Friday, January 20, 2017

A Change Is Gonna Come: The End of the Obama Era

As many of us this week watched President Barack Obama exit the presidential stage with dignity, grace, and even some humour, an inescapable melancholy also permeated the air. Besides the passing of a historic moment in time, one couldn't help but notice the new history about to be made. We were about to watch Donald Trump – a populist demagogue who built his road to the White House by spending years attempting to delegitimize Obama in a Truther campaign that questioned his citizenship – become president. He continued by bullying opponents, toadying up to Russia and hiding his tax returns (which may provide clues to why he plays footsies with Putin), proudly promoting the traits of a sexual predator, exploiting racism and fear, and making promises that pander to anger rather than seeking the means to healing the wounds that stoke that rage. The democratic dream hasn't died and I believe it will survive the man about to be president who has chosen to demean those ideals. But the Obama era, which opened the door to finally laying rest the stained legacy of racism and exploitation, could not close that door on those who sought to ignore it. The idealistic impulse in American exceptionalism is not bathed in light. "America is a place and a story, made up of exuberance and suspicion, lynch mobs and escapes, its greatest testaments are made of portents and warnings," critic Greil Marcus writes in The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice. "The story of America as told from the beginning is one of self-invention and nationhood." He also reminds us that prophetic voices – from John Winthrop to Martin Luther King Jr. – were "raised to keep faith with the past, or with the future to which the past committed their present." That is also true of the popular culture that reflects that covenant.

When singer Sam Cooke's beautifully lush lament "A Change is Gonna Come," which pined for freedom and justice ("It's been a long time coming / But I know a change is gonna come"), was released on December 22, 1964, it was composed out of that desire Marcus alludes to. But while the song was inspired by many personal insults and racist attacks over Cooke's career, the most significant event was the turning away of his band and his family from a whites-only motel in Louisiana. However, songs as great as "A Change is Gonna Come" grow past incidentals, no matter how odious. In time, the tune grew to be more than just a defiant response to the policies of Jim Crow, or a song inspired by Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," composed a couple of years earlier, that shocked Cooke when he discovered that a young white man from Hibbing, Minnesota had written such an anthem. "A Change is Gonna Come" joined the series of prophetic voices over history that took in the past trials of black America even before Cooke was born ("I was born by the river in a little tent/ Oh, and just like the river I've been running ev'r since") and imagined a possible future that couldn't yet be seen.

In Dream Boogie, his biographer Peter Guralnick wrote that Cooke was actually scared by the song: "He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it's probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular – in the sense that you started out, 'I was born by the river' – but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people." Although Cooke would debut the song on The Tonight Show in February 1964 to reach out to that generation, he never performed it live again – partly due to its sophisticated arrangement, but also because he could feel the air of death that surrounded it. Upon hearing him perform it, songwriter Bobby Womack told Cooke that it was "spooky"; Cooke agreed and replied that he heard something larger, grand and possibly tragic, within its melody. It wasn't long, too, before the prophecy of the song brought forth its tragic prescience when he was shot to death at a Los Angeles hotel on December 11, 1964, just two weeks before it was released on the radio. Later it was embraced by the Civil Rights movement. The song was a double-edged sword:  it contained both a dream and a nightmare -- perhaps providing, ironically, a lightning rod for those who violently resisted its aspirations. Although the initial version of events surrounding Cooke's murder was that he had kidnapped a woman with the intent of raping her at the hotel, evidence would later come out that suggested that he may have been set up for a robbery, or perhaps there was even a conspiracy to have him killed. 

Certain songs written to reflect their own time often come to escape it. When folk singer Phil Ochs composed "Crucifixion" (a month before Cooke's death), as he toured the United Kingdom, he may have had something in mind about a timeless song's duality. Although Ochs was writing generally about the role citizens play in creating, deifying, and then destroying their heroes, it was clear that "Crucifixion" was specifically about the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. The track lacks the dreamy subtlety of "A Change is Gonna Come," but it is filled with striking contrasting images of planets being paralyzed while mountains are amazed, and moments of innocence catapult the hero onward while "the decadence of destiny is looking for a pawn." The force of passion and disillusionment in Ochs's performance propels him to the song's key perception midway through: "To a nightmare of knowledge he opens up the gate / Binding revelation is laid upon his plate / That beneath the greatest love is a hurricane of hate." The notion that beneath the greatest love is a hurricane of hate was certainly played out during those Sixties years, whether you remember the love that inspired King's "I Have a Dream" speech or the force of hate that led to his assassination in 1968. It was there when you considered the loving hysteria of Beatlemania, so soon after the tragedy of JFK's assassination, which would later turn into "a hurricane of hate" by 1966, when death threats and the burning of Beatles records followed a comment by John Lennon that the group was more popular than Jesus. In 1973 Ochs told Chicago broadcaster Studs Terkel that people would sacrifice their heroes, their greatest hopes, in response to a greater need to break the promise that the nation's founding documents once prophesied. "The Kennedy assassination, in a way, was destroying our best in some kind of ritual," Ochs told Turkel. "People say they really love the reformer, they love the radical, but they want to see him killed. It's a certain part of the human psyche – the dark side of the human psyche." 

Prophetic yearnings stream through "A Change is Gonna Come" as much as the dread of defeat that Ochs talks about. King likely heard both of those sides in his "Promised Land" speech the night before he was killed in Memphis in 1968, an address that saw a future which contained both the fulfillment of promise and his own death. You could also hear something of Cooke's song in Barack Obama's first presidential victory speech in Chicago in Grant Park to a cheering throng in 2008. "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," he began triumphantly, and the crowd was filled with young and old, men and women, white and black – including the many survivors of the Civil Rights years who had been there that night when King said that he'd reached the mountaintop. Some in 2008, with tears in their eyes, thought that maybe this night is what King had seen that evening in early April,1968. But what we were to witness over the next eight years was also a denial of that power of democracy Obama invoked. His enemies stonewalled and filibustered every piece of legislation he tried to pass, while some of his allies acted betrayed as if he were turning his back on their dreams of a radical new president to counter the era of George Bush.

All of this explains why, for the first four years of Obama's presidency, it was hard to find a film, or a piece of music, to reflect the man who occupied the White House. Partly because he was having to act cautiously while others chose to make him invisible, there was little to reflect. But in the past year, when he was finally coming to the end of his term, Obama's voice suddenly found its idealistic core again – especially as Donald Trump took aim at his legacy and dedicated his candidacy to destroying it, as well as to humiliating Hillary Clinton, whose goal was to continue it. At which point, a number of films began to arrive that seemed – even if some were flawed – to try and remind us of what stood to be lost in the Trump years ahead, and they all had something of the vision that Sam Cooke dreamed of in "A Change is Gonna Come." One of those pictures, Moonlight, is a beautifully conceived jewel – a coming-of-age story that emerges on the screen like a slowly developing time-lapse photograph. Director Barry Jenkins (adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney's play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue) finds a style somewhere between expressionism and naturalism to trace the tale of a poor African-American boy, Chiron, who lives in Miami. Structured in three acts, Moonlight tells his story at three different ages: nine, sixteen and twenty-six. With the purpose of dramatizing Chiron's path to self-discovery as a gay black man, three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) create a continuity of soul where tenderness confronts toughness, silence meets articulation, and passivity leads to action.


Moonlight begins with Chiron as a shy and withdrawn child (nicknamed “Little”) who gets bullied by other kids due to his size and meekness. He is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local crack dealer, who takes him to the home he shares with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), and there he's shown the kindness and attention he doesn't receive from his crack-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). Chiron becomes more drawn to Juan and Teresa as role models while also finding a warm spot in the company of his best friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner), who stokes a desire in Chiron that allows him to grapple with his emerging homosexuality. Moonlight traces how those relationships both deepen and change over the time of Chiron's coming into manhood. Jenkins's conceptual approach to the storytelling is complemented by the strong and grounded performances he gets from his actors. Rather than merely depicting the process of growing up, Jenkins instead dramatizes how, over time, the contradictory impulses of experience ultimately shape our truer perceptions of life. Although we are witnessing the surfacing of a new sensibility at work in Moonlight, we can also feel the naturalistic influences of earlier pictures like Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep and David Gordon Green's George Washington on it. Moonlight succeeds by letting Chiron's experiences dictate the style of the picture, which shifts over time as if gradually mirroring his growing awareness – and, in doing so, ultimately casts a lasting and poignant reflection.

Hidden Figures.

Theodore Melfi's Hidden Figures, based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, is also a picture about black Americans that casts a reflection, but where Moonlight is inventive, Hidden Figures is unfortunately calculating. Set in 1962, the story centers on three female mathematicians who come to work at Langley to calculate flight trajectories for Project Mercury and other missions at NASA at a time when blacks are still suffering the ravages of segregation. While Hidden Figures – a great title that refers both to the women and the mathematical notations they have to invent  – is a terrifically optimistic account that reflects the homiletic side of Obama with his audacity of hope, the picture lacks faith in the audience to find that hope for ourselves. Hidden Figures telegraphs everything as if it were an After School Special. While the actresses, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, bring a spunky freshness to parts conceived simply as role models, the picture can't resist scenes that spout obvious civics lessons. Their victories are anything but hidden; we can see each one coming. Yet the story is so fascinating that the movie is affecting despite the manipulation. Southside with You, a debut romantic drama written and directed by Richard Tanne, is another picture that takes us back in time – to 1989, when Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) go on their first date after they meet working at a Chicago law firm. Tanne seems to be aiming for something close to Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, where we watch a courtship of intellectual equals, but the picture is too earnest and fawning to its subjects to bring out a latent romanticism. Tanne seems to be responding so sharply to the animosity aimed at Obama's Presidency that he goes overboard in demythologizing the couple. And we can't miss the signs of what is to come. Both actors capture the yearnings of what's ahead, but Southside with You doesn't let those yearnings breathe freely. Yet there is still something touching in the way Tanne attempts to recover in the Obamas what Trump is dedicated to taking away. It's the idea of how public office can be a calling rather than a conquest.

Southside With You.

Who knows in time what movies will best reflect the arrogant cynicism that Donald Trump represents with his megalomanical isolationism, a jingoism that he's borrowed from the handbook of Charles Lindbergh? For if Obama had to remain allusive and careful, in an eight-year term that was scandal-free, Trump is his opposite – all bombast and scandal-ready, which should make the years ahead not too much of a puzzle. If there's one movie that I think saw Trump coming, long before he even became a factor in the presidential race, it was writer-director Andrew Dominik's 2012 Killing Them Softly, based on George V. Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade. The picture is nothing more than a tale about a bunch of thieves who are hired to steal from a poker game and then get hunted down by a hit man (Brad Pitt) brought in by the mob to get their money back. The hit man eventually wipes out the burglers and the guy who staked them. Killing Them Softly may indeed reek of the pretentiousness of pulp fiction that attempts to make larger political points about the desperate state of the country, a nation that, in this story, Obama has just inherited. But as Obama makes his victory speech in Chicago, Killing Them Softly reaches a chilling counterpoint that brings another side of "A Change is Gonna Come" into plain view, perhaps even an awareness that the country Sam Cooke saw as becoming a dream could just as easily revert back into a nightmare of itself.

The picture is coming to its conclusion at the point where Obama says, "We are, and always will be, the United States of America," while Pitt is arguing with the mob accountant (Richard Jenkins) who is just about to pay him for his killings. "Next he'll be telling us we're a community, one people...It's a myth created by Thomas Jefferson," Pitt remarks bitterly, pointing to the new Commander-in-Chief on the screen. Jenkins shoots back, "Now you're going to have a go at Thomas Jefferson." With a steely calm as he bites into a freshly lit cigarette, Pitt answers quietly, "My friend, Jefferson's an American saint, because he wrote the words, 'All men are created equal' – words he clearly didn't believe, because he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He was a rich wine snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So yeah, he wrote some lovely words and aroused the rabble and they went out and died for those words, while he sat back, and drank his wine, and fucked his slave girl." Looking back up at the television, Pitt continues his lecture in a building rage. "This guy wants to tell me we're living in a community? Don't make me laugh. I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business. Now fuckin' pay me!" Donald Trump has arrived today, where he is currently speaking before the nation as I write, and with Obama quietly sitting behind him. I think of Pitt as he stood in the seedy bar watching the nation's first black president address the nation in 2009, who was carrying the hopes of Sam Cooke that were now seemingly realized. But change has come again and the idea of America as a country, a country once dreamed, as it was in Cooke's impassioned song, could well be in jeopardy. Richard Jenkins had no answer to offer Pitt but the cash that he demanded for his deeds. Time will tell the price we'll come to pay for electing Donald Trump.          

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

1 comment:

  1. thanks Kevin, very thought provoking and now I'm going to see all those films