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(The Majestic, Ali)
by Gary Gordon
January 3, 2002
For a moment it seemed like things would become less frivolous. Stupid game shows and bogus “reality” shows would be tossed off the air. Talk show hosts would book men and women possessed with analytical ability and the life and professional experience that leads to genuine insight. News programmers would eliminate or reduce coverage of slow-speed chases and “bleeds/leads” headlines in favor of local, state, national and international news that truly impacts the viewer-- whether or not the viewer wants to know or cares. Sports figures would take on the burden of representing more than just monied athletes and fans, as well as crowds everywhere, would take on the burden of civil behavior. Respect would flourish. And anyone acting rudely, greedily, murderously, would be shunned and jailed from now til Kingdom Come.
For a moment.
Then, instead of a push for elevation, for growth, for increased understanding, for progress, there was a minimum push for limited understanding and a maximum push for normalcy.
We’re back to normal.
Or what might be called “Normal Lite”: the effort to behave normally, in pre-9/11 mode, with less civil liberties.
It has for many years been popular to talk about law and order, but not popular to talk about the rule of law. Law and order (not the TV show) allows law to be a tool merely to serve order, which allows the suspension of Constitutional liberties for the sake of preserving or regaining order; this in turn vests extreme power in the hands of those with the badges, guns and gavels to determine what defines unruly behavior. It is the current mantra, as it was in the late 60s and much of the last 30-odd years.
The rule of law is less oriented to a preference for immediate order as it is in a recognition that the law must be served even if the outcome is not preferable to those in power or does not satisfy the emotions of the crowd; it is a longterm investment that will pay off in an order that will truly reflect the goals of the Constitution and the aspirations of those who believe and desire and demand equal justice.
The Constitution provides for freedom of worship, speech and peaceable assembly. Attorney General Ashcroft and Press Secretary Ari Fleischer have either not grasped this basic concept, or they are opposed to it.
Although I admit to mixed emotions about the American course of military action in Afghanistan, it is perfectly legal for me to say the bombing is criminal, wrong, and should cease, and those following orders to bomb should be investigated for carrying out illegal orders.
Although there is no question that Osama Bin Laden is a criminal, an outlaw, and is bent on the destruction of western civilization (including the right to worship freely, speak freely, and assembly freely), and there is no question that Al Qaeda and related groups are terrorist outlaws, it is perfectly legal for me to observe that United States foreign policy has contributed to this threat and by all apparent accounts is continuing to do so.
And although there are moments when President Bush has risen to the occassion with the necessary and stirring rhetoric, spoken without broken syntax and minimum hesitation, it is not illegal for me to point out there is much documentation to more than suggest that his people stole the 2000 presidential election and therefore he is an illegal president.
Not to mention that he is clearly using the 9/11 terrorist attack to implement his (untried and untrue) missile defense program, his violation of the ABM treaty, his plan to drill in ANWR, and to pass economic programs that aid the rich at the expense of the middle-class and poor.
It would be a mistake to decide these observations give aid and comfort to the enemy, just as it was their mistake to determine the U.S. was weak because we worship Cds (the music medium and the investment tool), bluejeans, football, television and the like and have, for the moment, allowed a man and political party to steal an election.
The strength of the United States is not only in its economic might, it’s in its Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, rule of law, and the diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and values that the goals and guidelines of these documents have produced and allowed in the population.
Did you catch the mix of ethnic backgrounds among the victims of 9/11? Among the firefighters and police? Among the folks from all over the country who volunteered to help or sent money or blood? It was a diversity far greater than Smith and Jones, far greater than the cliche WWII platoon with the O’Hara, Goldberg, Beauregard, [italian], [polish] and the occassional Washington.
If it were not for these fundamental documents and the resulting diversity, we would most likely all be of like mind, probably Puritan, and we would be attacking countries like France as well as all Muslim countries for living and worshipping the wrong way.
As it has been, even with this rule of law, there have been many, perhaps too many, who have operated under the color of law or outside the law or only within the context of law and order, stealing land, enslaving people, murdering people in this country and abroad. It has been a bloody history, from revolution to civil war to land grabs and slavery and wage slavery and gender slavery. And, despite Ashcroft’s and Fleischer’s warnings, it is not illegal to say it still goes on.
Ashcroft and Fleischer have made the same mistake as the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese, then a narrowminded, warlike and intolerant people (who still do not confer citizenship to anyone not Japanese), mistook our attempts at freedom and democracy as a sign of moral weakness.
Falwell and Robertson make the same mistake, especially when they comment that 9/11 was God’s retribution on our immoral society for increasingly tolerating gay rights. (I swear, I’m not making this up.)
But Ashcroft, Fleischer, Falwell and Robertson are not alone, are not aberrant creatures who seem to have replaced the Constitution with narrowly selected passages from one of the many (and therefore suspect?) versions of the Bible.
There are many times in recent memory and the not too distant past when intolerance has swept the nation, especially under the slogan of “National Security”, a concept used all too often to satisfy the gods of law and order but not of the rule of law.
Two of those times are portrayed in two movies (the living bibles of the American culture) released after 9/11 (and therefore in the works long before that date) and before the end of the year. (Pagans celebrated the harvest and timed their planting accordingly; we have The Oscars, and plan the presentation of our living bibles accordingly.)
One movie is The Majestic; the other is Ali.
The Majestic, by Michael Sloan, directed with a lavish hand by Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, Green Mile), is a fairytale, a kind of storytelling highly appropriate at this time of year.
Once upon a time, shortly after World War II, a Hollywood writer (Jim Carrey) on the path to success is accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of being a Communist. Fired by the Studio, dumped by his actress girlfriend, depressed, drowning in alcohol, he accidentally drives off a bridge. When he awakens on a beach near a town called Lawson, still in the land of California, he has amnesia. In town he is mistaken for a young man named Luke, a very popular boy who has been missing and was presumed dead, killed in the war along with 60-odd other young men from the town who were killed in Saipan, the Pacific, Italy, at Normandy, and in France and Germany.
Luke’s father (Martin Laudau) and the townspeople (including James Whitmore, Jeffrey DeMunn, and David Ogden Stiers) are overjoyed at Luke’s return. Initially confused and reluctant to be someone he doesn’t remember, the young writer eventually accepts the role and decides to help his father refurbish and reopen the town’s only movie theatre, a magical place, says his father, where people can come to escape the harsh and mundane realities of their world and enjoy adventure, romance and laughter. .
Luke’s girlfriend, skeptical at first, is also eventually thrilled at his return. Only one young man, a wounded war veteran who lost an arm, is suspicious. He confronts “Luke” and warns him, don’t break this town’s heart, it’s been broken enough.
As with most fairytales, we know what’s coming.
But this is a deftly constructed tale that exploits cliches, rather than imprisoning itself with them. It does play out somewhat predictably, but it is not ordinary. The spark of smartness is in the selection of the backdrop, the bad guys: HUAC.
It is here that the story moves beyond cliche, but is unfortunately hampered in that movement by the requirements of the post-WWII, post Vietnam eras: the need for a happy ending.
Utimately, the movie can be celebrated for including provocative information about HUAC, or condemned for not bringing their evil reality closer to home.
While observing its shortcomings, I choose to celebrate it.
HUAC, to put it in a nutshell, froze the idea of free speech and dumped it into deep storage. In their quest to root out those who they thought were “un-American” they investigated not only Hollywood writers, directors and actors, but also professors, teachers, librarians, radio personalities, and employees in many government agencies. It was a ruthless purge in which careers were stolen and lives were ruined. People who had signed petitions or given aid to Russia when Russia was our ally during WWII were targeted. People who had flirted with Communism in the 20s and 30s because they were attracted to the ideals were targeted. Some actual Communists were targeted.
Membership lists and sign-in sheets and petitions, some of which were over twenty years old, were studied. Screenplays and films were studied. Speeches and photographs and news accounts were studied.
And then came the truly evil part: if you renounced your affiliation and named names of others who had been involved then you stood the chance of being allowed by the Committee to resume your life, absolved.
It is as twisted a version of Christianity (confession/redemption) and American Justice as the version of Islam practiced by the Taliban.
Very often, as well-depicted in the movie, the Committee already had the names. It was your act of naming them that signified in their minds your willingness to be patriotic; in reality it was government coercion, blackmail, mind control and worse, the extortion of betrayal to satisfy political careers and corrupt lust for power under threat of jail.
Ultimately, The Majestic asks the profound question: is HUAC and its witchhunt the America that WWII soldiers fought and died for?
It is a profound question for these times, as we consider to what extent our fight for democracy is asked or demanded to require anti-democratic acts.
And while some among us may be familiar with HUAC and the history of that period, an increasing number of our population are not. There have been other movies that have focused on it, including The Front (with Woody Allen and Zero Mostel-- Mostel had been blacklisted) and Guilty By Suspicion (with Robert DeNiro, Annette Benning and George Wendt). The Majestic, like The Front, can’t help but twist reality a bit as it has its protagonist issue a clever challenge to the Committee-- a challenge that was fictional. My reading of the transcripts shows only one somewhat effective challenge, albeit rhetorical at best: Lionel Stander, telling the Committee he knew of a subversive group attempting to undermine the Constitution, then pointing the finger at the Committee itself as that group.
At the heart of The Majestic’s protagonist’s struggle is the question: free to speak, believe and think, or not? In America, the answer is supposed to be yes.
To be an individual, to be the person you are rather than the person others want you to be, to be free to believe what you want and pursue the American dream; these are among the goals listed eloquently in the Declaration of Independence and reiterated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his leadership work during what is commonly called The Civil Rights Era in the 50s and 60s.
King’s strategy (developed by many who worked before him and with him) was to use the promises made in writing by those outstanding men of the Contintental Congress and the Constitutional Convention and to hold the nation accountable for those promises. It would have an entirely different story if the wording had been: “...all White men are created equal...” or “...Congress shall make whatever laws it wants to regarding speech and beliefs...” It would have been an entirely different story if the South’s rebellion had succeeded or the 14th Amendment had never been ratified. It may have been an entirely different story if Colonel Chamberlain had not rallied the 20th Maine at Gettysburg or Rosa Parks had not resisted when told to get to the back of the bus.
King was, of course, a flawed individual. So were Jefferson and the other “Founders”. And the argument is often made by moralists in search of Christ that the flaws of an individual negate the work they do. Jefferson is attacked by racists and “Black Liberationists” for owning slaves, their conclusion being that he did not really mean what he wrote and therefore what he wrote had no meaning. King’s apparent infidelity is used as ammunition against his sincerity regarding the Civil Rights movement. (Kennedy’s infidelity is used as an argument against him; Eisenhower’s infidelity seems to carry no baggage.)
It is unfortunate that we live in a time in the history of movies (the pre-eminent expression of storytelling) when plotlines require protagonists to solve their “internal flaws” before overcoming “exterior obstacles”. Put in non-movie-speak: the hero’s flaws will prevent him from overcoming the obstacles he faces; only by solving the flaws can the hero achieve his objective.
This ridiculous, false psychological paradigm has to do with why, in the minds of many movie-makers and critics, biopics don’t work. (Okay, the paradigm may be fine for mental health care professionals working with people who are locked into repetitive, self-destructive pattterns and whose main goal is to get out of bed and earn a living; but if we had required Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Lincoln, Grant, Patton etc. to work out their problems before tackling their job we’d either still be a British Colony or we’d be speaking German-- if we were alive at all.)
Historical characters, like Chaplain and Babe Ruth and Malcolm X, generally have lives that don’t fit into the 3-act structure or the required emotional/psychological arc. So the movies about them suffer slings and arrows. (Well, the biopic on Babe Ruth deserved the criticism, but that’s just ‘cause they chose the early 20th Century approach to storytelling, which was to celebrate every moment of the person’s life as if it was all heroic and leave out the blood and guts and flaws altogether.)
Both Chaplain and Malcolm X were excellent biopics, bringing their subjects to life, portraying that life and the critical episodes, delving into the grit, exploring what made them the men they were-- Interestingly, both had run-ins with the FBI as Chaplain was thought by the venerated J. Edgar Hoover to be a Communist and Malcolm X was thought to be a revolutionary bent on the destruction of America. (It is alleged by some that the FBI was behind or involved in or knew in advance about Malcolm X’s assassination; much evidence suggests it was merely a religious gangwar in which the “Honorable” Elijah Muhammed’s thugs rubbed out a contender who, after traveling to Africa and the Mideast, decided to bring the message of peaceful Islam to America to replace the “white devil” nonsense spewed by Elijah Muhammed.)
Hollywood and the Hollywood critics evaluate biopics more on the acting done by the lead actor than by the substance or value of the story. Therefore, the key discussion to many is whether or not Will Smith was the appropriate choice to play Ali, and whether or not he did it well.
This is trivial pursuit at its best.
(Of course, some critics reduced The Majestic to a discussion of whether or not Jim Carrey should quit making dramas and just make funny movies-- an equally trivial discussion having nothing to do with the movie itself and everything to do with our fascination for celebrity combined with the compulsion to have an opinion on everything and play Monday-morning [or is it now Tuesday morning?] quarterback.)
To answer the question: Will Smith is not Muhammed Ali. But... he is a fine actor who did a good job of playing Muhammed Ali, and that, really, was the job.
In what we conveniently call Real Life, Ali was (and still is) a wonderfully complex man whose talents in and out of the ring seemed to mesh perfectly with those adrenalin times. And the movie does a fine job of taking us through those times, integrating Ali’s personal history with the history of our nation and the world (as seem primarily through American eyes).
The movie opens in February, 1964, which, for fight fans, was when Ali fought Liston. For music fans and many others, it’s when the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan’s show. In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, younger heroes were emerging and the times were already changing.
Covering a ten-year period (a mini- or selected biopic, if you will), the movie portrays Ali’s career and life from his fight with Liston thru the fight with George Foreman in Zaire. It brings to life what many of us knew and know about Ali: he was an excellent fighter, entertaining as well as powerful and victorious; he was charismatic in and out of the ring and became one of the most famous people-- perhaps the most recognized person-- in the world; his relationship with renown sportscaster Howard Cosell was enjoyable and provocative; his early friendship with Malcolm X contributed to his becoming a Muslim; his refusal to be drafted and his opposition to the Vietnam War lead to the government and boxing commissions destroying his career for four years; his return to the ring was tough, but he was triumphant in Zaire.
This is a compelling story, told pretty well by director Michael Mann. (There are moments when the film seems long as Mann chooses to dwell seemingly forever on some scenes, like Ali’s improvised run through the backstreets and yards of Zaire-- I think most of us in the audience got the point that Ali-- The Greatest-- was recognizing just how much he meant to these poor people half a planet away from home; unfortunately it reminded me of the scene in After The Fox when the bogus director (Peter Sellers) is telling the has-been movie star (Victor Mature) to run along the beach and through the street of the small Italian town. When Mature asks why, Sellers replies “It’s symbolic”.)
Ali’s story is one of talent, success, injustice and triumph, and we feel each of these, viscerally. (Chaplain, too, had these elements; Malcom X ended in tragedy, and Hurricane’s story did not really contain much of his success before he was jailed; if Ruth experienced injustice, it was near the end when he was traded, but this really doesn’t compare to being framed for murder, being robbed or your title, or being denied re-entry into your country.)
But it is when he challenges the U.S. Government that the story is most compelling and instructive. And, for many these days, might seem the most fictional. After all, name a celebrity sports figure who has, for example, spoken out against sweatshops and child labor-- especially in the products that bear their name. When he was once asked by a student in the audience, “where should I go to help out”, William Kunstler (civil rights attorney) answered “these problems are everywhere: you don’t have to go to New York or Chicago or Newark or Selma or Birmingham-- these problems are right here in your home town.”
Ali may have fought against the draft as an injustice that attacked him, but similar injustices exist today; similar heroes are less apparent.
Ali put into words what many previous had been reluctant to say: that the Vietcong had never done anything to them. And as Cosell points out in the film, Ali’s “black militancy” (as opposing the war was labeled, if you were black) was more threatening to the government than the militancy of H. Rap Brown, Bobby Seale or Stokely Carmichael (all enemies of the state in the mind of the FBI) because Ali was a cultural hero, and a hero beyond the country’s borders.
He chose to speak out, and he was punished for it; if it had not been for what was left of the Kennedy/Johnson Supreme Court, he may have ended up in jail. (I have no doubt that this Supreme Court, with Scalia, Rehnquist, Thomas et al would have sent him to jail-- after all, Rehnquist was in the very Justice Department that had targeted anti-war activists for illegal wiretapping and prosecution.)
If there are flaws in the substance of The Majestic and Ali, it is this: they are not mean enough.
During the Committee meeting in The Majestic, dramatization overtakes reality in that Pete Appleton (Carrey) gets to make his speech, a la Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. More true would have been the Committee chair gaveling him down, interrupting him and having the US Marshals shut him up at the first sign of what would have been construed not as a speech but an outburst. This was not Watergate, where the Democrats and Republicans let Dean et al speak at length; it was not Iran-Contra, where they let North et al speak ad nauseum; this was: they cut you down the moment you deviated from their script.
As for Ali, it may recede from the memory of those who lived during those times, but he was hated. Not just disliked. Hated. He was everything many Americans chose to hate about black people and about “draft dodgers” or opponents of the Vietnam War. His title was not stripped in condescending judgment, it was stripped in a fury. The threat of jail was not a legal technicality; it was the wet dream of those who were no longer allowed to go out and just lynch the bastard.
The greedful grasp of power and the hateful injustice with which it was practiced is missing from both The Majestic and Ali. And that is a shame. Because among many Americans throughout history even the idea of limiting free speech has sent more than the figurative chill down their spine; it has been a literal chill.
I don’t doubt there are those who would protest that to suggest Fleischer and Ashcroft meant to cause such a chill is to over-react. Oddly, those who make such protests are often the same bunch who bristle at gun registration laws, arguing that registration is the first step to confiscation. Observe this: the American government has never confiscated the population’s guns-- not even the Confederate Army’s guns at the end of the Civil War. It has, many times, confiscated free speech. To be chilled by the bluntness of Fleischer’s and Ashcroft’s remarks is not an over-reaction; to fail to be chilled is what amazes.
And though it is pure coincidence that these two movies were released at this time, it serves us well to take advantage of the coincidence and, as Ashcroft and Fleischer warn us against free speech, remember the spine, the courage, the heroism of those who challenged the government’s Star Chamber a.k.a. the House Un-American Activities Committee, and those who challenged the illegal, immoral war in Vietnam and the inequitable institution known as the draft.
Thank you, Dalton Trumbo et al, thank you Muhammed Ali; thank you Michael Sloane and Frank Darabont and Michael Mann.
Now, let’s get ready to rumble.