh, without making us feel guilty as we do so.
To me, an undecidable Ali is far preferable to the retreat involved in making him into the joker in the New Labour pack of ethnic happy families. Regrettably, Ali G In Da House plays it safe by making it clear that we should classify Ali as white. If the early appearance of his white nan doesnt convince you, a Homeresque dream encounter with Naomi Campbell has him imagining himself to be black. His flashbacks to pre-Ali G life with Julie show him to be clearly white.
Intelligent enough to be ambivalent about this squeamish turn, Baron Cohen has tried to recover some ground. When Ali offers reflexive comments on his own performance in the movie to the audience from the safety of a split frame in which a Jamaican flag provides the backdrop, he is trying to introduce distance between Ali in the narrative and Ali on the screen. But the racial cat has been let out of the bag, just when Ali G had brought us to that exciting place where we could consider disposing of both cat and bag.
The lessons of Montesquieu
The PR machine tells us that while he was an undergraduate, Baron Cohen was fascinated by the history of the US civil rights movement. This may be too good to be true. But his great achievement with Ali and Borat the Khazakstani refugee who is his other principal character suggests that he might also have paid careful attention to the lessons of Montesquieus eighteenth-century satirical novel Persian Letters.
That enlightenment tale disguised its fictional character through a sequence of authentic letters circulating between an oriental traveller who comes into the west as a visitor and his various correspondents at home. This imaginary alien visitor offered a scurrilous critical commentary on modern metropolitan life. The social and moral conventions of the day were subjected to the anthropological gaze of a stranger which aimed to reintroduce France to itself and to suggest that critical knowledge of ones own culture and society can only arise from a carefully-cultivated degree of estrangement.
Ali G has brought new life to these old tactics. Im sure he knows that a new sense of what it means to be English is at stake. No wonder he wants to conceal the political intelligence that guides this liberating project.