Best Pictures

By my count, I experienced roughly three dozen new movies in the year 2016.  While that qualifies as a personal best, it’s also maybe 15 percent of a full-time critic’s annual diet.  So it’s possible I missed something good along the way.

In any case, the following films were—and are—very much worth two (or, in one case, eight) hours of your time, assuming your brain operates on the same emotional wavelength as mine.  I highlighted my top four early last week.  I include them here, as well, because they bear repeating.

MOONLIGHT

A man, a woman and a young boy sit around a dining room table.  The boy says, “My name’s Chiron.  But people call me Little.”  The man smiles, thrilled that the kid has finally opened his mouth, and responds, “OK, Little.”  The woman, not smiling, interjects, “I’m gonna call you by your name, Chiron.”  She understands the importance of not allowing others define who you really are.  It will take Chiron another 20 years to figure that out for himself.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman in the fall of 1995, a poll found that 73 percent of white people believed Simpson had committed the crimes, while only 27 percent of black people believed the same.  Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary traces the source of this profound disagreement as far back as the Watts Riots of 1965.  One could just as plausibly argue the O.J. verdict was forged aboard the first slave ship bound for Virginia in 1619.

ELLE

George Carlin once got on a stage and asked if rape can ever be made funny.  His answer—broadly speaking—was that anything can be fodder for laughs if approached from the right angle, and Elle seems content to proceed from this same premise.  Not that director Paul Verhoeven and actress Isabelle Huppert are making light of sexual assault, per se, so much as suggesting that a rape victim can spin a traumatic experience to her advantage if she plays her cards right, and that this can make her heroic and villainous at the same time.  Coming soon to a women’s studies course near you.

KRISHA

The feature-length debut of director Trey Edward Shults, adapted from his autobiographical short film of the same name, starring members of his own family playing versions of themselves (or each other).  All of which helps to explain the intense, eerie way this sketch of a Thanksgiving dinner gone awry crawls under your skin and overwhelms your senses, as the family’s titular black sheep teeters on the edge of the abyss while trying as hard as she can to claw her way back to solid ground.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

A portrait of three lonely people in parallel states of grief:  The man who committed a sin that dare not speak its name, the woman who can neither fully blame nor fully forgive him for it, and their teenage nephew whose sarcastic, stoical reaction to his father’s death is the glue that oh-so-precariously holds everyone else together.  A story to make you sad in a year when most of us struggled to feel anything else.

THE HANDMAIDEN

From Park Chan-Wook—the Korean wild man who gave the world Oldboy—emerges this ravishing and progressively convoluted adaptation of Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith, about a petty thief hired to cheat an heiress out of her inheritance by becoming her trusted maid.  Simple enough, until the two women fall madly (and unexpectedly) in love, generating complications that neither of them is quite prepared to deal with.  Come for the palace intrigue; stay for the twist ending and hardcore lesbian sex.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

Hailee Steinfeld at her spunky best as a high school outcast slapped with a double betrayal when her older brother hooks up with her best (and only) friend—a crushing development that leaves her smartass history teacher (Woody Harrelson) as her sole, unhelpful confidant.  That is, until she embarks upon a relationship of her own by way of the most spectacular text message in the history of smart phones.  Remember, kids:  Think before you send.

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

In his 25 years as a writer-director, Richard Linklater has never shown a more profound indifference to plot than in this so-called “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused.  A weekend-in-the-life of a Freaks and Geeks-like gang of college baseball players in the final days before classes start—a period during which they do little more than philosophize, party and not get laid—Linklater’s follow-up to Boyhood is his most laid-back movie to date and—perhaps for that reason—his most enjoyable.

FENCES

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in a play by August Wilson—need we say more?  Washington is a former Negro League star who has turned into a drunk, proud, embittered garbage man, while Davis is the generous, strong-willed, tactful housewife who has suppressed a lifetime of frustrations that may or may not ever see the light of day.  Both actors won a Tony Award playing the same roles on Broadway in 2010.  Seems only fair to give each of them an Oscar as well.

EYE IN THE SKY

Barack Obama has been the most ruthless terrorist-killer in the history of U.S. presidents.  However, most Americans do not appreciate this fact due to Obama’s preferred method of execution:  drone strikes.  This British production—featuring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, among others—explores the deep moral conundrums involved in bombing Muslim extremists from the sky—particularly if there’s a little girl just a few hundred feet from the target who’d have only a 75 percent chance of surviving such a blast.

ARRIVAL

Roger Ebert used to wonder why movie aliens are so hell-bent on destroying all life on Earth:  Why go to the trouble of crossing half the galaxy just to burn everything down when you get here?  Denis Villeneuve’s film, starring Amy Adams, respects the majesty of space travel—and the audience’s intelligence—by presenting a story of a close encounter that assumes both sides might want to actually learn something from each other, rather than just blowing each other up and declaring cosmic victory.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

I’m not sure there was a funnier moment at the cinema this year than when Texas Ranger Jeff Bridges and his partner sat down for lunch at a low-rent steakhouse somewhere in West Texas and were informed by their surly octogenarian waitress, “I’ve been working here for 44 years.  Ain’t nobody ever ordered nothing but T-bone steak and a baked potato.  Except this one asshole from New York tried to order trout back in 1987.  We don’t sell no goddamned trout.”  And then her face when Bridges’s partner tries to order his steak medium well.

LA LA LAND

Damien Chazelle’s third film is, in certain ways, a companion piece to his second, Whiplash.  After all, both are soaked in an unapologetically romantic longing for classical jazz and a bygone era in which America’s singular musical invention still reigned supreme.  The two films are also both about the obsessive need to prove your mettle to anyone who might doubt you or stand in your way, as well as the enormous interpersonal costs of seeking eternal greatness.  You’ve got to hand it to Chazelle:  He sure knows how to stage a wild finish.

13TH

Ava DuVernay’s infuriating documentary about our country’s prison-industrial complex reveals the most essential hidden truth about America:  Slavery did not end in 1865 so much as assume a slightly more roundabout—but no less sinister—visage.  Stipulating that involuntary servitude would cease to exist “except as a punishment for crime,” the 13th Amendment inadvertently (or not) ensured that so long as the legal system could be manipulated in just the right way, African-Americans would continue to be systemically subjugated and dehumanized for as long as their white countrymen allowed themselves to get away with it.  As we still do to this day.

HAIL, CAESAR!

After Jeff Bridges and the T-bone, the biggest laugh of 2016 involved a singing cowboy—played by 26-year-old Alden Ehrenreich—being shoehorned into a stuffy costume drama by a foppish Ralph Fiennes, who exhausts every atom of his patience to get the kid to nail his line reading, “Would that it were so simple.”  Because this is a Coen Brothers movie, the punch line doesn’t arrive for another hour or so and, when it does, it somehow involves Frances McDormand being nearly strangled to death by her own neckerchief.  It’s complicated.

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The Price of Independence

Monday is the Fourth of July—that most joyous, triumphant day in which Americans gather ’round the barbecue grill and celebrate the moment 240 years ago when our Founding Fathers—the most brilliant men of their generation—summoned all of their creative energies in the singular cause of perpetuating slavery for 89 more years.

OK, so that wasn’t the only thing the men in the Continental Congress accomplished in the summer of 1776.  In ratifying the Declaration of Independence, the Congress established—against all historical precedent—that nations ought to be governed by laws, not men, and that the men writing and enforcing those laws ought to be representative of—and accountable to—the common, everyday folk.  And, of course, this was all rooted in the radical idea that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights, etc, etc.

So they did that—renouncing the most ancient, repressive form of government on Earth while proposing an alternative that had scarcely ever been tried before, thereby laying the foundation for what would eventually become the most prosperous republic that has ever existed.  In effect, this group of extraordinary men seized an extraordinary opportunity, realizing that, in the words of Thomas Paine, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

Which begs the question:  Why did this new world include chattel slavery?

It’s a contradiction that has grown more inexplicable with each passing July 4—namely, that these rabble-rousers could ground their entire revolutionary argument on the principle of universal equality while simultaneously preserving an institution that was a negation of that principle in every possible respect.

Many Americans today seem to think the founders were simply oblivious to it all—that they didn’t realize that owning human beings was a direct violation of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that this magic document promised to establish and uphold.

While there is a certain perverse appeal in assuming the men who created America were a bunch of idiots who couldn’t see what was staring them directly in the face, the truth is at once more nuanced, more tragic and more shameful.

In point of fact, the signers of the Declaration were entirely cognizant of the moral pretzel they were contorting themselves into, and the proof is the following paragraph from Thomas Jefferson’s original—and, he believed, superior—draft:

“[The king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”

As far as the morality of slavery is concerned, it doesn’t get any clearer than that.  Here, as in so many other places, we find that Jefferson in 1776 understood instinctively that slavery was an evil economic engine that, in making people into property, robbed them of their dignity and betrayed their most basic rights as human beings.  As a Virginia planter who eventually owned upwards of 200 slaves himself—four of whom were his biological children—Jefferson knew these self-evident truths more deeply than most, although he was hardly the only one.

That’s the nuance.  The tragedy and the shame is that Jefferson’s full-throated condemnation of the slave trade never made it into the final draft of the Declaration, thereby taking emancipation off the table as a subject for debate anytime in the near-future.

And why was that, ladies and gentlemen?  Why did the Continental Congress neglect to confront a massive, obvious problem at the very moment when it might have done everyone the most good?

In short:  Because they could only solve one massive, obvious problem at a time.

The choice was mutually exclusive:  Either they could declare independence or they could try to get rid of slavery.  Given the intractable realities of the day, there was no plausible way to free their slaves under any circumstances; meanwhile, the challenge of separating from Great Britain—an objective that several colonies resisted until the very last moment—would only come about on the condition that slavery be totally ignored until some unspecified future date.

As any viewer of 1776 will know, the Declaration of Independence needed to be ratified without a single dissenting vote, and it was as clear as the bright, blue sky that the delegates from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia would’ve never, ever voted “yes” if it meant giving up an institution that constituted their entire way of life.  In 1776—as in 1861 and all the years in between—the continuance of slavery was, for the American South, utterly non-negotiable.

(We should also note—before we give him too much credit—that Jefferson went to his grave believing blacks were biologically inferior to whites, that a biracial society was impossible and that the only way to free the slaves was to ship them overseas and never deal with them again.)

And so—considering the world as it actually was, rather than as we wish it had been—we are left to ask:  Did the Founding Fathers do the right thing in July of 1776?

While counterfactuals are inherently unknowable and somewhat useless, it’s worth noting that Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833—a full 32 years before we did.  Is it possible that, by simply staying in the empire, the United States would have been cleansed of its original stain at least one generation ahead of schedule?  Are we entirely sure that life for the average American—let alone the average black American—was improved by breaking off from the empire when (and as) we did?  In retrospect, could the entire American Revolution have been one big terrible mistake?

In the end, we’re stuck with the history that actually happened and must deal with the facts that were known at the time.  In that context, the best we can do is to reclaim the truth of America’s founding by observing how morally ambiguous it truly was.  We cannot proclaim July 4 as a wholly virtuous moment without making racist spectacles of ourselves, but nor can we dismiss the whole episode as the source of all white supremacy in America, since the very words of Jefferson’s declaration would, in time, come to embody the strongest argument for the racial equality that we have been stumbling our way towards for the past century and a half.

That Jefferson’s generation couldn’t live up to its own standard is a singular tragedy; their calculated inaction on slavery is directly responsible for many millions of deaths and more misery than any of us could ever fully appreciate.  That these same men can simultaneously be held up as national heroes and beacons of liberty is the sort of grand irony that perhaps only a place like the United States is at once sturdy and deluded enough to withstand.

As ever, America is a land of contradiction and hypocrisy, and if we don’t spent a good deal of July 4 reflecting on this, then we are not treating our country with the integrity it deserves.

Further, by acknowledging the impossibly compromised choice with which our founders were confronted, we are reminded that there is no such thing as an easy solution to a seismic problem.  Every major political decision involves a trade-off of one sort or another, and if you enter a negotiation expecting to get everything you want, you just may wind up with nothing at all.

The Founding Fathers sought independence, and the price turned out to be the life of every black person born between 1700 and 1865.  In that moment—not knowing how bad things would get—they believed it was worth it.  Today—with all the benefit of hindsight—are we yet prepared to say they were right?

It Still Doesn’t Fit

I was eight years old when the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced in the fall of 1995.  If I was cognizant enough to see that the trial was a big effing deal, I neither knew nor cared much about why and emerged with the impression merely that some famous ex-football player had been acquitted of a terrible crime that everyone in America knew he had committed.

Today—after more than two decades of human events and two excellent TV miniseries on this very subject—I sense that I have finally—finally!—caught up with the rest of America in understanding what the O.J. “not guilty” verdict truly meant:  Namely, that after 400 years of white people getting away with murder by taking the law into their own hands, it was long past due for black people to do the same—if only to prove, just this once, that they could.

If you grew up—as I did—in an affluent white suburb where racial tension was more urban legend than reality, you might have been forgiven in 1995 for not getting why race—or rather, racism—was the central drama underpinning the double murder trial of one of the most beloved celebrities in America.  Even now—with an additional 21 years’ of state-sanctioned white supremacy in action—it’s still an open question whether racism was even remotely relevant to the Simpson case and/or whether the “race card” should ever have been played.

Yet when you consider the O.J. fiasco in a broader cultural context—as both of these new TV programs have forced us to do—you begin to grasp the logic of both the defense team’s arguments and the jury’s final decision:  Each was a rebuttal to a criminal justice system designed not to give black (and other non-white) defendants a fair shot.  At some point, the case ceased being about Simpson’s guilt and became a referendum on whether any black man accused of any crime could be treated fairly in a white society patrolled by white policemen, white lawyers, white judges and white juries.

Indeed, in arguably the most electric moment in the new ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America, we are told point-blank by one of the 12 original jurors—speaking for herself, if not the others—that the “not guilty” verdict was payback for the treatment of Rodney King in 1991.  Since white members of the Los Angeles Police Department had behaved disgracefully and dishonestly in that instance, who’s to say they hadn’t behaved similarly in this one?  Further, since the officers who kicked and clobbered King had gotten off scot-free—thanks, presumably, to an inherently racist system—didn’t the O.J. jury—a panel that was 75 percent black—have a moral imperative to ensure such a thing didn’t happen again?

As we can see, there are really two separate questions at play.  First, should the apparent systemic racism within the LAPD be taken as evidence, in and of itself, that O.J. Simpson might have been framed for murder?  And second, do the accumulated past examples of prejudicial behavior against black defendants justify acquitting one particular black defendant against whom, it would appear, no such prejudice existed?

This is no small distinction.  In practice, there’s a world of difference between treating the LAPD with appropriate skepticism versus proactively punishing it for sins it committed in the past but hasn’t necessarily committed in the present.  You might call it the difference between justice and vengeance, in which case the question becomes:  Can vengeance ever be a form of justice and (while we’re at it) are there scenarios—such as, say, the Simpson case—in which vengeance, in any form, is the correct response to a problem (e.g. institutional white supremacy) that demands a solution one way or another?

Put simply:  If the O.J. jury found Simpson not guilty strictly to avenge every previous defendant who’d gotten screwed by the LAPD—and not, mind you, because they truly thought Simpson was not guilty—could we say that justice had been served?

First things first.  With more than two decades of hindsight at our disposal, it remains as clear as ever that O.J. Simpson definitely killed his wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman.  The preponderance of direct evidence—namely, the trail of blood containing DNA of all three people—paired with circumstantial evidence regarding Simpson’s long history of physical abuse and his want of an alibi on the night of the murders, is enough for a contemporary jury to find him guilty at least 99 times out of 100.  Indeed, the strength of the DNA evidence alone may well be sufficient to avert a trial altogether and lead, instead, to some kind of plea deal whereby Simpson would either claim momentary insanity or—considering his privileged position in society—an acute case of “affluenza.”

The trouble in 1994-95 was that the general public did not understand the magic of DNA the way we do now.  The jurors, for their part, couldn’t make head or tail of what the pools of blood proved or didn’t prove, and into that vacuum—thanks to Johnnie Cochran and company—was placed the notion that a fanatically racist cop, Mark Fuhrman—the man who found the famous leather glove—had both the motivation and the wherewithal to plant evidence on the fly that made Simpson the only possible culprit.

As it happens, Fuhrman did no such thing.  The defense, for all its insinuations, never demonstrated how such tampering might have occurred—not least because it was physically impossible for Fuhrman to have gotten away with it.  As prosecutor Marcia Clark caustically says in the ESPN documentary, “The only reason I know [Fuhrman] didn’t plant the evidence is because [he] couldn’t have.  Otherwise, I’m with them.”  (“Them” in this case being the entire African-American community.)

Hence the breathtaking irony that defined the entire saga:  Here, a basically corrupt cop was being scapegoated for a case in which—maybe for the first time in his life—he had behaved more or less as he was supposed to.  Add to that the even greater irony that Simpson himself—a man who hated being defined by his blackness—would become a poster child for the tragedy of the black experience in America, and you have the perfect storm of conflict that this case was perhaps destined to become.

If there was a thousand-pound elephant somewhere in the courtroom—a subtext that dare not speak its name—it would’ve been the specter of reparations—the idea that black Americans, as a group, are owed something from white Americans that the latter have every obligation to pay and thus far have not.

While most white Americans think of reparations strictly in terms of slavery—an institution that conveniently ended before any of us could be born and assume responsibility for it—it has lately been definitively argued—perhaps most memorably by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic—that any debts owed to African-Americans must also cover such comparatively recent, but no less unjust, phenomena as housing discrimination, voter discrimination, employment discrimination and, naturally, discrimination in the legal and criminal justice systems.

Despite our so-called best efforts, we all know that black and white citizens are not treated equally in all facets of our society—a cursory look at our prison population makes the point plain enough—and that even if we magically resolved all of those inequalities tomorrow, it would not absolve the white folks who have long benefited from this arrangement of responsibility for all the harm they have caused up until now.

Given how intractable the racial justice gap continues to be—how nothing seems to change no matter how much our leaders claim to try—what choice do we humble citizens have than to surreptitiously tip the scales whenever we get the chance?

The O.J. Simpson verdict might’ve been a miscarriage of justice in the strictest sense—after all, it allowed a wife-beater to literally get away with murder—but it was also a signal—a warning, in fact—that there would be real and richly-deserved consequences for police departments that didn’t take the concept of “blind justice” seriously.

It was an assertion—however imperfect the circumstances—that black lives matter.

The One-Dollar Founding Father

America’s Founding Fathers have interested me for as long as I can remember, but over the past few months my fascination has evolved into a full-fledged obsession.  There’s no real mystery to this:  In light of the prospective political leaders we are faced with today, it’s only natural to want to retreat into the 18th century until the 2016 election draws to a close.

As I make my way through Ron Chernow’s epic 2010 biography of George Washington—this after having (finally) gotten around to Chernow’s improbably chic bestseller Alexander Hamilton—I am reminded, with startling clarity, that the men who created this great country were at once infinitely better and infinitely worse than we tend to give them credit for—intellectually superior to their 21st century counterparts, yet cursed with the same crippling moral and temperamental deficiencies.  Human beings in every sense of the word.

From Chernow’s Washington: A Life, we find that perhaps the most salient personal quality of our first commander-in-chief was his self-restraint.  As it turns out—based on multiple firsthand accounts—George Washington possessed an explosive temper throughout his adult life that, if left unchecked, was liable to alienate friends and enemies alike and—given Washington’s unique position in society—imperil the very existence of the United States of America.

As such, Washington’s great psychological achievement—particularly during the Revolutionary War—was to suppress the urge to act out and inflict his wrath upon others.  To conduct himself with an equanimity and gravitas befitting a man whom virtually all Americans viewed as a role model, if not a savior.  To act—dare I say?—presidential.

To be sure, as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Washington had every cause to let his anger and frustration run rampant, from drunk and disorderly troops to disloyal officers to a feckless Congress to an overpowering British adversary.  Indeed, acute aggravation would’ve been the natural, rational response to all of those setbacks and more, and few would’ve begrudged Washington for flying into a rage and saying what he really thought (in his private correspondence, he did exactly that).

And yet, because he understood that the fate of a nation depended upon a unified army held together by a strong, courageous leader, Washington somehow rose above the fray, mastering his emotions and willing himself into the unflappable icon that he is today.

To marinate in the details of Washington’s exploits is to understand why he is considered the greatest and most indispensable American who ever lived:  Because he always put the public good ahead of any personal considerations.  Rather than indulging his own interests—there were many to choose from—he forwarded the interests of a country that, through eight-plus years of war, didn’t even technically exist.  Although he had every incentive and desire to hang back and tend to his family and plantation—a property that encompassed 6,500 acres and 317 slaves—when duty called, he chose to risk everything in service to a noble cause.

Of course, it would be completely unfair to condemn any of our current political figures for not living up to George Washington’s impossibly high standard of statesmanship.  In the 216 years since Washington’s death, only a handful of individuals have even come close.

Yet with someone like Donald Trump, it is both fair and imperative to notice how supremely un-Washington-like this particular presidential candidate is—how Trump seems to embody the exact opposite of everything that made Washington so essential to the life of our young republic.

Most obvious of all, perhaps, is how thoroughly Trump has dismissed the notion of quiet dignity as being a necessary and admirable quality in a modern-day commander-in-chief.

Banking his entire candidacy on being a boorish, foul-mouthed windbag—recklessly voicing every half-formed thought that passes through his brain—Trump has espoused an abject indifference toward acting in any way “presidential,” mocking virtues like silence and moderation as the refuge of weak-willed sissies.  When challenged by reporters as to whether he will ever start behaving like a grown-up, his response—“I can be presidential, but […] it would be boring as hell”—had all the credibility of a teenager staring at a Picasso and scoffing, “I could do that—if I felt like it.”

In fact, Trump has neither the interest nor the discipline to elevate his public persona into the realm of respectability.  Unlike Washington, he is constitutionally incapable of reining himself in—as demonstrated by his failure to do so for more than a few minutes at a time before reverting back to his true self.

If, instead, we are to entertain the odd theory that Trump’s entire life up to now has been an elaborate performance and that he will magically acquire maturity upon assuming high office, we should note that it took George Washington many years and much soul-searching to shed his rougher edges in public, and that when he was as old as Trump is now, he’d been dead for two years.

As if that weren’t enough, Trump has effected another direct negation of Washingtonian class through his breathtaking propensity for vanity and naked self-promotion.

Although George Washington was a deeply ambitious man—someone who saved all of his papers in the hope they would ensure his immortality—whenever he assumed a position of high authority, he took meticulous care in removing even the appearance of having done so in self-interest or for personal gain.  By declining large salaries and exhibiting profound reluctance in undertaking the monumental roles he was offered, Washington made it plain that public service was a wholly laudable and often thankless vocation—a means of attaining eternal glory, to be sure, but by no means an avenue to material rewards or even a decent pension.

Indeed, there were few things in life that Washington found more repulsive than people who openly boasted about their own abilities and character and expressed unbounded enthusiasm for securing personal and professional advancement.  To him, ambition of any sort was something to be kept carefully hidden from public view, lest one be thought to care only about oneself and not the fortunes of the country at large.

The operative term here is honor.  In an epoch when personal clashes would occasionally be resolved on the dueling ground (see: Hamilton v. Burr), public figures were quite scrupulous about what they said in public, knowing that a misplaced slight could result in death and disgrace.  It has been noted that, were we living in such a time now, Trump’s ridiculous tussle with Ted Cruz over their wives’ looks would’ve been textbook grounds for such a confrontation, but in truth, nearly every remark by the presumptive Republican nominee would fail the standard of chivalry established throughout the 18th century and beyond.  (Then again, why should we blame Trump for exploiting a culture that allows this sort of nonsense to occur?)

I mentioned that not all of our founders’ qualities were superior to our own—and not only those relating to the crime of owning and controlling fellow human beings.  As inspiring as George Washington’s bravery and rectitude surely are, it is equally compelling to learn, for instance, that when it came to matters of business and real estate, he was a cold, lustful, ruthless tyrant.

Hungry for land and provisions at the lowest possible price, Washington snatched up tens of thousands of acres across Western Pennsylvania as soon as they became available, enacting swift measures against any squatters who tried to occupy them without paying rent.  Indeed, Great Britain’s harsh restrictions and unfair prices on frontier real estate were just as much of a motivating factor in Washington’s revolutionary zeal as were the more lofty ideals of life, liberty and self-determination.

In a fashion, all of this enterprising and speculation was a product of simple greed—the same singular driving force behind the actions of one Donald Trump.  In his private affairs, Washington exhibited a single-mindedness toward enhancing his personal wealth that we have come to loathe in the business leaders of today.

For all Washington said and wrote about wanting to end slavery once and for all, he—like virtually every other southern planter—couldn’t figure out how to emancipate his own slaves without risking total financial ruin.  In the end, the latter was more important to him than the former, leading him to free his slaves, but only upon his death, i.e. the moment his own personal comfort ceased being a concern.

Here, at least, is an area in which Donald Trump emerges one step ahead of the Father of His Country:  Whatever Trump’s true net worth, at least a teeny, tiny fraction of it goes directly to his work force.

History Has Its Eyes on You

Every action has an equal, opposite reaction, and so whenever any piece of popular culture becomes a runaway success, you can set your watch to the moment when the backlash comes roaring up behind it.

Seeing as Americans are determined never to agree on anything—albeit some of us more vigorously than others—it is inevitable—and probably for the best—that even the most widely and deeply beloved of our national treasures will sooner or later find a detractor or two hiding under some rock or other.

However, for a good long while, it appeared that in this regard—as in so many others—Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was truly one-of-a-kind.  That this audacious, revisionist Broadway musical-cum-history lesson had transcended all the usual cultural mores, rules and laws (including gravity) to emerge as the one thing on which everyone can agree.  Call it the Adele of the Great White Way.

As a true believer, I was perfectly fine with this rarefied mass ecstasy over (of all things) an expensive Broadway show.  As much as I value open debate on practically any subject, listening to the Hamilton cast album over and over has become something approaching a religious experience, and we all know what happens to reasoned dissent once religion enters the picture.

All the same, over the last week or so, a sort of anti-Hamilton faction has finally—finally!—begun to consolidate in various online media outlets.  While I have so far found the arguments in these pieces generally misguided and unconvincing, it is imperative that my fellow fanatics take a break from their unconditional Hamilton love and read them.  They might be surprised how much they learn.

While these critiques are by no means interchangeable—their authors approach Hamilton in different ways and reach different conclusions—they tend to focus on one of two claims:  First, that Hamilton is not as historically accurate as it appears; and second, that it is not as socially progressive or “revolutionary” as its creators and fans have proclaimed.

At first blush, the complaints about accuracy could be dismissed as preposterous—not because they’re false, mind you, but rather because strict adherence to historical truth is so obviously not this show’s primary objective.  To any fair-minded listener, it should become clear—say, during the Cabinet meeting where Hamilton tells Jefferson, “Sittin’ there useless as two shits / Hey, turn around, bend over, I’ll show you / Where my shoe fits”—that Miranda has granted himself certain liberties with the Founding Fathers that are, shall we say, fairly easy to infer.

It is the nature and the right of historical dramas to take history into their own hands for the sake of clarity and entertainment.  One must never let facts get in the way of a good story (as Mark Twain may or may not have said) and while the Revolution is undoubtedly one of the greatest stories of all time, artists have always manipulated the events of 1776 to their own ends.  It is absurd to hold dramatists to the same academic standard as historians and biographers.  “All we can reasonably ask,” Roger Ebert once wrote about a certain film, “is that it be skillfully made and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth.”

That brings us to the more compelling and provocative critique, which says that—contrary to the prevailing view that Hamilton is a watershed moment in American culture—there is actually nothing historically innovative about Miranda’s take on the Founding Fathers.  Specifically, that despite its ethnically diverse cast and über-contemporary soundtrack, Hamilton is ultimately just one more show that lionizes famous white men—and only white men—who birthed a nation that purposefully and violently excluded African-Americans and other undesirables from realizing their fullest potential as human beings.

In her superb essay, “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” Rutgers professor Lyra D. Monteiro sees Hamilton as a continuation of so-called “founders chic,” observing, “[D]espite the proliferation of black and brown bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play. […] Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world, and certainly that it was not an important part of the lives and livelihoods of the men who created the nation.”  (Monteiro then proceeds to name several black individuals who could easily have figured into Miranda’s story.)

Continuing this thought in an equally-thoughtful blog post, “Why Hamilton is Not the Revolution You Think it is,” NYU PhD student James McMaster writes:

“[I]n Hamilton, the fact that the white men that founded the United States—colonizers all, slaveholders some—are played by men of color actually obfuscates histories of racialized violence in the United States.  Case in point:  During ‘Cabinet Battle #1,’ when the talented Daveed Diggs argues as Thomas Jefferson for the security of the South’s slave-holding economy, the actor’s blackness visually distances his performance of racism from Jefferson’s whiteness, enabling a (largely white) audience to forget the degree to which they are implicated in the violent, anti-black histories of the United States.”

While we should all be extremely grateful for these reminders of the truth—the whole truth—of how this country came into being, my immediate response to these charges with regards to Hamilton is through an old Stephen Hawking line:  “You can’t think of everything.”

Or, to put it slightly less glibly:  Lin-Manuel Miranda devised a particular way to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton that would serve his own interests, which meant that a boatload of other interests—however worthy—would necessarily be left on the cutting room floor.

In point of fact, the writing of every play, movie and book in history has involved including a million little details while omitting a million others.  To be a writer is to be an editor and a synthesizer—as David McCullough once said, “I’m not a writer; I’m a re-writer”—which requires making choices that both sharpen and narrow the focus of one’s work in order not to juggle too many balls at once.

Contra Monteiro, who takes issue with Hamilton’s tagline, “The story of America then, told by American now,” I interpret the race-conscious casting not as a means to conceal the founders’ inherent white supremacy, but rather to demonstrate that the ideals for which they fought apply to people of all races.  That most of the founders clearly didn’t intend this at the time is an irony that cannot (and should not) be overlooked, and part of what makes Hamilton so irresistible is the implicit knowledge that if the real people suddenly materialized and saw themselves being portrayed by the likes of Leslie Odom, Jr., and Daveed Diggs, their expressions would be worth well over 1,000 words each.

In short:  Hamilton does not directly confront the realities and consequences of slavery because, in the end, that’s not what the play is about.  Miranda chose to dramatize the life of Alexander Hamilton and the handful of powerful people with whom he interacted, and that is how the piece should be judged.  Call me old-fashioned, but I find it slightly unfair to critique an artist for the work he didn’t produce rather than the work he did.

This does not mean that objections like the ones above should not be raised and heard.  If Hamilton has any purpose beyond entertainment, it’s to stimulate interest in the history of the United States—including the history that Hamilton does not have the time or inclination to cover.  If Miranda and company truly intend to democratize the country’s founding, they should own the ways in which their own efforts are incomplete.  They don’t need to be complete, but nor should they suggest that they are.

As it stands, we are left with exactly what we’ve always had:  A brilliant, addictive piece of theatre that we can love and question at the same time.  A guaranteed job creator for every talented non-white actor in New York that is nonetheless a celebration of dead, white slavers.

The truth is that Hamilton invited this minefield of hypocrisy the moment it took on America as its primary subject.  As a wise man said:  It’s full of contradictions, but so is independence.

The Battle of Princeton

This is what happens when you name buildings after human beings.

In this week’s edition of White People Discover Their Heroes Were Racist Thugs, students at Princeton University have demanded that the school disassociate itself with Woodrow Wilson, a man who served as Princeton’s president for eight years before going into politics.

Specifically, today’s protesters want Wilson’s name and likeness removed from all campus buildings, including the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs.

The basis of this demand is fairly straightforward:  Making an objective appraisal of the record, it becomes clear that Woodrow Wilson was, in fact, an unreconstructed white supremacist.  A man who openly viewed black people as inferior to white people and who, upon becoming president, ran an executive branch that turned this view into official policy, most damningly through the re-segregation of various government offices and facilities.  (When Boston newspaperman Monroe Trotter brought a delegation to the White House to protest, Wilson informed them, “Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”)

Factoids like these were not unknown to history until last week.  Wilson’s bald racism has been well-documented for eons, available to anyone who cared to look it up.

The problem, then, has been twofold.  First, up until now, few people have cared to educate themselves on the more shameful aspects of our 28th president’s life, both personally and politically.  Second, and more disturbingly, many other folks have known the ugly truth about Wilson all this time but haven’t summoned the strength to be appalled by it.  They simply accept his racist tendencies as a function of the era to which he belonged, then promptly shrug and move on.

The real scandal is how we Americans have allowed ourselves to get away with this for so very long.  How our historical assessments of Wilson’s presidency have focused (appropriately) on his handling of World War I abroad and progressive politics at home, but rarely, if ever, on his handling of race relations a full half-century after Reconstruction began.  As one expert after another has said, Wilson didn’t merely sustain the principle of white supremacy:  he actively made it worse.

Not that I speak from a position of moral superiority.  While I’ve never particularly been a fan of Wilson’s—in college, I wrote a paper detailing his sinister power grabs during the war—my previous understanding of his racism had been limited to his open-arms embrace of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the film that lionized the Ku Klux Klan and employed white actors in blackface.  Disturbing as that was, it never led me to dig deeper.  It didn’t occur to me that the president of the United States, five decades after the Civil War, would harbor such bigoted views toward black people and not even bother to hide them.

I’m not quite that naïve today, nor—thankfully—is an increasing chunk of the country as a whole.

Thanks most recently to the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters, Americans are no longer permitted to sweep racial prejudice under the rug without one heck of a fight.  While BLM’s focus is on racism in the present, racism in the past has inevitably factored into the argument.  Further, while racial prejudice can often take subtle or even unintentional forms, Wilson’s was neither.  On the race issue, he was simply a scoundrel.  The only question is why it took us so long to acknowledge it.

However, this does not automatically mean we should strike him from the record entirely.  Or, in this case, scrub his name from the college he so ably led.

With the entirety of American history planted in the back of our minds, let us consider—if we may—the Slippery Slope.

Demoting Woodrow Wilson in the popular imagination and at Princeton would undoubtedly make us feel a little better about ourselves, because it would send the message that bigoted men should not be honored or immortalized after they die, regardless of whatever good they might have otherwise done.

Indeed, we have already broadcast this message elsewhere with regards to such controversial figures as Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun and Robert E. Lee—men who made their success by subjugating entire classes of Americans.  This year’s extended kerfuffle over the Confederate battle flag seemed to kill several birds with one stone.

But where, exactly, should we draw the line?

If we are to shun Wilson on the grounds that he discriminated against black people, what are we to make of George Washington?  I don’t know about you, but I think personally owning 123 black people is a pretty cut-and-dry example of valuing one race over another.  Although Washington privately spoke of his desire for emancipation and allowed for his own slaves’ freedom upon his death, he didn’t do a thing to advance the cause of racial equality while he was alive and the most powerful man in America.

So what’s the difference between him and Wilson?  If the latter doesn’t deserve to have even a school named for him, why should the former continue to be the namesake of our nation’s capital, one U.S. state and a main thoroughfare in every city and town in this country?

Is it because, although both men were white supremacists, Wilson was more of a jerk about it?  Is it because Washington’s accomplishments as a general and president are just too important to overlook, while Wilson’s leadership in World War I is apparently negligible?  Do we consider an 18th century slaveholder to be somehow more forgivable than a 20th century segregationist?  What’s the standard?

It’s safe to assume that we won’t be expunging the existence of George Washington any time soon, and this might help to clarify why the whole concept of moral cleansing can be so problematic.

The truth is that almost every American leader between 1776 and 1865 was complicit in the perpetuation of a racist society, either through direct action or through silence when action might have done some good.  (Abolitionists were the exception, and many of them paid a huge price for their courage.)  If we are to retroactively adopt this zero-tolerance policy toward race-based discrimination, why shouldn’t we be consistent and apply it to everyone who was responsible?

We know why not:  Because people are complicated and inspiring and compromised and good and evil, usually all at the same time.  Everyone has a little more of some traits than others, and we evaluate an individual’s overall character using some mysterious algorithm that depends a great deal on context—i.e. time and place—and our own biases.

So we tell ourselves that George Washington’s plantation, while unfortunate, is not a deal-breaker for his reputation because, hey, he treated his slaves decently enough and, by the way, he did single-handedly save the country from oblivion on more than one occasion.  It’s not that we ignore that he owned slaves; we just don’t condemn it as strongly as we would if he weren’t the father of his country.  Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Meanwhile, the Woodrow Wilsons of the world—essential as they are—do not carry the same aura of Godliness and, thus, make easier targets for our derision.

But maybe I’m wrong.  Perhaps the posthumous inquisition of Washington is next.  Maybe our righteous zeal to reconcile our country’s shameful history is so strong that it will eventually reach all the way to the top, and we will soon achieve a society in which buildings and institutions are only named for people (or things) who never did anything wrong.

While I would personally have no problem with this result—what’s wrong with naming a school after a tree or a city or the president’s mom?—it would have one unintended consequence:  It would provide us with one fewer mechanism for arguing about the meaning of America.

Let’s be honest:  If a group of Princeton students hadn’t caused such a row about the Wilson School of Public Policy, how many millions of people would never have realized just what a wretched little puke Woodrow Wilson actually was?  However inadvertent on Princeton’s part, the controversy gave way to education, argument and clarity.  That’s precisely what great universities are for.

As for the question immediately at hand—should Princeton capitulate to the students’ demands?—I defer to the wisdom of Ta-Nehisi Coates who, himself ambivalent about the whole thing, nonetheless imagines how, to a black student, “seeing one’s University celebrate the name of someone who plundered your ancestors—in a country that has yet to acknowledge that plunder—might be slightly disturbing.”

Slightly.

The Reckoning

Last week, after more than a year of procrastinating, I finally brought myself to read “The Case for Reparations,” the epic feature story by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic.

I was aware of the piece almost from the moment it went to press—this provocative argument about what black Americans are owed by white Americans here in the second decade of the 21st century—but somehow I kept putting it off.

I’d like to think that this was merely an act of laziness.  I am a slow, easily-distracted reader, and Coates’ story runs 16,000 words—ten times longer than anything I’ve ever written here.  Even for someone with all the time in the world, that’s an awful lot to digest—especially for such a weighty, depressing subject.

In any case, I certainly didn’t think I was afraid of—or would be surprised by—what Coates (or anyone) might say on the matter of reparations.  As a reasonably-educated, mildly intelligent white liberal, I am in no immediate danger of overlooking the fact that what white Americans did to black Americans from the early 17th century until 1865 constituted one of the greatest injustices in all of human history—a crime that has yet to be fully rectified, either in word or in deed.

But of course I was wrong.  I was wrong, first, about the extent to which slavery’s tentacles extended beyond the institution’s formal cessation via the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  But most of all, I was wrong in my assumption—shared by virtually every white person in America—that the call for formal reparations is primarily, if not exclusively, about slavery itself.

Not in the least.  Among all of our country’s race-based crimes, the trade, ownership, exploitation and torture of some 10 million-plus human beings was certainly the worst of it, but it wasn’t all of it, and it wasn’t the end of it.

As Coates has exhaustively documented, black people, as a group, have been subject to offenses by their government—in our lifetimes—that can concretely and incontrovertibly be defined as theft—that is, the malicious and deliberate taking of money and property, done through a system that simply did not view African-Americans as equal citizens and, as such, offered them no meaningful legal protection or means of redress.  If any would-be victim tried to fight back, the state’s weapon of choice was terrorism.

In no area of life were these practices more rampant than in housing.  Following the travails of a handful of individuals—some of them still alive today—Coates shows how the practice of “redlining” created a society after World War II in which black people were segregated from white people by design.  Even in major northern cities—Chicago being the most notorious—black people were systemically denied the low-rate mortgages and lines of credit that white Americans would come to regard as a birthright and a ticket to the American dream in the second half of the 20th century.  That’s to say nothing of the outright lying and thievery that real estate sharks would exercise against their black customers who, by circumstance, had no other option.  The consequences of this system remain with us to this day, most strikingly in the country’s wealth gap.  (A 2011 study estimated that the average white family has nearly 16 times as much total wealth as the average black family.)

Housing discrimination is probably the least-known, least-understood component of America’s history of institutional racism, and that is what makes Coates’ illumination of it so valuable.  Up to now, I’m sure I had some vague notion that, with housing—as with everything else—black people have been given a raw deal by their government.  With Coates’ narrative, I now have a much clearer idea of exactly what that raw deal entailed, how deliberate and unjust it was, and—here we approach the main point—how it left white America with a debt that it has every obligation to pay.

Having digested “The Case for Reparations,” paired with everything I thought I already knew on this subject, I now find it impossible not to take the idea seriously.  In point of fact, America has not squared itself with its past.  Slavery and Jim Crow were not just something that happened a long time ago that we can forget all about.  White Americans and black Americans today are not operating on a level playing field, and each of us is not blameless for the perpetuation of an inequitable society.

Certainly, many Americans feel just the opposite about some, if not all, of these points.  They think institutional racism is a relic of a bygone era, that blacks and whites have long been treated as equal under the law and that no further action is needed to rectify the sins of the past.

My hunch is that none of these people has read Coates’ article—or any other piece that has made similar arguments—and that if they did, they would be far less cavalier in their claim that everything is just fine.

It is seductive to think that white people absolved themselves of any guilt about racism with the 13th Amendment, Brown v. Board of Education, the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s and the election of Barack Obama.  In reality, it is absurd.

Imagine, if you will, that some bully stole your lunch money every day from kindergarten through 12th grade—beating the living daylights out of you whenever you resisted—and that you went hungry as a result.  Then, the day after graduating high school, the bully approaches you, says he feels bad about being such a jerk and asks, “Now we’re even, right?”  Then, when you lodge a complaint to the superintendent about those 12 years of abuse and exploitation, the superintendent says, “Yeah, we told him to do that, ‘cause we needed the cash.  But no hard feelings.”  Finally, you appeal to the full school board for a refund of all the money that was stolen from you, and they respond, “Let’s not get carried away.  Shouldn’t you just be happy the beatings have stopped?”

Multiply that by several million, and you begin to understand just how hollow it sounds to say that the United States owes nothing further to its black citizens and that slavery and racial inequality ended on the same day in 1865.

It’s a cruel paradox:  The crimes that whites have committed against blacks are so all-encompassing, so long-lasting—so evil—that they could not possibly be rectified in full, and this has somehow led us to conclude that we needn’t rectify them at all.

(To be clear:  There is a massive difference between atoning for a sin and merely resolving not to commit it anymore.)

It may seem a stretch to assert that each of us is personally culpable for this national moral failure.  That is, until we reflect—for instance—on the gazillion times we’ve called ourselves “proud to be American.”  Or on the myriad ways we lionize people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who each owned hundreds of slaves and didn’t lift a finger to give them a better life.  Or the fact that we nominate presidential candidates who make a point of “not apologizing for America,” insisting that there is nothing to apologize for.

Oh, really?

We all know Edmund Burke’s observation, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  In that spirit, it stands to reason that every time any of us fails to notice the crimes that have been committed by our government, in our name, we are indeed guilty of doing nothing to stop evil from ruling the day.

To say you are “proud” to live in a country with our dismal record on civil rights means you are either a) spectacularly ignorant, or b) extraordinarily selective about which aspects of America you choose to recognize.

To say the United States doesn’t owe anyone an apology—well, that just makes you an idiot.

I say this as someone who regularly harps on about how incredibly awesome the United States is, as far as world superpowers go.  We are the country that popularized such revolutionary ideas as self-government, free expression, trial by jury and the all-you-can-eat buffet.  At its best, the United States represents the highest ideals of human achievement, and I am as thrilled as ever that I wasn’t born anywhere else.

At the same time, however, I am not a naïve, jingoistic nincompoop.  I know unconscionable hypocrisy when I see it, and I can hold two opposing ideas in my head at the same time—as, apparently, can the nation as a whole.

Our country’s greatness does not make up for our country’s crimes—not any more than Bill Cosby’s comedy makes up for his apparently bottomless capacity to drug and rape young women.

The white population of America cannot systemically rob and murder the black population of America for 350 years and then expect absolution by saying, “Sorry about that—won’t happen again.”

Something more needs to be done.  Sooner or later, it will.

It’s anybody’s guess what form this “something” will ultimately take.  In his article, Coates alerts us to a House bill introduced by Representative John Conyers, which would create a commission to study the issue and sort all of this out.  That would surely be better than nothing.

Over the years, numerous calculations have been done to estimate the total monetary amount that black people have been deprived—directly and indirectly—as a result of slavery and other forms of white supremacy.  Adjusted for inflation, some of these estimates are roughly equal to our country’s annual GDP.  To be honest, I’m not sure whether such a figure is too much or too little, but it’s certainly high enough to give us a moment’s pause.

Many say that any real discussion about reparations would be pointlessly divisive, perhaps only exasperating racial tensions at a time when that particular hornet’s nest needn’t be poked any more than it already has.  That may well be true, although we certainly have no evidence for it, seeing as the discussion has never truly been attempted.

Considering how racial tensions tend to occur whether we invite them or not—or, to be specific, whenever certain white people behave terribly—I wonder if such fears are overblown, and whether the result might be just the opposite.

Were the Congress to undertake an objective, honest accounting of the costs of white supremacy on black (and white) America, it would—for one thing—have the effect of informing our fair citizenry of just how bad the damage has been.  It would provide a context for our current racial unrest in a manner that no single event ever could.  It would force white people to confront their prejudices and assumptions about what black people are owed by their government and—dare I say—engender a modicum of empathy that might lead us to treat each other just a little bit better.