Thursday, September 5, 2013

Bulworth (1998): When progressive politics get it right

Bulworth (1998)
dir: Warren Beatty
wr: Aaron Sorkin, James Toback, Jeremy Pikser, Warren Beatty

This past May was the 15th anniversary of Warren Beatty's scathing screed Bulworth.  Four Presidential election cycles later, 15 years later, it's worth it to check in with the most underseen, underrated scathing polemic this side of Wag the Dog.

The '90s were lousy with political screeds and satires.  Election, Citizen Ruth, Dave, Primary Colors, The American President, Wag the Dog, Primary Colors, Bob Roberts, The Distinguished Gentlemen, and Bulworth.  The most biting of these were roundly ignored and rejected, while the more easy going won big box office results.  Smack in the middle is Bulworth, just as much a satire as a screaming rant against democrats, and the state of progressive a democrat.

In the 70s and 80s, Warren Beatty was an active fundraiser for democratic politicians, and actually toured with the likes of Jerry Brown.  But, by the 90s, Beatty had become disenchanted with the state of democratic politics.  Bill Clinton was starting the deregulation of wall street, and putting policies in place that would benefit the corporations. Regulations and laws dictated by our favorite lobbyists had been popping up with regularity, and politics had been increasingly more transparently been shown as being bought and sold by the powers that be

Beatty had had quite enough, and following his cash cow Dick Tracy, he decided to make Bulworth, retaining complete artistic freedom, including final cut.  And, Bulworth was released in wide release, with little to no advertising, and with surprisingly little fanfare.  It made a total of $26.5m in domestic gross.  It was nominated for a bunch of awards, but had disappeared from the public's eye within days of its release.  It had a criminally bare bones DVD release, and has not even had a blu ray yet.  It seems that everybody wishes this movie to be ignored.

But, what is in this movie that was nominated for awards and released in 2,000+ theaters that has since been roundly dismissed by the culture at large?  What is it about?

Bulworth is about a Democratic senator, Senator Bulworth, who signs up for a very large life insurance in exchange for a vote on a health care bill, and subsequently signs up for a contract to off himself.  And, in the process of a re-election fundraising campaign, he loses his mask, empathizes with the Black community, and starts spouting truths via rapping, in the most brutal way possible.  

There is no subtext to Bulworth.  It's not subtle.  It's a primal scream. It's just brutal raging against the system.  Beatty doesn't pull any punches whatsoever, either. He rages against the Democratic use of race baiting while still maintaining the Republican party notes.  He rages against the Democratic appeasement of the decimation of the welfare state.  He rages against political corruption.  He rages against donations and money in the system.  Basically, he screams at the state of the Democratic party for the majority of the 108 minute running time.

But, while it isn't subtle, it is surprisingly not simplistic.  Beatty's Senator Bulworth is, at first, a huge racist upper-class white dude who is as corrupt as they can be.  He'll state things like telling the black community to "put down the chicken wings and find new role models besides spouse-abusive athletes" because that's what white sheltered racists would say.  But, Beatty conspires to have Bulworth delve into the Black community until he comes out as a rapping senator who uses rap as a symbol of association with the Black community.   At first, Bulworth is telling it like it is as a white person who is sheltered from the lower classes, but as the movie continues, he is starting to see things from an evolved point of view that includes how the lower classes are affected by the politics he and the democrats have put on.  

So, what's changed since Bulworth's release? Not a hell of a lot.  Even though we have our first half-black President, he's still selling out the lower classes for the rights of the corporations. The majority of Democratic senators and politicians have little to no qualms about giving corporations tax breaks while also cutting the rights of the workers.  Even in the progressive PNW here, we have Democratic politicians who recently gave corporations tax breaks, while also limiting the rights of the Employment Security Department (our government unemployment office) to give out unemployment benefits. When asked about it, one commented, essentially, a lot of other Democrats voted for it, so whatever.

Earlier this year, Obama was said to have "gone Bulworth" in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial.  By going Bulworth, he decided to screed against the white community at large with a focus on the white conservative community.  It shows just how abused the idea of Bulworth is, in that "going Bulworth" isn't rallying against your own system, but against your enemies and the commentators.  

Bulworth is the satire that isn't that satirical.  It's the movie that stabs over and over again.  It just doesn't stop screaming.  It may be a little funky in its "White Guy Who Raps" methodology, but even that had its purpose other than look at the funny white guy.  This is a scathing movie that should be required viewing for almost anybody who proclaims themselves to be a progressive.  This is a movie that should be required viewing for anybody interested in politics and how we got to where we are.  It isn't a movie that's just angrily taking the piss out of the other guy.  This is a movie that's interested in self-checking.  And, that's what makes it all the more satisfying.

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