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White Like Me

It's the tail end of the 1996 California primary election, and incumbent Democratic senator Jay Bulworth (Warren Beatty) is having a nervous breakdown. Sleepless for days, famished, he channel-surfs aimlessly in the darkness of his office, where in a rare moment of lucidity he has an inspiration: He arranges to have a hitman assassinate him.

Suddenly freed from the need to plump for re-election and expecting the hit to come at any unguarded moment, Bulworth takes to the campaign trail with abandon. Delirious but happy, he says exactly what's on his mind.

Framed as a farce, Bulworth begins with this premise and gets stranger and stranger. Beatty not only stars but also served as director, co-producer, and co-screenwriter (with Jeremy Pikser). Unavoidably, because of the way he encourages the connection between himself and Bulworth, the film takes on the trappings of a personal manifesto. Bulworth is described in the film as "old liberal wine poured into a new bottle," and that describes Beatty here as well. He's a liberal movie icon--the director of Reds!--trying to air his gripes and passions about America without coming across as a fossil. His farce isn't as daring as he thinks it is, but it's a fascinating spectacle anyway. When Bulworth veers off the campaign trail early on and starts rapping in a South-Central L.A. club, it's like watching a '60s Stanley Kramer message movie spliced into a hip-hop fever dream. It may not be good, but it sure is different.

Is Beatty trying to commercialize his message-mongering by appealing to urban black movie audiences? Probably not. After all, since when have black ticket-buyers been surefire hit-makers? Beatty's courting of that audience might seem crass, but I think the real game here is narcissism. He's playing out a hallowed white-liberal fantasy of being as black as any soul brother. At the same time, his Jay Bulworth is the liberal Robin Hood of the 'hood who on behalf of African-Americans carries out raids into the enemy camp.

Taking it upon himself to stand up for all of America's dispossessed, Bulworth soon expands his rap to target the whole shebang: insurance companies, HMOs, television, Hollywood, the conglomerate-owned news media--you name it. As the film lurches along, we get nicked with a steady stream of homilies: "He that pays the piper does the show," and "What we used to call America is going down the drain," or--my favorite--"Everybody's got to keep screwing everybody until we're all the same color." Now, that's what I call sexual politics.

Parts of Bulworth play like the work of a politico who feels frantically under siege and needs to get the word out before someone cuts off the juice. There's a hectic quality to the movie, as if Beatty is afraid we aren't getting the joke--or the message; it takes a while to get a fix on what he's up to. In the beginning Bulworth is portrayed as a hypocrite who in order to get re-elected goes back on his liberal principles. His campaign spots have him saying things like, "I believe in a hand up, not a handout." He's not even a neo-con: He's a pseudo neo-con. The framed photos in his office of Bulworth with black civil-rights leaders and Bobby Kennedy tell the whole, sad then-and-now story.

Speaking in a black church in South-Central, Bulworth chucks his standard stump speech--it always begins with "We stand at the doorstep of a new millennium"--and tells an increasingly hostile audience about how his promises of federal funding to the inner cities is just a politics-as-usual sham. Moving on to a Beverly Hills fundraiser, he castigates the Hollywood elite for its garbagey movies and, between chomps on crab-cake hors d'oeuvres, throws in a crack about the Jewishness of the industry.

At this point we're apparently supposed to regard Bulworth as a cracked vulgarian, and yet Beatty is already nudging us to accept the senator's ravings as a higher truth. Even his name is metaphoric: His bull has worth. The sick joke at the heart of the movie is that in politics it takes a loony to level with us. Bulworth alone is unfettered enough to tell it like it is. Beatty plays into the widespread national paranoia that do-gooder politicians are hypocritical toward the poor and that Hollywood is a toxic-waste dump. (Question: If Hollywood is so corrupt and if corporate conglomerates run everything, what does Beatty think about the fact that his movie is being distributed by a company, Twentieth Century Fox, that is controlled by that noted Marxist scholar Rupert Murdoch?)

With all its hip-hop and jive, Bulworth may seem new-style--but it's actually proffering a populism that Frank Capra would have loved. In a movie such as Meet John Doe (1941), Capra gave us his archetypal citizen-politician--a blubbery, guileless Gary Cooper who was such a hayseed he couldn't help but talk straight. In Bulworth, Beatty is harvesting that same old Capracorn, but in place of the hayseed innocent, he gives us the guy who is so much the politician that it deranges him. His only therapy is to spew "the truth."

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