In Hollywood, rage + PR = $$$

Tessa Thompson

On Tuesday we discusses the politically engaged actress Tessa Thompson and her definitive movie project, Dear White People (2014), a story about black students at an Ivy League college that Time Out hailed for its “rage.”

Needless to say, Dear White People was a story of oppression. The only real difference between 12 Years a Slave and Dear White People, you see, is that college takes only four years. 

Tessa, the thinker

The Chicago Tribune pretty much agreed with Time Outs praise for the movie’s rage, but put it more simply: “Dear White People isn’t perfect. And yet the flaws really don’t matter.” Of course not – not when you’re dealing with racial rage! Toss out the critics’ notepads, bring on the awards! Neatly skirting the question of aesthetic merit, A.O. Scott of the New York Times took a similar line, instructing his readers: “You want to see this movie, and you will want to talk about it afterward, even if the conversation feels a little awkward. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.” (Scott didn’t promise – note well – that readers would actually enjoy the movie.) Not to be outdone by these other outlets, Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post gave a thumbs-up to the film’s celebration of dormitory segregation, an arrangement that, Hornaday maintained, provides “solidarity and protection.” 

Tessa in a $12,500 Gucci dress (“available at select Gucci stores nationwide and gucci.com”)

As noted, Tessa Thompson loved Dear White People. In 2016, she told The Cut that it was “an indictment of Hollywood,” where young black actresses often get cast as “the sassy black friend.” Never mind that the film was distributed by Lionsgate, a major Hollywood player. In any event, while Thompson felt she was rebelling against Hollywood, she wasn’t interested in rebelling against Hollywood-style PR: for the article in The Cut, she posed in a $3,200 Marc Jacobs sweater, a $2,208 Marc Jacobs skirt, an $11,500 Michael Kors dress, a $3,590 Ralph Lauren dress, and a $12,500 Gucci dress. Talk about overcoming!

Thompson has continued to fight the intrepid fight against The Man – not only in the name of blacks but in the name of women. In October 2017, she told the New York Daily News that she’d pitched “an all-female Marvel movie” to the head of Marvel Movies. In January, she celebrated the Time’s Up campaign against sexual abuse by posting on social media a picture of herself with such female stars as Laura Dern and Brie Larson.

Lena Dunham (dress price unavailable at press time)

And that’s where the trouble started. Also in the picture, as it happened, was Lena Dunham, who until recently was the very personification of young American women’s empowerment. But in these Reign of Terror-like times, when today’s feminist heroine can tomorrow be sent to the gallows, Dunham had become persona non grata in the Time’s Up crowd after she defended a writer of her TV series, Girls, from rape accusations. When Dunham, too, shared the picture on social media, it was Thompson who called her out, telling the world that while she and the other women in the photo had spent two months working on the Time’s Up campaign, Dunham had played no part in their activities. The plain implication was that Dunham was trying to take credit for other women’s feminist labors.  

Sweater, $3200; skirt, $2208

After receiving some backlash for her assault on the previously untouchable Dunham, Thompson apologized. Then, after a number of women spoke up on Thompson’s behalf, many of them complaining that the women’s movement still privileges white women, Thompson revisited her apology, saying that she hadn’t really meant to apologize for calling out Dunham but had intended rather “to re-center the conversation” around the fact that many women of color “don’t feel safe and seen.” 

The Dunham dustup made a lot of news, but it wasn’t even Tessa’s biggest event  in January. Also in that month, Variety featured this spectacular headline: “Jane Fonda, Gloria Allred, Tessa Thompson Slam Trump at Sundance Women’s Rally.”

Jane Fonda at the Sundance Women’s Rally

Forget her acting career: Thompson has made it into the Holy Trinity of Twenty-first Century Feminism, along with Hollywood’s favorite multiple Oscar-winning socialist billionaire (Fonda) and California’s leading anti-patriarchy shakedown artist (Allred). Eat her dust, Dunham! Tessa’s the new reigning princess of Hollywood feminism. Why, after all, should the face of feminism be white?

This, of course, is what happens when group identity takes center stage: as sure as night follows day, the white woman shaking her fist on the anti-male barricades is destined to be knocked off her perch by a woman of color. But after that, how long will it take before she, in turn, is dethroned by a black lesbian or a disabled Muslim grandmother? Stay tuned.

Redford: romanticizing Che

the-motorcycle-diaries2We’ve just finished surveying some of Robert Redford‘s celluloid agitprop. On The Milagro Beanfield War, Lions for Lambs, and The Company You Keep, he was director; on the 2004 film Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Walter Salles from José Rivera’s script and based on Che Guevara’s memoir of his youthful travels around South America, Redford served as producer. Depicting Che as a sensitive charmer, the film purported to depict the process by which he developed the supposedly noble political “convictions” that ended up making him a hero to millions. In other words, the picture entirely ignored Guevara the cold-blooded, pathological mass murderer and firmly endorsed the thoroughly twisted popular image that led him to become the face on a million T-shirts.

Enthusiastic but clueless critics used words like “charming” and “poetic” to describe the Che movie; A.O. Scott of the New York Times praised it as “a lyrical exploration of the sensations and perceptions from which a political understanding of the world emerges”; with apparent approval, he stated that the film’s closing scenes depicted Che “as a quasi-holy figure, turning away from the corruptions of the world toward a higher purpose.” Some understanding! Some purpose!

che-gun
The real Che

At least Roger Ebert didn’t join in the cheering. “Che Guevara,” he wrote, “makes a convenient folk hero for those who have not looked very closely into his actual philosophy, which was repressive and authoritarian….He said he loved the people but he did not love their freedom of speech, their freedom to dissent, or their civil liberties. Cuba has turned out more or less as he would have wanted it to.” Jessica Winter of The Village Voice agreed, noting that the film “politely overlook[ed]” Che’s “totalitarian leanings” and served up hackneyed images of “noble” peasants and “plucky lepers” who in shot after shot “face the camera in a still life of heroic, art-directed suffering.” (The Milagro Beanfield Wars does exactly the same thing.) While the filmmakers didn’t so much as hint that its glamorous hero would go on to become a psychopathic killing machine, they did manage to slam the CIA in the closing credits.

aleida_guevara
Aleida Guevara

In January 2004, Redford went to Cuba to screen The Motorcycle Diaries for Che’s widow, Aleida, and their children. Aleida pronounced it “excellent.” While Redford was there, Fidel Castro dropped in to see him at the Hotel Nacional. It wasn’t their first meeting: the movie star and the dictator had gone scuba-diving together 16 years earlier, and according to some reports, which described them as “friends,” had met several times – a fact that didn’t exactly endear Redford to the Cuban exile community in the U.S.

And what’s Redford’s latest? We’ll talk about that one next time.