“It’s a truism that blacks have to outperform whites in similar situations. More is called on for the part of a black than a white. He cannot have the kind of personal controversy in his life that a white person has…I remember when I was very young and very angry and I wrote this movie Taxi Driver. Spike Lee does not have that privilege; he doesn’t have the privilege to be angry. Society won’t let him. It’s too dangerous for a black person to be that psychopathically angry at whites, the way that white character in Taxi Driver was at blacks. It’s just not allowed to him.”
– Screenwriter/filmmaker Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, director of Mishima) ,
upon viewing Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing in 1989.
This was the very last thing I read before I finally gave in and wrote my first original feature film As an Act of Protest in the summer of 2000. It was a watershed moment in my life because I was allowing myself to be completely honest about how I felt and what I saw in the world around me. I wanted to write a film that challenged Schrader’s courageously honest, although smug, statement and I think I succeeded. During early screenings of the finished film during the paranoid aftermath of 9/11 (not the best time for radical artists of color-then again, was there ever any?), Schrader’s admission about allowance proved to be right: white people and their establishment token blacks did not want to acknowledge or concede that the sordid illogical white racism of America (the West) could very well be enough reason to explain why a black man could be crazy and pathologically angry at whites. Although victims of racism are not crazy; their resentment of their oppressors and their system is rational and righteous. Many did not want to accept the truth of As an Act of Protest any more than they may have accepted the much cooler, hipper Spike Lee classic Do the Right Thing. However, my film did not seek to necessarily entertain, it sought to express. And that’s what I am most proud of. One critic described it as an “internal Battle of Algiers” – he understood what I was wrestling with: the depiction of racism and how it affects the soul of a young African-American trying to find his place in the world. Regardless of how good or bad the film may be, it is apparent where my sentiments are – my issue is not with white people, but with white racism. And how it is inextricably linked to the lives of the colonized and oppressed. Scorsese and Schrader’s cinematic depictions of racial truths are another case altogether – as they represent the corrupted soul of the white establishment. Their outsiders may resent their own politicians and values and so forth — but they are still very much white men eager to assert and define their conception of right, wrong, and “whiteness.” They are urbane John Waynes.
Schrader was 26 was he wrote Taxi Driver and he always claimed that he, Robert DeNiro, and Martin Scorsese were all in that awful brutal racist psycho-emotional place when he wrote the film and when they made it – exorcising their raging demons and “evil” (his word). And while I would accept that as a film, as a work of art on its own; while I could accept that it was a portrait of a trouble white man’s struggle to come to grips with who he was, how America was fucked up, how Vietnam had screwed him up, how misogyny is supported, how white men’s racist hatred is supported and honed by the system, etc — I don’t buy it for one minute because ever since Schrader and Scorsese have not continued to excise their racism, they have continued to very comfortably indulge in it. (I will spare DeNiro in this post.)
And though I respect Schrader’s original voice as a screen dramatist (he has talent and in my book that always implies potential), he — along with Martin Scorsese — best exemplify the conflicted, tortured relationship supposedly “spiritual” and conscientious White Americans have with Black Americans. While Scorsese reveres rock & roll and blues music (all created by Black Americans) he has a creeping hostility and virulent racist attitude towards blacks in nearly every single one of his films. I find it amazing that he loves punk so much and is a well known Clash fan, but has such a gleeful derision of African-Americans. What would Joe Strummer say about that? Scorsese, casually, has a character say what he must perceive as being the obligatory term for blacks no matter what: “Nigger” in at least half of his narrative feature films (I stopped counting after 8). But on the Holly-weird screen everyone loves demeaning blacks and saying that word, it’s infectious to them. It’s an American past-time, part of the culture! The trash that Jay-Z and Kanye West have promulgated to suburban whites and urban blacks craving “authentic ghetto life” only give credence to white liberals who love hearing us call each other “my nigga” and then consistently write that into any script that features a brother from ‘hood. We all know in our heart of hearts this is true. It’s like a mirrored reflection of those incredible scenes in Robert Townsend’s brilliant Hollywood Shuffle where the white acting coach is teaching black men how to talk and “jive” and be real “BLACK” for Hollywood movies.
The flip side here is that people would decry and accuse Scorsese if he didn’t express his pathological racism, they would say: “Oh, man. That’s not really how it is!” or they would defend Scorsese and state he is representing the nonchalant racism of white people, etc. — but they would be wrong. These moments in his films are not only his own perverse way of being honest about how he feels (Spielberg said “Scorsese is the best director simply cause he’s the most honest”) — but anchored with a nasty feeling as if to cry: “Let me just simply get this off my chest, I hate black people, I can’t help it!” — and it reverberates throughout his body of work. It’s almost as if he makes sure he says “Nigger” in his films so that white people in the audience won’t have to…It’s deranged. He has an obsession heralding the white workingman’s cool hatred of blacks; Tarantino has a straight up ominous fetish for the word “Nigger” and demeaning stereotypes of black culture which is a whole other discussion. We must remember: words carry meaning, words carry thought. I’m a writer, I know full well the power of words to lance, kill, or protect. And in art – everything is on purpose. Even the mistakes.
Paul Schrader seems to be in between these two poles. He’s passive-aggressive. I think he admires Scorsese but wished he could have had the frenzied attraction of Tarantino. He views himself, however, as Martin does – a man of faith, etc. Which is puzzling.
Does it not creep you out that “men of faith” have an unfettered pathological hatred of black people? Amazingly, Schrader directed Richard Pryor in Blue Collar, easily Pryor’s best dramatic performance (outside of his own JoJo Dancer – a grossly underrated flick!) and the film was championed by the Left for bringing issues of racism, class, and union corruption to the fore. It holds up as an excellent movie. And yet, Schrader is himself – somewhere deep down, an unreconciled racist. (Interesting also is the fact that the great Pryor who denounced using “Nigger” in his routines by the close of the 1970’s — seemed to have had no impact on the immediate political consciousness of either blacks or whites in the arts. It was like when Dylan went electric: they were mystified, felt betrayed somehow!)
I want to make it clear that I am not implying Scorsese and Schrader to be DW Griffiths. As far as I’d like to believe they are not, do not, support racism or oppression of any groups — that is not what I am getting at. In fact, I wished they did so I could understand them more! It bothers me that very few writers and filmmakers will have this conversation. To do a movie about a racist is one thing, to make a racist film is another…but to sprinkle racist tendencies and stereotypes in your work is even more frightening because you can forever get caught up in debates about “what it actually means.” I know what it means, thank you very much. I am a New Yorker who has grown up in a mixed environment, blah, blah, blah — and I can spot a racist from a mile away. Schrader exposes himself as trenchantly as Scorsese does, but perhaps without the finesse (Watch Schrader’s Hardcore for one memorable example, that is not necessary). Bear in mind that while he tried to empty out his racist pathologies in Taxi Driver (why Scorsese may have clung to it so passionately), he developed a chauvinistic attitude towards people of color and sex in quite a different way (note how the same director of Hardcore did the wonderful dramatic bio-pic of Yukio Mishima, and in between made Patty Hearst…who, as we know, was held captive by a brother. Somewhere in all of this is a bizarre insane contempt for blacks and yet he tries to somehow make up for it by making Mishima. Very disturbing.)
Someone once told me I expect too much from white American popular artists. How preposterous! I told him it’s not that I expect too much — it’s that the American people of all races — demand too little. The depths of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon’s music would put Schrader and Scorsese’s art to shame. One must be very critical and hard on the artists who possess the most ability and who are simply brilliant. Which is why Jay Z annoys and perplexes so many Black Americans who cannot accept him: he’s extremely talented…but he not only hates black people, women, and the revolutionary spring of hip-hop – he hates himself. There is something disgraceful and embarrassing when we confront sacred cows. It is not the slaughtering of them that bothers me — it is the “free pass” we give them – so that we can slaughter ourselves.
Scorsese and Schrader revere Robert Bresson, as I do. Schrader has written wonderful texts on him. But the spiritual gravitas of Bresson and the fury of his later 1970’s films – go deeper and cast a wider net of compassionate truth or understanding than either of the two filmmakers simply because: Bresson did not hate any one ethnicity or race. He was appalled by man in general and despised its Capitalism and cruelty. Period.
Amiri Baraka once said there is nothing more dangerous than a talented person with backward thinking. Scorsese and Schrader have a lot to learn. And that’s okay – for as long as man is alive, perhaps there is still room for his soul to grow. But I highly doubt it.
The number one problem with our popular National Actors and Directors and Screenwriters in this country is our refusal to make them responsible for not helping shape and criticize reality; for not incurring them to take a stand and own up to their own cinematic representations. Scorsese and Schrader would be unwilling and would fail, miserably, in trying to express plainly the problems that exist in this country in terms of race. Intellectually I know they know it, but instead of rebelling against Hollywood and the United States Government, they seek to maintain it, and glibly state that they are and have always been outsiders and outlaws and critics of conservative bourgeois society. I laugh at this. Why is it considered “political” if an artist is asked to take a stand, to choose a side, to make it clear how he perceives himself…and the “other”? The politics of Frank Capra alone make the average Hollywood icon look like Mussolini. (We forget that Congress wanted his head on a platter – literally – after he made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington!)
We prefer our pockets deep, hearts numb, and minds closed. When audiences start demanding more from their “salon artists,” I will begin to reconsider the idea of social change or hope. The establishment artists, however progressive they may be noted, maintain the status quo. Now, who does that remind you of?