On New Year’s Day, we saw the film Cadillac Records. After drying our eyes, we sat for a few minutes in the empty theater speculating about why such a wonderful film hadn’t done better at the box office.
Since opening on December 5, it’s earned less than $8 million (as opposed to Marley & Me, $50-plus million in ten days), with the result that it has shown in fewer theaters every week since. The performances are remarkable, especially the protean Jeffrey Wright, one of the best actors who ever lived, Beyonce Knowles as Etta James and the British actor Eamonn Walker, who gives an astounding performance as Howlin’ Wolf.
This fictionalized account of Chicago’s Chess Records is not a documentary. Instead, it provides yet more evidence for Sandro Portelli’s wonderful quip that “Many of the most important stories are true but not accurate.” Director Darnell Martin makes you feel the braiding of personal experience, historical motion and musical influence that produced the broad category of music known as blues. Key personalities are illuminated in haiku-like flashes. I don’t know if Martin’s generous empathy is shaped by her gender, but the suffering of the men and women in the film is neither exaggerated nor romanticized. They are neither devils nor angels, just human beings whose lives are given shape and meaning through their creativity and the electric response it evokes. Catch it soon on the big screen, before it goes away.
One reason for its small audiences may be that the film couldn’t make itself heard through the promotional din generated by bigger-budget holiday-season titles. One of my companions had heard nothing of it. It was my reading aloud A.O. Scott’s ecstatic review in the New York Times that convinced everyone it would be worth trekking out to a multiplex to catch the 11 am show on a holiday Thursday.
Another factor may have been mixed reviews, though it’s always hard to say how much reviews affect box-office (e.g., Marley & Me, again, has attracted more negative reviews and many times the income). The reviewers who didn’t like Cadillac Records focused almost entirely on a single complaint expressed in various terms, “too many characters,” “unfocused,” “packed.” This troubles me, because it expresses the hegemony of a certain type of story, the kind where you are brought into tight focus on a single character or small ensemble with whom you empathize and who function as the viewer’s guide and surrogate within the story. There is no denying this is a powerful mode of storytelling, but with the close-up bias of television, it has become almost our only one. What’s left out is scope, history, the full complexities of an individual’s interaction with the spirit of the times.
That was my complaint about Milk: well-acted, well-made and moving, politically right on—so many good things. Yet, especially for someone like myself who lived in San Francisco in those days and saw the period unfold firsthand, the tight focus on Harvey Milk and his intimates left out so much of the complexity and richness of the story that it felt much too incomplete.
A week before Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated, Jim Jones presided over the mass death of more than 900 individuals who’d traveled with him from San Francisco to establish a terribly twisted “socialist paradise,” in Jones’ own words. My husband-to-be and I were buying wedding announcements in a paper store when the proprietors broadcast a radio report on November 27 that Milk and Moscone had been murdered; on the way there, we’d remarked on the graffiti that had covered freeway underpasses since the People’s Temple deaths on the 21st: “Guyana A-Go-Go” and “Punks for People’s Temple” stick in my mind. We were married a few days later as part of the first batch of weddings permitted after San Francisco City Hall reopened.
As everyone who has lived through a momentous time knows, the fullness of first-person experience can never be completely reproduced by a film or any other mode of storytelling. Cadillac Records didn’t feature the street-level civil rights movement that formed its backdrop, but the multiplicity of stories and the mixed motives of characters made it unmistakeable that something very complex and rich was going on while these individuals’ lives unfolded. Each story was different, the way it is with real people; what all the main characters had in common was social class, a desperate desire to escape poverty and its degradations, sometimes at any cost. Too bad the debased condition of popular criticism effectively put the film over so many reviewer’s heads.
Finally, I think that Cadillac Records also failed to make boffo box office because it was cast as a “black movie,” and that audience simply isn’t large enough to generate a critical mass of audience. That is a sad and sorry truth, still, less than three weeks prior to the inauguration of our first African American President, but it must be said.
Hi Arlene: I read with great interest your blog entry on “Cadillac Records” and will take your advice to go see it soon. I wanted to respectfully discuss your take on “Milk” which I found problematic. My comments are not made here to anger but to provoke you to think more deeply about the significance of the film not within the heterosexual mainstream but for queer people and I do believe that Van Sant always hoped that the movie would be first and foremost made for queers.
I saw the film about a week ago and was moved to tears. I was only in my teens when Harvey Milk was active in San Francisco but did hear a lot about him through the mainstream media and leftist communities while I was in theatre school in Montreal. I am Jewish and my grandfather was a union organizer, so I also heard a lot about Harvey through the union movement.
In the late 1990s, I received some production funding from the Canada Council for the Arts to travel throughout Canada and the US, making a radio art work entitled “Radio Pride” about Pride Days across North America including the history of this annual event. In San Francisco, with the help of generous gay men, I uncovered one of Harvey Milk’s “recycled – “I am Harvey Milk and I am here to recruit you” speeches at the GLBT archives. This recording was going to form one of the structural beats of the program and I was in touch with Dan Nicoletta, a lovely man who managed the rights to Milk’s estate. He was kind enough to donate the rights to me for the work. I did an enormous amount of research on Milk’s life. Van Sant’s film was very accurate. Cleve Jones was on set for most of the making of the movie and helped the film-makers keep it authentic.
As part of my little radio art piece, I was lucky enough to go up to Prince George, BC – a very small city in the northern interior for a truly activist and angry Pride Day march which I audio-taped, along with interviews with the courageous activists, etc. I went to New York City and interviewed some of the original queer activists that were at the Stonewall Riots. I travelled throughout Canada including Halifax, Toronto and Vancouver, taping Pride Day celebrations and interviews with their original organizers. In 1998 and 1999, when I tried to find an artist-run post-production studio in Vancouver that had the necessary equipment to edit and complete my radio art work at reasonable or free rates, I was confronted with rejection by the local video art studio, film co-op and radio co-op. The most I was offered was 2 hours a month at the local radio co-op. All time slots and grants went to radio art projects by straight people or closeted queers making purely formal artistic work. So as late as 1999, when I thought we had achieved so much with our international activism, I was confronted by homophobia/heterosexism in a local art world that I foolishly thought accepted queer people and GLBTIQ art. Up until then, there were so few representations of queer history in mainstream culture and I am afraid to say, that this problem still exists.
Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” is so important for GLBTIQ communities internationally for so many reasons: 1) as queers, we need more mainstream representations of our history and community; 2) as fags, we need more mainstream representations of GLBTIQ people that are not hyper-glamorized as in “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word” – representations of queer activism(!); 3) as swishes, we need to educate the younger members of our communities because they do not know our history, our struggles, etc. I am always shocked but not surprised, I guess, when queer youth tell me that they do not know that our local GLBTIQ bookstore, Little Sisters, was bombed and received bomb threats by local homophobes.
In the queer community, there is quite some debate about whether a straight actor such as Sean Penn should have been cast as Harvey Milk and that the role should have gone to a gay actor, even if he is unknown. I have mixed feelings about that. I understand a little about how Hollywood works, how stars help finance movie-making. As someone that directs and trains young actors, and that used to act professionally myself, I thought Penn did a marvelous job and was completely convincing as Harvey. As a director, I most likely would have tried to cast a gay actor and built the film around him with other stars. However, it’s unlikely someone like me would ever be in that position. That said…
There have been mainstream documentaries and feature films about the tragedy of Jonestown and Jim Jones as well as other political and social milestones of the late 1970s era, but nothing out of Hollywood about our queer communities until Gus Van Sant’s “Milk.” I wonder if Van Sant really had to situate the film any more historically than he did. In my community, we hear about the raids on our bars in that era, queer people’s faces being bashed by cops, gays and lesbians losing their jobs, careers, houses because they were outed by some homophobe at their workplace, etc. In this era of Proposition 8, you can talk about getting married in California in the 1970s amid all the activism and turmoil and beauty but I see the emails and blogs of my friends in Los Angeles and San Francisco that still, in 2009, cannot get married. Therefore, a film such as “Milk” is crucial. It does not need to situate itself in the straight world’s history of itself. This film did what it needed to do – focus on the story of GLBTIQ people and our activism, put it front and centre, loudly, proudly and queerly.