The Sticky Film of Race
Issue #33, September 1997
"He can't represent African-Americans — he's too ugly."
— Muhammed Ali on George Foreman
This is a tale about the racial geography of Otherland, a mysterious island far, far away from America, somewhere in Asia, Africa, or South America — it doesn't really matter. American media thrive on the race of Other, and 1997 has proven to be another disappointing year for mainstream filmings of race. Here are a couple of examples. I decided to turn the TV on at a friend's house to discover that I am once again behind the times, perpetually ignorant of the latest travesty of alleged entertainment, generically referred to as the situation comedy. In reality, sitcoms reflect the absurd and tragicomic inability of American mainstream media to comment intelligently — or, for that matter, comedically — on any "situation," especially that of race and class. I discovered this on that fateful day in late July when I randomly volunteered for the experimental torture of the latest abyss of despair, Hangin' With Mr. Cooper.
Witness a young doctor who is finally offered a job in New Guinea. His fiancee, Vanessa, though distraught at the prospect, agrees to go with him. But first, through the wonders of sitcom flash forward, she envisions her life on the wild island, always on the verge of heatstroke. Meanwhile, the exuberant nouveau doctor enters their thatched hut with the miraculous shipment of supplies. He offers Vanessa some soybean paste, and excitedly tells her that they can make her wedding gown out of the parachute that dropped the supplies. Ha ha. Because we have so much sympathy for these characters we've come to know and love, we may even shed a virtual tear at Vanessa's prenuptial self-sacrifice. She has, after all, agreed to go to Otherland. Later, she somehow learns that she and hubby-to-be will have to spend three months "on opposite sides of the island," in separate huts, of course, all because of a "purification ritual" the natives require before marriage. Ha ha again. Those primitive people and their archaic island geography. But we're not through yet. Fiancé brings home a language book, and babbles "thank god we have survived the monsoons" in, we assume, the language of New Guinea (probably Indonesian — it doesn't matter). Just kidding, honey. Do the jokes never stop? Those primitives and their inclement weather. Couldn't they have something more chic and civilized, like an earthquake?
Or a volcano, maybe ... the movie Volcano depicts a white cop and a young black upstart about to re-enact the standard scene of "taking the black rebel to jail." By the good grace of the film's eponymous natural disaster, however, the two learn that maybe there are more important things to do than process racial tensions. At heart, both the cop and the youth want to "save the neighborhood." Later on, a montage of ash-laden survivors coaxes the wisdom and innocence of a child, who comments that "everyone looks the same." Awww ... if we could see the world through the eyes of a child ...
Just as Volcano suggests that the red (Red?) horde of enemy lava might be just the thing we need to overcome our racial (and class) differences in LA, so can mainstream, unfunny sitcoms perpetuate the myth of Africa and Asia as Other, primitive, and undifferentiated, regardless of which side of the island you happen to imagine. The fact that Hangin' With Mr. Cooper is supposedly about African-Americans is disheartening. It suggests that the moral of Volcano comes true on American TV. We Americans are really all the same race, i.e. modern human, rather than inhabitants of Otherland. Even New Jersey is better than New Guinea. Or Guinea, for that matter. Or Guinea-Bissau. Are we laughing yet?
Of course, the lack of humor and intelligence in sitcoms today should come as no surprise. Nor should the lack of incisive critiques of race and class on TV, African-American or otherwise. A step off the beaten racetrack can be found in the film When We Were Kings, a documentary on the legendary Muhammed Ali and George Foreman fight in Zaire in 1974. The recently ousted Mobutu Sese Seko offered Don King ten million dollars way back when to host the fight, ostensibly to promote Zaire somehow, and thus provided the African-American celebrity participants a closer encounter of their African kind. It proved to be an intriguing and bizarre experiment in racial identification.
When We Were Kings neither ignores nor resolves the sticky filming of race, blackness, and Africa. It does not assert that the fight is meaningful simply because it takes place in Ali and Foreman's (as well as Don King's, James Brown's, et al.) ancestral homeland. What, and where, would that mean exactly? Instead, When We Were Kings offers a curious configuration of race, in which George Foreman actually comes to represent White America for Africans, and Ali stands as the genuine article of Pan-African black brotherhood. Ali gets thousands of Africans to chant "Ali, kill him [Foreman]!" He also gets to embrace Mobutu himself. His leadership ability persistently resolves to the good that he can do after whupping Foreman. Needless to say, it is difficult for us to look at Foreman as white. The film plays on this ambivalence, and thereby reiterates the impossibility of truly coming home in a world obsessed with racial identity, a world in which our heroes cannot always distinguish between the dictators and the dispossessed.
When We Were Kings mostly contains footage from 1974, but integrates it with nineties narrative from Norman Mailer, George Plimpton (both were there), Spike Lee, Thomas Hauser (Ali's biographer), and Malick Bowens (an African artist who remembers the fight). Norm and George are comfortably and stodgily white when they revisit their distant past as observers of the Rumble in the Jungle. Their commentary seems to indiscriminately fluctuate between interesting and irrelevant, whether Mailer explains a right-hand lead, or Plimpton muses that he always preferred the Conradian majesty of "the Congo" to "Zaire." Bowens, as native informant, represents the African adoration of the African-American who refused to go to Vietnam. Mailer and Plimpton legitimate the match as an amazing journalistic phenomenon. Bowens establishes Ali as political idealist first, boxer second. For him, Ali's victory over Foreman takes on the significance of a blow in the name of Pan-African civil rights.
We should remember that Ali is the one who refers to the fight as the "Rumble in the Jungle." The description puts Africa as way over there in Otherland, but still allows Ali to repeatedly present himself as the true black African. When the fight has to be delayed six weeks because of Foreman's sparring injury, a distraught Ali says that Foreman is "in my country to start with." Then he proves this by inciting the masses to chant "Ali, Bomayé!" Now that's a troublingly funny use of race. Ali's ability to get the message of Africa to American blacks always hinges on winning the fight. If he beats George Foreman, then he can bring back the muted history of African identity to the ghettoes of the U. S. Ali is both endearing and frustrating — he speaks with an arresting musicality, but the aggravating chorus seems rather Mobutu-esque. The 1974 footage of When We Were Kings foreshadows the nineties lack of solidarity and understanding between Africans and Americans of all races. It's a time capsule opened up to make us long for the brilliance and charisma of Ali, and regret the compromised result of his political ambition. And the song remains the same with Hangin' With Mr. Cooper's use and abuse of New Guinea. Bowens' commentary on Foreman is both fascinating and problematic. According to him, Africans were overjoyed by Ali's "homecoming," just as they had believed that the world champion Foreman is white. Foreman embodies the slippery character of transcontinental racial identity. With great pleasure, Bowens recounts how Ali did kill Foreman in 1974, just like in the prescient chorus. Cut to Plimpton, who tells of Ali's visit to Mobutu's feticheur. Ali learns of about a "woman with trembling hands," a succubus, who would enter Foreman during the fight, and cause him to be defeated. Feticheurs do make such predictions perhaps, but usually without the savvy splicing of a dancing "witch-woman" and fighting footage. But, as Hangin' With Mr. Cooper will attest, that's what we Americans seem to expect from Otherland, that island where black magic determines how the race is won.
Despite (and because of) these investments in a mythical Africa, where a witch-woman helps Ali win the fight, where George Foreman is a white devil, and where Mobutu Sese Seko is the stoic-yet-vicious representative leader of Otherland, When We Were Kings succeeds in presenting a timely vision of race its makers could not have anticipated. The best response to the moment of contact between America and Africa belongs to George Foreman. After a young kid says "Foreman, kill him!" in a gesture of solidarity, Foreman solemnly expresses his dismay at the oratorical revolution started by Ali. I nearly cried in the theater when Foreman wishes people would say "George Foreman loves Africa, George Foreman's happy to be here," and that "George Foreman, kill him!" is just not to his liking.
Why? Because too often in America African-Americans continue to represent the "bad race" in mainstream media, and the world we know as Otherland is not on the itinerary. If it is, it leans toward the representation found in Hangin' With Mr. Cooper. New Guinea is Guinea is Guyana is whatever. The politics of race open up the possibility of looking to Africa for African-Americans. I hate to see that desire for knowledge undermined by the easy and sleazy American media imagination, in which a continent of reality boils down to an island of myth. The funny thing is that such rumbles in the jungle really are island fantasies brought to you by the sponsors of big time boxing or boring television.
This past spring Mobil took out a big ad in the New York Times. It expounded on its commitment to "build markets and help those nations develop their raw materials." They chide other companies for not having the courage, or accepting the challenge, to infiltrate "different lifestyles and cultures." The moral of Mobil seems to suggest that we're basically different, but we're also all the same. I mean, even Africa wants to be like us. Mobil entitles their parable "Africa — a capital idea." Obviously. The message goes like so: whether through a TV sitcom, an excessive amount of lava, or a capitalist machine seeking crude oil, we can overcome those sticky racial difficulties. And everyone in America may one day finally be able to dream about the rest of the world they would like to see stay way over there. Unfortunately, we'll be unable to laugh off the sticky film of race when that day dawns.
Kevin Carollo is a comparative literature student at the University of Illinois in Urbana, currently writing on narratives of home and homelessness. His professional boxing career was cut short on the playgrounds of the late seventies, but rumor has it that he is planning a series of impressive right leads for the upcoming millenium.