‘a star is born’ & the white elephant in the room
November 1, 2018
The cartoonish cruelty that has become the current political environment can feel suffocating even for the most mild person, and so sometimes we must escape. My escape, more often than not, is film. Film is immersive, putting you in a dark room and engaging one’s sight, hearing and imagination. When done well, film can suspend all reality for the sake of a story that dares to make you feel something. A Star is Born attempts to be such a film, but fails for those a bit too engaged with the reality of where the film’s fantasy is set.
The fourth American version of the tragic, musical romance — this one starring Bradley Cooper (as Jackson Maine) and Lady Gaga (as Ally), and takes place in the world of modern country music — A Star is Born is beautiful and immersive. The film’s cinematography moves the same way that eyes do; sometimes dodgy, ignoring the peripheral, but intense and gorgeous when focused. The dialogue drops off the characters’ lips in a way that is poignant and believable. Its editing of language is fantastic, a romance that narrowly dodges the cliche by being honest instead of playing into standard audience expectations of cinema love affairs. It’s a story fattened up by delightful country/folk-pop songs and electronic-disco anthems that are infectious and purposeful. The music is trite and catchy when it’s supposed to be; devastating and beautiful when the time is right.
The morning after I saw A Star is Born, a synagogue was terrorized; and as of this writing, thirteen people are dead from that attack. This event occurred the same week as bomb threats against public figures who actively dissent against the current administration. A Star is Born was also released four days after the anniversary of the 2017 Las Vegas country-music concert massacre, which left 58 people dead, a fact that seems to have not been mentioned in any of the press on the film. It is tragic to think a film is so detached from today’s reality that its producers wouldn’t recognize the parallels between the world they are putting on the screen and the one the Las Vegas shootings took place in. They’re too similar not to consider and acknowledge. Yet the celebration of a A Star is Born seems to be without critical engagement, as if critique will somehow damage the film’s beauty as opposed to deepen it, or create space for broader meaning.
A Star is Born was not unenjoyable, because of the quality of the film. But to me, it also teetered on unwatchable, because the culture I was asked to empathize with, too often produces folks who, while they relate and enjoy the music and personas of Ally and Jackson Maine, also practice white nationalism.
I grew up in Georgia, and for a significant portion of my life I’d play and learn underneath a state flag decorated with symbols of the Confederacy, around bumper stickers that read “Kill them all and let God sort ’em out,” directly threatening those that are Muslim and/or have brown skin. I went to a school that was named after a KKK grand wizard and used the official colors of a KKK grand wizard (purple and gold) as the official colors of its sports teams. I’ve been called racist expletives in a Wal-Mart parking lot, and witnessed my mother threatened by a police officer. For my own survival, I recognize this particular brand of whiteness. These are people who often find themselves holding violent thoughts that may escalate into violent behavior, just as they also pedestalize the music and culture centered in the 2018 remake of A Star is Born. The bluegrass sincerity, the slight twang, the bare feet on grass while beer fills glasses: this Star is Born is set right in the middle of the America that got Roseanne Barr fired and Donald Trump elected. Yet it asked me to suspend what I know about this America for the sake of the fantasy film is supposed to offer us all. And I could not.
A Star is Born romanticizes the culture that produces pop-fascist pundits and chic neo-Nazi writers without ever reckoning with how this music — rooted historically in Black culture — got hijacked by white folks. Country music and the culture produced by poor Black southern culture is now synonymous with white terror when white people participate in it. How did this happen? And why did A Star is Born celebrate this culture without engaging its history, or its current state, especially in these precarious social times? Without such a self-critique or historical analysis, the film feels like propaganda built to protect a culture that produces many white nationalists who harm others in real ways without carrying any intellectual or political responsibility to both celebrate and challenge spaces that can be both beautiful and ugly.
For the entire film, I held my breath waiting to be insulted or offended by something overlooked by the storytellers. The Black characters that show up in the film — played by Dave Chappelle, Eddie Griffin, Shangela and Lunelle — felt like lazy ways to address the white supremacist elephant in the room. As if the thought was, perhaps if we add some Black folks in the film, people will ignore that we have built a film catering to Trump’s America and a type of white nationalism often disguised as patriotism without ever soulfully addressing reality even in one passing scene.
To be fair to A Star is Born, nothing happened. I didn’t leave offended or hurt, and I thought the film was artistically brilliant. But I recognized the tightness in my chest, and the sinking feeling I felt watching this supposedly tragic and romantic story, that is also supposed southern and American. Not just any American, but the the type of American that runs on Ford, i.e. not mine. When you feel so blatantly disregarded by the storytellers, you can’t help but brace for racist impact which will shape how you view and experience art.
This anxiety made it impossible to commit to the film, though I’m sure the producers’ idea was to make something general-interest and apolitical. Yet the film’s hero, Jackson Maine, reinforces the idea that it is important for artists to have something to say. For as gorgeous a cinematic effort as A Star is Born is, it feels as though it had nothing to say about either the world we’re inhabiting or the one we’re engaging in its fantasy. It was not the apolitical escape its creators hoped for, but a beautiful story that fumbles in essential places, preventing the film from being that experience.
This type of apolitical silence for fear of professional failure, is not a new space for country music or its culture to occupy. Stars like Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton, have stayed notoriously neutral on politically charged topics such as war, immigration, and race; while The Dixie Chicks were infamously blacklisted by the country music establishment for criticizing former Republican president, George W. Bush, over the Iraq War. The avoidance of controversy practiced by A Star Is Born to attract a right-leaning viewing public is also not unprecedented. The film follows the country music formula for success to ensure that the consumption of the down-home love story alienates as few people as possible.
At the height of Ally and Jackson’s love and fascination, we find the musical couple touring the nation together. In the montage filled with applause and affection, there is one scene where Ally takes off Jackson’s cowboy hat as they exit the tour bus, and places it on her own head. Clad in cut-off denim and a t-shirt, Ally looks the part of a white American dream. In order to truly be absorbed by this A Star is Born you, too, have to metaphorically place the cowboy hat on your head; you have to be willing and able to be submerged in this modern, country-pop folktale. I’m sure most of the public will be left astonished and mesmerized. Unfortunately, some of of us won’t be able to get beyond the black hole and the uglier American truths the film refused to acknowledge.
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