Cultural Critique / Movie Reviews / Stuff (This) Uppity Negro Likes / The Color Line

The American Blackness of The Great Gatsby

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I know it has been some time since “The Great Gatsby (2013)” has debuted and was panned by a few critics, but I certainly would like to offer some discourse to the movie from my perspective.

I remember reading The Great Gatsby, the novel my sophomore year of high school, and I actually did pull the Cliff Notes just because the book totally engrossed me.  Granted I was all kinds of a dork in high school, English always has and probably would always be, my strongest subject.  That was also the year I had a “lightbulb” moment and decided to actually care about the work that I did in school.  Nevertheless, I remember when our teacher brought out the TV strapped down to the large TV stand by bands and we watched the Robert Redford version and for the rest of the school year our class stayed imitating Mia Farrow’s best line: “Gatsby?  What Gatsby?”

The 1974 screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby was rather unremarkable for me.  Aside from the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleberg that peered out from the Valley of Ashes, the memory of the yellow roadster, I didn’t remember much of the movie, it was very much white washed.  This 2013 adaptation on the other hand was very much a delve into a colored world.  It was as if Baz Lurhmann disregarded the standard set of eight crayon pack and went for broke buying the 128 colors with the special sharpener in the back.  To quote the homie Kyle Eugene Brooks

If pictures paint a thousand words, color is the intonation embedded in each syllable. Baz Luhrmann has an eye for the use of bold, faded, washed-out, and punched-up colors. Visually, it was akin to watching a painting in motion.

Without gushing too much, the last time I saw a movie that visually arrested me from beginning to end as the coloring of the movie was James Cameron’s “Avatar.”  Now I have more than once made the claim that depending on the size of the movie theater and in both cases with “Avatar” and the latest “Gatsby,” the 3D filming does make a difference as to how immersed in the story one can really get.  But, even beyond the aspect ratio and three dimensional effects of the movie, the coloring of the movie was one on which I hadn’t seen in a movie in a long time.

For those that read my now defunct “Django Unchained” movie reviews, you might can pick up on the fact that I rather enjoy a good movie, particularly ones that have a historical fiction twist to them.  I doubt you’ll see me reviewing in-depth “Fast and Furious 6.”  Primarily, what struck me was literally, as Kyle said, the actual coloring of the movie.  To say it was a technicolor on steroids is to hyperbolically miss the point; what Lurhmann did was the epitome of artistic.  The color itself seemed to be an actual character in the movie.  It attempted to grasp full throttle what it meant to come alive in the Roaring Twenties.  The color reveal was akin to Dorothy opening the door to her house in “The Wizard of Oz” where every single color was not out of place and it was intentional.

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The actual coloring stood in contrast to the 1974 film where everything, and I mean everything, was white washed.  No pun intended.  The 1974 film captured this post-Victorian era American image that fit the dominating theme of class and white privilege a la 1974.  Lurhmann comes around in first part of the 21st century and tells a story 87 years old to a generation that has just lived through their own Roaring Twenties following the dot.com boom.  Even despite a recession, this is a generation that knows how to party.  From the loft and mansion parties on the East Coast to the beach parties in the Gulf States to parties in “the Hills” in Southern California, this generation could identify with the colorful lavishness of the parties thrown by the mysterious Jay Gatsby.

The second colorful aspect of the movie is that it took a direct delve into being black.  While this movie was not attempting to overlay any other story or allude to anything contemporary, for me it was hard not to watch the movie and immediately draw modern-day parallels.  Historically, this story was at the height of the Jazz Age.  Even though the birth of jazz is associated with black culture in New Orleans shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the cultural centers for jazz as a cultural way of life were in Chicago and New York.  The jazz music of the 1920s could very much be seen as the predecessor to how hip hop music and culture has been understood in the 1990s and the 2000s.  So to hear Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter overlaying his own tracks to some of the party scenes in “Gatsby” wasn’t so much anachronistic as it was sheer genius.

To me I saw it as a comment, be it blatant or subtle, on the contribution of blackness to the American story.  I remember taking U.S. History in high school and the teacher was black and the class was mostly white, I think it was at most three black kids in the class, myself included.  The teacher spent a lot of time teaching what would amount to be classified as African American history and one of my friends, the son of Polish immigrants, once said to me “Why is he teaching this class like a Black history class?” and I responded “Because Black history is U.S. history.”  That is to suggest that the genius to have contemporary hip hop beats laid down to a story taking place in the 1920s shows just how colorful the American story really is.

The push the correlations even further, before the hip hop movement and culture as we know it, there had to be the hip movement as well.  As early as the Jazz Age and even before, the term hip had emerged as slang from the Negro community as something that was “cool” and something that placed you in the “in crowd.”  A few generations later, through the hip cultural movement, the hip hop movement and culture as we know it emerged in the late 1970s and has metastasized into something that is no longer a subculture of inner city black neighborhoods but into something that is constantly commercialized thus subsuming it into the behemoth of American capitalism.

Jay and Daisy

The attachment of the hip hop music to “Gatsby” as a soundtrack I think was most beautifully portrayed in the cover of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” by Emeli Sande.  This version takes a contemporary pop/hip hop song performed by the Beyonce Knowles-Carter, the epitome of black female-performance right now, and puts this 1920s jazz spin to it, complete with the scratchy-record overlay, covers it with another contemporary artist to tell a story set in the 1920s.  What it does is add color and depth to the movie, I daresay it adds a bit of blackness to the movie.

That’s genius to me.

The reason I make this jump to blackness, as an ontological aspect I am projecting onto the movie is because the movie seemed to dip ever so lightly into the fantasy of the story.  While this a fictional account that is highly believable, the story was framed by the narrator Nick Carraway, but presented as a surreal account of life.  The cornucopia  of color was a mere facade to the larger than life excesses that told the story of love and loss, life and death.  The flare for the dramatic was evidenced in the coloring of the clothing, the music played and even the images of actual black people in the movie.

The three striking images of black faces in the movies were the servants, the man playing the trumpet on the fire escape at the apartment in New York that Tom Buchanan would take his mistress, and the image of the black people with the white chauffeur.

The choreography of the black servants throughout the whole movie was sobering, and frankly reminded me of the cinematography of the servants at Candie Land, the plantation owned by Calvin J. Candie, also played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie “Django Unchained.” It was reminder that blacks made up the backdrop of this American dream landscape.  The music of the black man sitting on the fire escape in New York hearkened to an era we don’t see in cinema portrayed that often; it seemed to be an intentional nod to blackness, to call up the fact that much of the music that was synonymous with the Roaring Twenties was indeed jazz and it was a music genre attributed with black culture at the time.  Not to mention the fact that during the 1920s, the Great Migration was in full effect which fueled the Harlem Renaissance as well.  Historically speaking, it wouldn’t have been completely unheard of to possibly have seen a young black guy walking down the street carrying a trumpet.

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The most interesting interaction was as Gatsby was driving into the city to take Nick to lunch and Nick spotted a car “driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl.” (Editor’s Note: Somehow, I remember this image depicted in the 2013 movie as they were headed to the Plaza Hotel shortly before the climax of the movie.)   This concept of the “American dream” was embodied by many Americans across the racial boundaries.  The movie, at least, displayed American blackness on all levels, from the servants, to the typical everyday man, to the extremely well to do blacks that could afford to drive around in an open air limousine for all to see, simply enjoying life.

Whether intentional or not, Lurhmann seemed to color this movie with an American blackness from the opening scenes until the final closing credits.  It had the style and flair of what we typically associate with black culture in the 20th and 21st century: being stylishly over the top.  I’ve read some reviews and for some it was garish overkill, as if Lurhmann had no concept of subtlety.  However, I think Lurhmann’s no doubt conscious decision to floor the accelerator for the entire duration of the movie worked for some and worked against him for others.  Perhaps it was just his artistic license, but I think in interpreting the story for younger and modern hipster and hip hop audience, that’s very much how we live our lives (or at least attempt to): with the accelerator all the way to the floor.

Black American culture has been what I’ve called in the past a second America, one that knows the “dominant” culture as well as their own.  The reason why I use quotes for “dominant” is that while yes white Americans control the wealth and are the dominant population by the numbers, black culture has highly influenced much of white American culture and blacks have been required to know the ins and outs of white Americans while the reverse isn’t true at all!  Black American culture has influenced food here in this country, it has influenced regional dialects and linguistics, it has influenced clothing styles and it has certainly influenced music.  Lurhmann was able to capture this coloring cultural motif in this movie.

And how appropriate it was that he did.  While F. Scott Fitzgerald might have regarded the “modish negroes” both “two bucks and a girl” as merely a flourish in the symphony he was orthographically conducting and nothing more than an addendum that added to the revelation set before Nick Carraway, Lurhmann, with the aid of Jay Z I’m sure, made it clear to bring these facets of cultural contrapuntal distinctions into conversation with one another that left sheer brilliance, to me, on the digital reel.

I think to drive the point home, the American blackness was embodied by that of Gatsby.  The syncopated rhythm of the artistry of the movie, the hip hop music set in a story from the 1920s, the black faces in and out-of-place all told the story of Jay Gatsby: a man who didn’t fit in the society that he claimed and so desperately wanted to join.  Even when he had entrée, and actually created his own entrée, he was a lonely man surrounded by hundreds; he was alone at his own party.  The blackness of it was that he was in and of himself a “second America” created because of the forces of the society that dictated what success was and his struggle to obtain it.  He was met with the existential question that Black America faces today: now that I have it, what do I do with it?  Perhaps a bit of a stretch, but as the parties ended, Gatsby fired his waitstaff, New York was plunged into a post Gatsby era, and for many as Obama has ascended to the presidency, twice now, the phrase post racial constantly gets thrown around careless like a champagne bottle at a mansion party in West Egg.

I’ll end with a final quote from Kyle:

The blend works; not always perfectly, but well.  Gatsby is a man of bricolage, a living anachronism and walking fiction, who is nobody from nowhere, yet is whatever people imagine him to be.  He doesn’t belong, in his time or anywhere, anymore than hip hop music belongs in a 20s period piece.  And perhaps that’s the point: nothing new under the sun, just more fiction symbolically winking at the world. Nick Carraway sees the elaborate fiction for what it is: an attempt to grasp at, possess, maintain something real and lasting in a crumbling world, whether it be status or love.

*******

As an aside,  I’m quickly becoming an effusive Leonardo DiCaprio fan.  His casting seems to be nothing but genius.  Granted he’s been playing these roles ranging from manic depressives to psychotics, his embodiment of Howard Hughes in “Aviator” was great and it was good to see Scorcese use him again in “Shutter Island.”  “Inception” is one of my top favorite movies of all time, and I still feel that he got robbed of an Oscar yet again in “Django Unchained.”  Granted Christoph Waltz is a great actor as well, I think DiCaprio’s skull scene was one that should go down in the annals of history as just one of the best acted scenes in a full feature motion picture.  That particular scene is one that rivals the Easter Sunday dinner scene when Ms. Celie finally got up enough gumption to confront Mister in “The Color Purple”; it is on par with Gregory Peck’s closing argument soliloquy in “To Kill A Mockingbird”: it was just damn good acting.

Hopefully he’ll get an Oscar nod for this performance as well.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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5 thoughts on “The American Blackness of The Great Gatsby

  1. Hey Uppity, you’ve made me want to see The Great Gatsby redux.

    Note: The quotes in this post are too ‘grayed out’ (hard to read); is it correctable on your end? If so, please fix. Thanks.

    • Actually, the music did not fit the roaring twenties. It was not called “The Jazz Age” for nothing. This was the era of big bands and The Cotton Club. It would have been better if jazz had been used in the sound track. Wynton Marsalis could have laid it out.

      • I believe very much it was love it or hate it when it came to the soundtrack production. I chose to love it and embrace it. I think the concept of the musical rebellion embodied by the Jazz Age was the feeling that the director was going for. If classical jazz beats were laid down by Marsalis or Terence Blanchard for that matter, it wouldn’t have been as jarring to the senses, which I think was the whole point. Jazz was new, funky and uncomfortable in 1925 and seemed anachronistic to the refined tastes of East Egg, and hip hop is our modern day equivalent

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