The Natural, The Real, and the Significant

The Natural, The Real, and the Significant

One balmy spring evening I am honored to give the Diana Vreeland Lecture at the Institute of Cultural Significance in San Francisco. Here is a chance, I think, to discuss a new kind of socially oriented African-American feature movie. Yet I’m surprised, on arrival, to find my talk billed as “The New Voodoo,” and a vending booth in the lobby selling T-shirts with names and slogans, blown-up photos of bygone movie stars, fashion and rock magazines, Elvis souvenirs, Madonna-style religious lingerie, combat-boot sneakers, and a battery of weaponlike jewelry. I note that the people buying this equipment, despite their garish makeup, appear to be well-dressed members of the professional classes.

My lecture analyzes four recent pictures as a revival of American naturalism, in the tradition of the novelist Theodore Dreiser, who saw the class struggle operating through overwhelming drives for sex, money, and power, with an individual who attempts to rise in status doomed to crush or be crushed. Richard Wright brought this perspective to black experience, writing searing stories of men and women battling for breathing space in the welter of industrial cities. In the postwar period, I speculate, such grim views no longer satisfied the possibilities of boom times and gave way to the number-one American cultural fable, the saga of the self-made man, gloriously unbound by his environment, embodied by a male star who is a spoiled pet on or off the screen, and likely to be directed by an artiste more interested in his own technique than in the supposed subject of his story.

...