Q&A with James Toback; Cusack in High Fidelity; The Sex Pistols in The Filth and the Fury
With Black and White (his seventh film) Toback has?at last?made an essential movie. Not that Fingers, Love and Money, Exposed and Two Girls and a Guy weren't brave, outrageous and interesting, but Black and White achieves splendor. With its almost surreal penetration of the lust and fear behind our racial divide, it bids to be the finest film that will ever be made about hiphop culture. It's linked to the bold venturousness of Shirley Clarke's 1963 film The Cool World, which led to Toback's primal black and white liaison?with Clarke's star Carl Lee (son of the legendary actor Canada Lee). But let Toback tell it.
JAMES TOBACK: I had just watched the first movie actor I ever had seen do a superb job in a movie that to me seemed a groundbreaking film. I was astonished by that movie. Look at the tradition it was crossing, look at the flow of movies [out in 1964], then look at The Cool World. It showed a world, a character you might not see anywhere else. I saw it at Cinema One?it had just opened. Carl Lee had a real magnetism [in it]. That evening, six hours later, there he is standing there as if waiting for me to introduce myself. I'd been thinking about him nonstop since I saw the movie, and now I'm walking on 72nd St. and there he is. "Hey," I said. "Carl Lee, I'm Jim Toback. I just saw you in The Cool World." And we were smoking a joint 15 minutes later.
When I was New York Film Critic Circle chairman I invited Godard to the ceremony. He couldn't attend but the thank-you he sent also said, "Remember Shirley Clarke."
Isn't that fascinating. I'm sure he learned from her.
What have you learned about hiphop from making Black and White?
I think that hiphop has liberated the voice of frustrated anger, insolence, invasion, aggression, ironic and sardonic criticism in the black male?and female as it's turning out?to a point where it's affected all aspects of society. It's taken time, it has seeped economically and sociologically down. Often the trend is the reverse but I think here what started out as a middle-class and upper-middle-class infatuation has now become a broad-based infatuation. And the outer-borough lower-middle-class and poorer whites, blue-collar whites, I think the younger generation of that group has become hiphop-converted over the last three or four years and in many cases has become the strongest supporters of it and are deeply affected by it. The whole wiseguy tradition in New York, which has been historically antiblack and racist, the sons and daughters in high school are all into hiphop now and there's a kind of open rebellion, racially, against the racial views of the parents.
Is there a difference between 90s wiggers and 50s white Negroes?
I think there is. The white Negro perception was always a sort of outlaw privileged outsider-minority kind of infatuation. Part of the attraction was that it would remain counter to the white culture, counter to the economic, cultural center of the white culture?in effect it was a rejection of it. The wiggers are the central white culture; there is no white culture that they're countering anymore. It's not so much a rejection of something that is there as a chasing after something that isn't there, or that they don't have unless they chase after it. The wigger is basically a mainstream figure now in its generation. The wigger is not ostracized, unless you take skinheads, who are rampant racists of their generation.
Is the exploitation the same or different with whites today holding on to power?
There's a plundering going on. I think that, again, it's easier to do now and it's more economically centered. It sort of was tough to be a white Negro and rich and comfortable and economically exploitative. I mean you certainly could appropriate culturally, but I think now it's very easy to...lure black entrepreneurs into a kind of mutual exploitation of the phenomenon. When you see the joining in the record companies, it's a very interesting facet of Jewish-black relations in hiphop. It's the first place where the economic stereotypes and racial fears and religious fears that have been kind of stirring have been, if not settled, then reconnected.
There was a hilarious moment on the set one day when Power [Oli "Power" Grant], who is the executive producer of Wu-Tang and the lead in the movie and also the president of Wu Wear, Wu-Tang's clothing line, had brought some Wu Wear to the set. He had just given me some Wu Wear, which I was wearing, and Ron Rothholz, one of the seven producers on the movie and Jewish, said that he was going to start a competitive line called Jew Wear. And that became a kind of running, good-humored joke on the set?
You know, Jim Brown used to say, before Farrakhan did, it was always not black power but green power, and he started the Black Economic Union. The point was not to forget race as an issue. It remained a central one, not to drop any of the programs or give up any anger but to say finally if you don't have economic power you have no power at all, and if you could use white people...to join with them to make money, well, why shouldn't you. That's a sort of supremely capitalist notion that I think is very much at the center of hiphop, the paradox of hiphop, that there's something revolutionary, insurrectionary and stirring about it and yet on another level it is a reaching out for the fundamental values of a capitalistic society. There is always a temptation to say we can settle all this if we all get rich doing so.
But that's what hiphop has become, not what it was when it was great.
It's like most revolutionary movements, as they reach middle age there starts to be the seduction of wealth. It's the history of money in civilization. You know, Lord Acton?power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I always say money corrupts, huge amounts of money corrupt absolutely.
You recently screened Black and White at Harvard. How did that go?
The discussion afterward was turned over to the group at large, which was a pretty mixed group, in every way?sexually, racially, a pretty good cross section of the student body. A lot of them African-American studies majors, quite a supply of gay and lesbian people who I think had heard something about the Tyson-Downey scene. I was on the stage with Power and Bankey?Chip Banks, who's part of the American Cream Team (and who, by the way, is the nephew of Curtis Mayfield)?a very bright, articulate, interesting guy. About halfway through the discussion it became clear that people were revealing themselves immediately by the questions they asked, the responses they had. The movie is, in fact, a Rorschach test for one's view on race, sex, crime, music, murder, language, style, sexual orientation. I mean it's almost impossible to respond to the movie in a way that isn't immediately visceral and personal.
A fair sense of the film's success, no?
It made me realize in any kind of setup where race is an issue, whether it's a movie, a novel, a political issue, it becomes a kind of furious?not in the sense of angry?furious, passionate debate. Political, racial feelings are so strong and so unarticulated in any kind of useful, interesting way in their normal lives that anything that allows them to address those feelings in an unfettered way, particularly in a public arena like that, where they're not gonna suffer any consequences, it was a very exciting, invigorating experience. I knew, initially, I had moved in with Jim Brown, at least unconsciously, for precisely that kind of invigoration myself. I felt that to live in America seriously and honestly and not be in a minority of one in a totally black environment, where I was the one without the power and the other people around had it, was to engage in a kind of blindness socially, emotionally and, particularly, in my case sexually, that would have robbed me of any real development as a human being. And I felt in a certain way not so much superior to, but liberated from a lot of what I consider to be the embarrassing limitations of acquaintances of mine, who had a lot of opinions that they pontificated on, but who had never found themselves in environments in which they learned about themselves through their interactions. One of the things that some of these black athletes who were getting people to vote for Bill Bradley were saying [was] at least he has lived, if only as a basketball player on the road, on a day-by-day basis in an environment where he was a minority... Most white people are never exposed to that at all.
Would you describe yourself now or then as wigger or white Negro?
Certainly when I was living at Jim Brown's house I was reaching after becoming black in all but skin, and even with skin I always wanted to have the darkest tan I could have. And since I have naturally fair skin I had to burn first, but once I got it I kept it roasted. I certainly spoke in linguistic rhythms that were entirely alien to my Harvard training and my own background. I developed a vocabulary and a syntax that were very much in harmony with the world I was in. Not exactly the same?I obviously kept a part of my own language?but I slipped into rhythms and speech patterns that I guess might have been a bit comical to an outsider, but I certainly didn't find it funny. I enjoyed doing it and felt it made me fit in better and I felt it to be natural. I wore a dashiki almost daily. I had my hair, to the extent that I could get it, pseudo-afro. I definitely walked differently. I very consciously developed a kind of quasi-limp that was modeled on Jim Brown's walk. And I also would say that sexually there was a sense of physical abandon in that house that I had never before and I don't think ever would have, had I not been exposed to that sexual environment. Part of it might have been the rather unfettered openness of the life, but first of all I wouldn't have been in it if it was a bunch of white guys. But I think it's different. I'm not talking about phallic measurements. I'm talking about unself-consciousness about one's display of sexuality in semiprivate situations.
Your journey to the black side was personal. Have you been a social activist?
I always felt I have to get my own house in order before I actively start preaching and teaching others. I have strong views about just about every issue that comes up. But I felt that my mission in life was not to be a?and I don't use this term disparagingly, I use it generally?a politician. That there are those whose greatest skill is to work through their destiny by being rational persuaders of causes which have validity, and I felt that that was not where I was strong, any more than mathematics or auto mechanics. It just wasn't where I would be good. I felt there was some form of artistic expression that I will find that will be my answer, and when I found it, which was film, I dedicated myself to it.
Then the question was, do I use film in the service of ideological views that I could articulate, though not always consistently. And the answer would be that I felt that since my own taste in art and in film was always in part ideological, that I should not think of it in generalizations, but rather in terms of the particular. What movie can I make well, that I want to make well, and is available for me to make now from my own experience? What's the next film I can create out of the excitement, passion and knowledge of my own life, and then, what exactly was I saying by that? Not that I could ever translate it or reduce it to a sentence or two, but I didn't want to pretend to be naive to the implications, socially or politically, of any work. So I often would, almost as a critic, look back afterwards and sometimes I was rather surprised by what seemed to be coming out of the work. A rather dark, tragic view of life, certainly, which a political idealist by definition can't afford. One is supposed to be working for the improvement and enlightenment of people on Earth, not for the facing up to the darkest twists of one's personality. But that indeed seems to be the path that I'm following mostly, although by implication there is a complete revulsion with any established order, with any conventional notions of personality which restrict one's behavior or taste to a preordained mode, which favors people who are experimental, curious and freewheeling. So that there's an implied libertarianism in everything I do, because it suggests that only a totalitarian nitwit who is frightened of life would try to restrict or repress people's natural exuberance and experimentation.
So there's the Dostoevskian and Conradian venture into darkness consistently from black male icons in the book Jim, to Brown in Fingers, to the rap characters here?
Right. That's part of what drew me to Jim's house, and it's what drew me to Carl Lee. I knew this guy who was so magnetic and appealing and interesting. Call it what you will, a kind of displaced homosexuality or just simply and purely esthetic appreciation?and I don't just mean physically esthetic appreciation, but a way of conducting oneself. There's a quote I used at the beginning of Fingers, from Nietzsche, from Beyond Good and Evil, "genius of the heart," which I used to know by heart but I don't anymore. That's what I'm really talking about still. That character just appealed to me... I don't think Black and White necessarily forces you, leads you or tells you what to think about particular characters, but it certainly allows them to display themselves in a full-blooded and engaging way?including Power and Mike Tyson.
Sounds like Norman Mailer theories. What was your response to An American Dream, the Shago Martin character?
I loved An American Dream when I read it. I eagerly read each new installment in Esquire, eight installments, the way Dickens and Dostoevsky used to write their novels in installments. I felt that the portrait of Shago Martin was somewhat harsher than what I was going through in relation to Carl Lee. I loved the novel, I liked the character of Rojack, but it didn't represent my relation to Carl Lee, nor did it presage mine with Jim Brown. It was more that of an outsider and an antagonist than a communicant. I was very close to Carl and Jim. Rojack's response to Shago Martin was one of fear, a kind of veiled respect and competitiveness.
Are these men?Brown, Lee, Power, Tyson?distinctive because of ethnicity, a black thing, or personality?
I think both. I couldn't conceive of any of them, nor would I think they could conceive of themselves, as white. There was an absolutely grounded consciousness of racial identity in all those cases. On the other hand, it's not that I could have substituted somebody else and said, "This black guy will do just as well. It will be somebody black, what's our list?" It's these particular people affected me. We're talking about two guys in 30 years. Carl Lee and Jim Brown. No one else affected me the way either of those did.
My friend Richie asked Maya Angelou why Beloved failed, and she answered, "Wasn't that heartbreaking!" But not just that, Amistad, Bulworth failed too. Why are movies on race, the key American issue, failing?
First of all I think we're still dealing in a country where there is rampant racism, both black and white, and a real resistance to the idea of movies that portray a serious, visceral, sexual interconnectedness, and unconsciously?because the ones who resist it consciously don't see the movie in the first place?but the ones who see it and resist it unconsciously get upset and angry, and feel in a lot of different ways challenged and offended by the movie. I think there's a lot of that, and it's never going to be articulated. You can't, in this culture, say it.
Black and White opens Wednesday, April 5. See "Movie Schedule" for details.
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