Q&A with James Toback; Cusack in High Fidelity; The Sex Pistols in The Filth and the Fury

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

With Black
and White
(his seventh film) Toback has–at last–made an essential
movie. Not that Fingers, Love and Money, Exposed and
Two Girls and a Guy
weren’t brave, outrageous and interesting, but
Black and White achieves splendor. With its almost surreal penetration
of the lust and fear behind our racial divide, it bids to be the finest film
that will ever be made about hiphop culture. It’s linked to the bold venturousness
of Shirley Clarke’s 1963 film The Cool World, which led to Toback’s
primal black and white liaison–with Clarke’s star Carl Lee (son of
the legendary actor Canada Lee). But let Toback tell it.

I had just watched the first movie actor I ever had seen do a superb job in
a movie that to me seemed a groundbreaking film. I was astonished by that movie.
Look at the tradition it was crossing, look at the flow of movies [out in 1964],
then look at The Cool World. It showed a world, a character you might
not see anywhere else. I saw it at Cinema One–it had just opened. Carl
Lee had a real magnetism [in it]. That evening, six hours later, there he is
standing there as if waiting for me to introduce myself. I’d been thinking
about him nonstop since I saw the movie, and now I’m walking on 72nd St.
and there he is. "Hey," I said. "Carl Lee, I’m Jim Toback.
I just saw you in The Cool World." And we were smoking a joint 15
minutes later.

When I was
New York Film Critic Circle chairman I invited Godard to the ceremony. He couldn’t
attend but the thank-you he sent also said, "Remember Shirley Clarke."

that fascinating. I’m sure he learned from her.

What have you
learned about hiphop from making Black and White?

I think that
hiphop has liberated the voice of frustrated anger, insolence, invasion, aggression,
ironic and sardonic criticism in the black male–and female as it’s
turning out–to a point where it’s affected all aspects of society.
It’s taken time, it has seeped economically and sociologically down. Often
the trend is the reverse but I think here what started out as a middle-class
and upper-middle-class infatuation has now become a broad-based infatuation.
And the outer-borough lower-middle-class and poorer whites, blue-collar whites,
I think the younger generation of that group has become hiphop-converted over
the last three or four years and in many cases has become the strongest supporters
of it and are deeply affected by it. The whole wiseguy tradition in New York,
which has been historically antiblack and racist, the sons and daughters in
high school are all into hiphop now and there’s a kind of open rebellion,
racially, against the racial views of the parents.

Is there a
difference between 90s wiggers and 50s white Negroes?

I think there
is. The white Negro perception was always a sort of outlaw privileged outsider-minority
kind of infatuation. Part of the attraction was that it would remain counter
to the white culture, counter to the economic, cultural center of the white
culture–in effect it was a rejection of it. The wiggers are the
central white culture; there is no white culture that they’re countering
anymore. It’s not so much a rejection of something that is there as a chasing
after something that isn’t there, or that they don’t have unless they
chase after it. The wigger is basically a mainstream figure now in its generation.
The wigger is not ostracized, unless you take skinheads, who are rampant racists
of their generation.

Is the exploitation
the same or different with whites today holding on to power?

a plundering going on. I think that, again, it’s easier to do now and it’s
more economically centered. It sort of was tough to be a white Negro and rich
and comfortable and economically exploitative. I mean you certainly could appropriate
culturally, but I think now it’s very easy to…lure black entrepreneurs
into a kind of mutual exploitation of the phenomenon. When you see the joining
in the record companies, it’s a very interesting facet of Jewish-black
relations in hiphop. It’s the first place where the economic stereotypes
and racial fears and religious fears that have been kind of stirring have been,
if not settled, then reconnected.

There was a
hilarious moment on the set one day when Power [Oli "Power" Grant],
who is the executive producer of Wu-Tang and the lead in the movie and also
the president of Wu Wear, Wu-Tang’s clothing line, had brought some Wu
Wear to the set. He had just given me some Wu Wear, which I was wearing, and
Ron Rothholz, one of the seven producers on the movie and Jewish, said that
he was going to start a competitive line called Jew Wear. And that became a
kind of running, good-humored joke on the set…

You know, Jim
Brown used to say, before Farrakhan did, it was always not black power but green
power, and he started the Black Economic Union. The point was not to forget
race as an issue. It remained a central one, not to drop any of the programs
or give up any anger but to say finally if you don’t have economic power
you have no power at all, and if you could use white people…to join with them
to make money, well, why shouldn’t you. That’s a sort of supremely
capitalist notion that I think is very much at the center of hiphop, the paradox
of hiphop, that there’s something revolutionary, insurrectionary and stirring
about it and yet on another level it is a reaching out for the fundamental values
of a capitalistic society. There is always a temptation to say we can settle
all this if we all get rich doing so.

But that’s
what hiphop has become, not what it was when it was great.

It’s like
most revolutionary movements, as they reach middle age there starts to be the
seduction of wealth. It’s the history of money in civilization. You know,
Lord Acton–power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I always
say money corrupts, huge amounts of money corrupt absolutely.

You recently
screened Black and White at Harvard. How did that go?

The discussion
afterward was turned over to the group at large, which was a pretty mixed group,
in every way–sexually, racially, a pretty good cross section of the student
body. A lot of them African-American studies majors, quite a supply of gay and
lesbian people who I think had heard something about the Tyson-Downey scene.
I was on the stage with Power and Bankey–Chip Banks, who’s part of
the American Cream Team (and who, by the way, is the nephew of Curtis Mayfield)–a
very bright, articulate, interesting guy. About halfway through the discussion
it became clear that people were revealing themselves immediately by the questions
they asked, the responses they had. The movie is, in fact, a Rorschach test
for one’s view on race, sex, crime, music, murder, language, style, sexual
orientation. I mean it’s almost impossible to respond to the movie in a
way that isn’t immediately visceral and personal.

A fair sense
of the film’s success, no?

It made me
realize in any kind of setup where race is an issue, whether it’s a movie,
a novel, a political issue, it becomes a kind of furious–not in the sense
of angry–furious, passionate debate. Political, racial feelings are so
strong and so unarticulated in any kind of useful, interesting way in their
normal lives that anything that allows them to address those feelings in an
unfettered way, particularly in a public arena like that, where they’re
not gonna suffer any consequences, it was a very exciting, invigorating experience.
I knew, initially, I had moved in with Jim Brown, at least unconsciously, for
precisely that kind of invigoration myself. I felt that to live in America seriously
and honestly and not be in a minority of one in a totally black environment,
where I was the one without the power and the other people around had it, was
to engage in a kind of blindness socially, emotionally and, particularly, in
my case sexually, that would have robbed me of any real development as a human
being. And I felt in a certain way not so much superior to, but liberated from
a lot of what I consider to be the embarrassing limitations of acquaintances
of mine, who had a lot of opinions that they pontificated on, but who had never
found themselves in environments in which they learned about themselves through
their interactions. One of the things that some of these black athletes who
were getting people to vote for Bill Bradley were saying [was] at least he has
lived, if only as a basketball player on the road, on a day-by-day basis in
an environment where he was a minority… Most white people are never exposed
to that at all.

Would you describe
yourself now or then as wigger or white Negro?

Certainly when
I was living at Jim Brown’s house I was reaching after becoming black in
all but skin, and even with skin I always wanted to have the darkest tan I could
have. And since I have naturally fair skin I had to burn first, but once I got
it I kept it roasted. I certainly spoke in linguistic rhythms that were entirely
alien to my Harvard training and my own background. I developed a vocabulary
and a syntax that were very much in harmony with the world I was in. Not exactly
the same–I obviously kept a part of my own language–but I slipped
into rhythms and speech patterns that I guess might have been a bit comical
to an outsider, but I certainly didn’t find it funny. I enjoyed doing it
and felt it made me fit in better and I felt it to be natural. I wore a dashiki
almost daily. I had my hair, to the extent that I could get it, pseudo-afro.
I definitely walked differently. I very consciously developed a kind of quasi-limp
that was modeled on Jim Brown’s walk. And I also would say that sexually
there was a sense of physical abandon in that house that I had never before
and I don’t think ever would have, had I not been exposed to that sexual
environment. Part of it might have been the rather unfettered openness of the
life, but first of all I wouldn’t have been in it if it was a bunch of
white guys. But I think it’s different. I’m not talking about phallic
measurements. I’m talking about unself-consciousness about one’s display
of sexuality in semiprivate situations.

Your journey
to the black side was personal. Have you been a social activist?

I always felt
I have to get my own house in order before I actively start preaching and teaching
others. I have strong views about just about every issue that comes up. But
I felt that my mission in life was not to be a–and I don’t use this
term disparagingly, I use it generally–a politician. That there are those
whose greatest skill is to work through their destiny by being rational persuaders
of causes which have validity, and I felt that that was not where I was strong,
any more than mathematics or auto mechanics. It just wasn’t where I would
be good. I felt there was some form of artistic expression that I will find
that will be my answer, and when I found it, which was film, I dedicated myself
to it.

Then the question
was, do I use film in the service of ideological views that I could articulate,
though not always consistently. And the answer would be that I felt that since
my own taste in art and in film was always in part ideological, that I should
not think of it in generalizations, but rather in terms of the particular. What
movie can I make well, that I want to make well, and is available for me to
make now from my own experience? What’s the next film I can create out
of the excitement, passion and knowledge of my own life, and then, what exactly
was I saying by that? Not that I could ever translate it or reduce it to a sentence
or two, but I didn’t want to pretend to be naive to the implications, socially
or politically, of any work. So I often would, almost as a critic, look back
afterwards and sometimes I was rather surprised by what seemed to be coming
out of the work. A rather dark, tragic view of life, certainly, which a political
idealist by definition can’t afford. One is supposed to be working for
the improvement and enlightenment of people on Earth, not for the facing up
to the darkest twists of one’s personality. But that indeed seems to be
the path that I’m following mostly, although by implication there is a
complete revulsion with any established order, with any conventional notions
of personality which restrict one’s behavior or taste to a preordained
mode, which favors people who are experimental, curious and freewheeling. So
that there’s an implied libertarianism in everything I do, because it suggests
that only a totalitarian nitwit who is frightened of life would try to restrict
or repress people’s natural exuberance and experimentation.

So there’s
the Dostoevskian and Conradian venture into darkness consistently from black
male icons in the book Jim, to Brown in Fingers, to the rap characters

Right. That’s
part of what drew me to Jim’s house, and it’s what drew me to Carl
Lee. I knew this guy who was so magnetic and appealing and interesting. Call
it what you will, a kind of displaced homosexuality or just simply and purely
esthetic appreciation–and I don’t just mean physically esthetic appreciation,
but a way of conducting oneself. There’s a quote I used at the beginning
of Fingers, from Nietzsche, from Beyond Good and Evil, "genius
of the heart," which I used to know by heart but I don’t anymore.
That’s what I’m really talking about still. That character just appealed
to me… I don’t think Black and White necessarily forces you, leads
you or tells you what to think about particular characters, but it certainly
allows them to display themselves in a full-blooded and engaging way–including
Power and Mike Tyson.

Sounds like
Norman Mailer theories. What was your response to An American Dream,
the Shago Martin character?

I loved An
American Dream
when I read it. I eagerly read each new installment in Esquire,
eight installments, the way Dickens and Dostoevsky used to write their novels
in installments. I felt that the portrait of Shago Martin was somewhat harsher
than what I was going through in relation to Carl Lee. I loved the novel, I
liked the character of Rojack, but it didn’t represent my relation to Carl
Lee, nor did it presage mine with Jim Brown. It was more that of an outsider
and an antagonist than a communicant. I was very close to Carl and Jim. Rojack’s
response to Shago Martin was one of fear, a kind of veiled respect and competitiveness.

Are these men–Brown,
Lee, Power, Tyson–distinctive because of ethnicity, a black thing, or personality?

I think both.
I couldn’t conceive of any of them, nor would I think they could conceive
of themselves, as white. There was an absolutely grounded consciousness of racial
identity in all those cases. On the other hand, it’s not that I could have
substituted somebody else and said, "This black guy will do just as well.
It will be somebody black, what’s our list?" It’s these particular
people affected me. We’re talking about two guys in 30 years. Carl Lee
and Jim Brown. No one else affected me the way either of those did.

My friend Richie
asked Maya Angelou why Beloved failed, and she answered, "Wasn’t
that heartbreaking!" But not just that, Amistad, Bulworth
failed too. Why are movies on race, the key American issue, failing?

First of all
I think we’re still dealing in a country where there is rampant racism,
both black and white, and a real resistance to the idea of movies that portray
a serious, visceral, sexual interconnectedness, and unconsciously–because
the ones who resist it consciously don’t see the movie in the first place–but
the ones who see it and resist it unconsciously get upset and angry, and feel
in a lot of different ways challenged and offended by the movie. I think there’s
a lot of that, and it’s never going to be articulated. You can’t,
in this culture, say it.

Black and White
opens Wednesday, April 5. See "Movie Schedule" for details.