Marginal Footnotes


On Lee Siegel on George Clooney
May 5, 2006, 3:38 pm
Filed under: Films, Literary, Media, Uncategorized

Lee Siegel of The New Republic has asserted recently on his blog that (a) George Clooney is preparing to run for political office in the not-too-distant future; (b) that he, on balance, likes George Clooney, whose appeal is largely in his being 'weird and self-depracting; (c) that Good Night, and Good Luck was, on balance, a good film; and (d) that George Clooney suffers from the guilty conscience of a white, heterosexual, male liberal. 

I do not disagree with any of these arguments. What I must object to, however, is Siegel's critique of Clooney's ‘exclusionary’ inclusion of Blacks in Good Night, and Good Luck.  I must object because his critique is likely the result of the slightly more guilty conscience of a slightly more self-conscious white, male liberal (all of which apply equally to myself).  Siegel makes a few claims, including:

'Whenver Clooney wants to illustrate a way of being that is antithetical to McCarthy's destructive dishonesty, he shows a portly black woman singing jazz. Or presents a helpless, elderly black woman being grilled by the House Un-American Activities Committee'.

The 'portly black woman' reduction is Siegel's, not Clooney's.  I fail to understand how employing the jazz of Dianne Reeves as a counterweight to Joe McCarthy's bile reifies negative stereotypes of Blacks in film or otherwise, nor do I see how it universalizes or conceptualizes the black experience.  Jazz is an historical event which both precedes and coincides with McCarthyism and in the film signifies both protest and democracy.  One could argue that Jazz may have a unique resonance in this regard, considering its origins. Clooney gives Reeves and jazz a central place in the structure of the narrative, one which may equal and certainly reinforces Morrow's appeal to decency and dissent in the face of radical and debilitating conservative demagoguery, of the wholesale peddling of fear to silence and exclude.  This use of jazz augments the emancipatory ethos of the film.  In addition, Anna Lee Moss, the 'helpless, elderly black woman' to whom Siegel refers is nothing of the sort. She is not acted in the film, but allowed to speak for herself as she spoke before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, before McCarthy himself, and she was anything but helpless.  Siegel edits this from his version of events.  It is the square peg which will not fit into the circle.   

Siegel goes on to assert that 'there is not a single black character in the film'.  Who is doing the erasing here?  Dianne Reeves is a character and, I have attempted to show, a central one.  That she does not speak dialogue is of little relevance.  That she does not move the quasi-historical plot is beside the point.  It is Dianne Reeves, like Murrow himself, who enacts the central theme of the narrative.  It is she who gives it voice, literally.  Anna Lee Moss is also a character, to the extent that she played a role in the McCarthy hearings.  This aspect of Seigel's critique also fails to consider that Good Night, and Good Luck is a representation of a single news division, an anchor and the men who worked for him, in the specific historical moment of McCarthyism.  Has Seigel attempted to ascertain whether or not any Blacks worked for Morrow or CBS?  Has he attempted to identify a black individual who was present during the events but has been excluded from the film?  His critique would be powerful if he had.  If there is no such person, it seems to me that it would be a dishonest representation indeed to arbitrarily fictionalize a role for the sort of black character Siegel would like to see in the film.  It would be precisely the sort of exploitation, the tokenism, that Siegel rightly rejects, and it would sanitize the exclusion of Blacks from positions of importance in media during that period.  Rather than falsify in this way, Clooney and the other filmmakers circumvent the apparent historical necessity of excluding Blacks from the film, as they were excluded from that society, and they have given expansive narrative space to a powerful Black woman in Dianne Reeves (and Anna Lee Moss).  They also attempt to capture the spirit of jazz and its emancipatory potential, and I think to good effect.     

I’d also add briefly that Siegel's critique about the absence or lack of serious inclusion of Blacks Good Night, and Good Luck could be lodged also against the rather scarce and apparently stereotypical representation of women in the film, but Siegel forgoes that attack.  One is left to wonder why.

Seigel claims, brazenly, that 'Blackness is just that for Clooney: an emblem of humanity, rather than a racial category that encompasses myriad particular black personalities' and further argues that for Clooney blacks are 'flat conceptual substitutes for living breathing people'.  That is a very serious charge, and a very personal one.  It seems baseless with the evidence provided.  It appears to stem from a failure in Siegel's critical interpretation of a single Clooney film, as well as a single statement Clooney made during an Oscars speech.  One ought to be more careful making such remarks.   

–mpd  

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