The other night I watched two films. The first was His New Job, an early Chaplin film from 1915; the other was the recent Monster’s Ball that won Halle Berry her Oscar. These two films seemed to me to have a great deal in common.
The simplest way of distinguishing popular from high culture is in its handling of resentment. High culture is not the culture of the upper class but the culture of the community as a whole–in whose integrity the upper class generally has a clearer, if not necessarily a greater stake. Popular culture, in contrast, is that of the “people,” insofar as they can be opposed to the community as presently organized, which they resent for relegating them to an inferior role. Thus whereas high culture, beginning with the Iliad, purges us of resentment by identifying us with its victims, popular culture performs the same function by identifying us with its satisfied practitioners. Our two films are versions, more or less sophisticated, of the popular formula. Charlot, as the French call him, is a one-dimensional embodiment of class resentment; all the other characters are higher on the social scale, and can consequently be victimized without arousing our sympathy. Monster’s Ball belongs to a different era of popular culture, when the chief focus of our resentment isn’t those we perceive as better off, but those who relieve us of our “white guilt” by confirming our sense of moral superiority. As Voltaire said of God, if such people didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent them.
The ultimate dream of resentment is to remain sole master of the world, having killed off everyone else. As Achilles puts it to Patroclus, before the latter’s death makes him sadder and wiser:
Let us now turn to MB, described in Leonard Maltin’s familiar guide, which gives it 3½ stars out of a possible 4, as “[a] challenging film [that] tackles issues of darkness and light [i.e., race] with great feeling and nuance.” The male protagonist, played by Billy Bob Thornton, is a corrections officer in a Southern state whose first defining act is conducting the electrocution of a black prisoner (played by Sean “Puffy” Combs), a dignified and repentant young man, and a talented artist to boot, the nature of whose capital crime remains shrouded in mystery. One down.
BBT has a son, a sensitive young man given to befriending Blacks, and a father (played by Peter Boyle), the stereotypical unreformed Southern racist; these two as well are present and former corrections officers. There are no women of any importance in their lives, save an implausibly attractive young white prostitute who works leaning over a table and appears to be the town’s sole source of sexual release; the father and son are both widowers, the former by his wife’s suicide. After BBT slaps his son around for vomiting during the pre-execution “last walk,” the latter pulls a gun on BBT, who declares he has always hated him, whereupon the young man, affirming his love for his father, shoots himself through the heart. Two down.
This should suffice to disgust us for the duration with BBT’s character. But now we come to the crux of the plot. Halle Berry, playing the sensitive convict’s widow, after losing her previous waitressing job, takes a part-time position as night waitress in a restaurant frequented by BBT. HB has a son with a severe eating problem. One night, as mother and son are walking at the side of the road (her automobile having previously expired), the latter is struck by a hit-and-run driver. BBT, passing by, takes HB and her son to the hospital, but the boy doesn’t make it. Three down.
HB’s grief for her son allows the “sensitive but inarticulate” BBT to express some grief for his own son–a grief that excludes any avowal of complicity in the boy’s suicide. As a result, BBT and HB become friends, then lovers.
Things are going along well enough; BBT has quit his corrections job and purchased a gas station (the source of his wealth is never specified). He has also given HB his dead son’s truck. (The truck has a stick shift, with which–implausibility 1–HB is at first wholly unfamiliar, but which–implausibility 2–we immediately see her handling without a thought. The point of this, no doubt, is to show how well she can learn, provided she has BBT to teach her.) But one day HB shows up at the BBT homestead to deliver a hat she has bought him to express her gratitude. The old man asks her for a cigarette and then proceeds to demonstrate his unregenerate racism by a most unspeakable sexual remark. This understandably angers HB, who drives off in a huff (and in the truck). Whereupon BBT, invoking a law unknown in states that obey the principle of habeas corpus, whisks his dad–whom, like his dead son, he says he doesn’t love–off to a nursing home, promptly informing HB that he has “sent him away.” Four down.
Meanwhile, HB has been evicted from her home. But now that dad has been eliminated, what could be simpler than her moving into BBT’s place. He opens up for her his son’s room that he had padlocked after the latter’s demise. He also begins to befriend his black neighbor and his sons, whom he had previously treated in the usual Southern racist manner. He even names his gas station “Letecia” after HB’s character–presumably not fearing to alienate his white customers.
The final sequence–the only one in the film that is underplayed–shows HB discovering a picture of BBT drawn by her electrocuted husband, realizing thereby BBT’s participation in the process. She crumples the drawing and goes into hysterics, and we expect an explosion on BBT’s return with a half-gallon of chocolate ice cream (note the color symbolism). But no, as they sit on the steps of the house and gaze at the stars (one of those Hollywood constellations one would seek in vain in the night sky), she smiles, wistfully and hopefully. In a final ambiguity, the graves of BBT’s mother, wife, and son (which he maintains on his property) are shown during this sequence.
It is easy to see why HB won an Oscar for her performance, and why she saw this award as an occasion for the expression of racial pride. But let us take a dispassionate look at the character she portrays, both in herself and in her relationship to the African-American community.
Letecia’s most notable personality trait is dysfunctionality. She can’t keep a decent job; can’t operate a cash register; can’t stop her son from overeating (or from getting run over while walking next to her at the side of the road); can’t keep her car or her home. Not to put too fine a point on it, her only evident qualities are sexual. Whence the extreme offense wrought by the old man’s vile remark and the need for the film to deny any similarity between the father’s and the son’s sexual adventures with black women. (The film “subconsciously” suggests this similarity by making both BBT and his son–in reverse order–customers of the white prostitute.)
As for the black community, it does not appear to exist. HB has neither family nor friends. Not a single African-American gives her assistance in time of need, forcing her to depend for her lodging on BBT’s generosity. The only other Blacks who play a major role in the plot–the murderer-artist husband and his obese son–are both killed off as a prerequisite to the final idyll. (Seeing BBT helping HB to raise the troubled little boy might have made the rest more bearable.)
Conclusion: HB’s Oscar may have been a great moment for African-American actors, but hardly for the African-American characters they portray.
Chaplin eliminates his rivals by knocking them out with a large wooden hammer. MB eliminates its unwanted males more subtly, albeit more violently, since three-fourths of them end up dead. The difference is that, in contrast to the Chaplin film, we are made to feel sorry for them–the one we feel least sorry for being the old man who is left to die rather than killed outright. Rather than, as in the Chaplin film, investing them with our class resentment, we allay our moral guilt by sympathizing with them as, each in a different way–even the old man–victims of Southern racism, at the same time as we benefit on the level of the plot from their elimination.
The turning-point of the film, the act that defines BBT’s liberation from Southern racism, is not making love with HB, but expelling his father, an Oedipal gesture arranged so as to cause us, like BBT, a minimum of guilt. By kicking his father out of the house, BBT redeems himself for his role on the other side of the Oedipal divide that drove his own racially enlightened son to suicide. Harmony between races and sexes, this film tells us, is predicated on the scorched-earth abolition of the “patriarchal” family. The world can begin again with the love of BBT and HB facing the stars only on condition of expelling both fathers and sons from a world already devoid of mothers and daughters. Or, to turn it around, BBT’s act of entering into a love relationship with a black woman suffices to purge all his previous sins of inhumanity, not merely to Blacks, but to his own family, while making palatable the elimination of all affective relationships between HB and other black people.
By way of contrast, Colline Serreau’s 1989 romantic comedy Romuald et Juliette (Mama, There’s a Man in Your Bed) depicts a Parisian romance between a white business executive and a large black cleaning lady with five children and the equivalent number of ex-husbands. Juliette, despite her humble station, is wise and sharp enough to save Romuald’s business. This is not a “serious” film, but it shows that it is possible to conceive an interracial romance in which the black woman neither looks like a beauty queen nor lacks all resources save those of her white paramour. The differences between the two films may be said to reflect the different levels of cultural problematicity between the post-colonial African immigrants of the French film and the post-slavery African-Americans of the other.
Monster’s Ball is a filmic exploitation of a semi-mythical deep South that doubles its excoriation of Southern racism with a particularly murderous plot structure. Yet it is no contradiction to affirm that, on balance, this film makes a positive contribution to American culture. By eliminating everyone else from the equation, it allows black-white romance to reach a one-on-one psychological density never before attained in mainstream Hollywood cinema. (Contrast, for example, the 60s classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) It is this density that won HB her Oscar and that inspired Maltin’s praise. Popular culture, even that of Hollywood, has a wisdom of its own. Chaplin was an expression of it, and so is MB. If Chaplin helped stop us from killing each other, if Monster’s Ball helps Blacks and Whites to stop resenting each other, they are doing what culture is supposed to do.