' ' Cinema Romantico: State of the Union

Monday, June 01, 2020

State of the Union

If the branded blarney of We’re All In This Together has become the corporate mandated statement du jour of the COVID-19 Pandemic, then The New Normal has become the phrase du jour. The latter suggests the world as we know it having been altered by this lethal strain of the Coronavirus, necessitating a recalibrating of our expectations for how we live and work and play. Ah, but The New Normal phrase emerged in the wake of a 2008 Financial Crisis that aroused next to nobody in positions of actual power to recalibrate their expectations, engendering not a New Normal but Business As Usual, booming until it all went bust (again) which it seems to have gone and done. And if many Americans have been sheltering in place, socially distancing, wearing masks, adhering to CDC guidelines as best they can, there are pockets of resistance, most prominently at the very top of the government, refusing to accept a New Normal, demanding that everything just go back to the way it was.


Last summer, the very same week our air conditioner broke, putting us in the right frame of my mind, My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and I attended a 35mm screening of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” at the Music Box. Even now, over 30 years later, Spike Lee’s magnum opus tends to be described as urgent. Well, what does that mean, urgent? It means, of course, a movie that feels as alive now as it did then thanks to Lee’s aesthetic, a true sense of place and people and mood, a deft handling of tone, a subversion of archetypes. But it also means that despite being released in 1989, “a number, another summer,” as Public Enemy sang in the film’s curtain-raising “Fight the Power” anthem, the lessons Lee imparts of racial disparity remain palpable because they remain unheard – nay, ignored.

The contradictions and divisions that Lee explores, between love and hate, peace and violence, black and white, in many ways cannot be resolved, as the dueling MLK and Malcolm X quotes that end the film illuminate. Instead Lee holds them up simultaneously, honoring the film’s duality, brought home in the trash can that Lee’s character, deliveryman Mookie, throws the window of the pizzeria where he works in the wake of a policeman killing Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), sparking on a massive riot. If the reason for this property damage seems obvious to one person (often black), it seems less obvious to another (usually white), though no matter what anyone thinks, there are no easy answers, Lee deliberately rendering it as such, that trash can crashing through a window tearing a cosmic wound that has never been healed, everything in the end, in the eerily tender scene between Mookie and Sal, just kind of going back to normal.


I thought of that trash can while watching “O.J.: Made in America”, Ezra Edelman’s masterful, sweeping 2016 documentary. If, as the title implies, it is about O.J. Simpson, football hero, celebrity, celebrity defendant, fallen idol, parody of himself, it is also, as the title implies, about how the country in which he lived and thrived made him. Indeed, Simpson’s trial, as the documentary evinces, became as much a referendum on the LAPD and their methods as whether the accused killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. And to get there, Edelman tells the history of the LAPD, including an extended passage on the 1992 L.A. Riots, a series of violent civil disturbances in the wake of the Rodney King verdict.

In a talking head interview for the documentary, Mark Fuhrman, a former detective notoriously involved in the Simpson case, struggles to grasp why people would have vandalized their own neighborhoods, burned their own buildings, looted their own stores. It is not so much confusion Fuhrman is expressing, despite the confusion in his voice, as ignorance. After Fuhrman’s observation, Edelman pointedly cuts to a Black activist explaining these protestors understood that burning their own marginalized communities were the only means of bringing their marginalized communities attention. When people like Fuhrman shook their heads, it stemmed from aggravation of being made to think about those Black communities in the first place.


In late March I read historian David Blight’s Atlantic piece in which he viewed the pandemic through, as his title suggests, a historical lens, seeing it as a similar to the moments in which America remade itself after the Civil War, as well as WWII where FDR’s New Deal really was a New Normal. For several paragraphs, I was comforted, even hopeful, imagining the tragedy of COVID-19 as a simultaneous possibility, laying bare all our national rot, the manifest failures of our healthcare and economic systems, provoking an opportunity for radical restructuring of not just our federal government but our entire country, to aggressively and progressively remake it more equitable and just.

Of course, Blight eschewed delving into the failures of Reconstruction nor FDR’s Big Government Dreams eventually being dashed against the rocks of eroding regulations, social safety measures and ensuring money relentlessly flows back toward he who needs it least, still immersed in the system even now, still seeking to take away when giving is what so many need. Resistance to change is deeply embedded in our American DNA. That’s why people refuse to wear masks and maintain social distance, crowding bars and beaches and pools because the rest of us, to paraphrase the brilliant skewering of American exceptionalism “The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” , “don’t understand liberty.”


Our institutional rot was vividly illustrated last week during the protests and subsequent riots in Minneapolis in the wake of George Floyd being murdered by a police officer in both broad daylight and on camera, the latter in tandem with the riots being the only reason the cop was charged at all. If the city of Minneapolis has reformed the police department, the failures of those reforms was starkly rendered, just like it was in 2014, as Julia Craven wrote eloquently and sadly for Slate over the weekend, and just like it was in 2015, etc., the arc of moral justice, yada yada. As the Twin Cities dissented, so did other cities across the nation, a Saturday of confrontation between people and police exposing how the country has funneled its resources, away from healthcare, even in the middle of a Pandemic, and away from Black communities, to militarizing law enforcement who were then literally tasked with protecting Big Business.

So many said the usual things, sometimes even the right things, but to truly meet this moment and transform those words into concrete that will be consistently maintained requires not just someone with vision, the kind Blight discussed in The Atlantic, but a diligence to keep at systemic transformation. Such vision is, of course, beyond you-know-who, His Imbecility, whose only response to anything is divide and politicize, already trying to pin last week’s events on some nebulously defined consortium of leftists, deflecting, straining the uprisings of their anti-racist, anti-police brutality intent. Such vision, however, also seems beyond the presumptive nominee of the opposition. Yes, he’s better than you-know-who in so much as he is, despite his own documented ethical failures, a decent person, never mind a much more competent authority figure. But his whole campaign has yoked itself to the notion of a return to normal and if the last couple months have proved anything, it’s that normal got us here. And if here is where you tell me to think of the polling data, to consider the electoral maps, to keep my eye on the ball, I might counter that your eye is not on the ball, that it’s never been on the ball and that’s why we’re here, again, with everything on fire.


It’s 2020 and Mookie has just thrown another garbage can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria. Either we finally get it, keep leaning on the powers that be and decree as one that Black Lives Matter and do something about it or, like Mark Fuhrman, we shake our heads, emit some piffle about all lives mattering (thank you, professor) and everything drifts back to the way it was. The optimist in me wants to believe this will be a legitimate tipping point, the fatalist in me knows that it won’t, two forces as old as the divides in America duking it out, and that in the next three or four or five years, this will all happen all over again, a number, another summer, another supposed New Normal that looks a lot like right now.

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