Typically remakes or movie editions of books leave me frigid. The general statement that is spat out of my lips is, “haven’t they already done that?” Or the alternate (but complimentary), “They need to leave that one alone.” As an avid reader, I appreciate the internal dialogue and sense of perspective that books give us that film has a hard time capturing, however, as a resident of the modern world, I can’t deny the power of imagery that the cinema bestows upon us. Due to the fabulous, decadent 1920s setting, and the quality of the cast, Baz Luhrmann’s version of “The Great Gatsby” is a movie I eagerly anticipate.
There is much I’ve read over the years about F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, “The Great Gatsby” and the signifigance it has had in American culture, and in African American culture in particular. The novel is set in the jazz age of the 1920s, the age of Prohibition, on the Long Island shore where the fabulously wealthy of the time “summered.” The 1920s of course, were also the time of the Harlem Rennasaince, of Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington playing what they called “Jungle Music” at the famous “Cotton Club” (damned racist name I know), which was music the great composer dreamed up to fit the super exotic African jungle dance shows performed by the “tall, tan and tempting” light skinned beauties who danced for the all white patronage of the storied Jim Crow club. Of course, this world would come crashing down in October of 1929, Black Monday, the stock market crash that was a major factor in the onset of the Great Depression. Various allusions were made to this time period in the 1970s as well, by groups such as Chic, Dr. Buzzards Savannah band, etc. Something about the glamour of the period as well as the historical vision that this grand decadence was the equivalent of dancing right up to the cliff.
The 1920s though, with its great black migration up to the northeast, and the flourishing of jazz through Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Jimmy Lunceford, Cab Calloway, and several other great artists, as well as the creation of the blues record industry, and the contributions of black writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, and Lawrence McKay, were the beginning of something like Black Americans being able to express themselves on their own terms. So in the world of “The Great Gatsby”, African Americans have started to make an impact, not only started tomake an impact, they’ve begun to make an impact with their own perspective coming through as they want to express it. The Jazz Age was also the time period of white people going “slumming” through Harlem to enjoy it’s cultural attractions, and the birth of the phrase “If you could be black for one saturday night, you wouldn’t want to be white anymore.”
Due to the Jim Crow nature of the times, there are no major black characters in the world of Jay Gatsby. But the character that resonates for black people and America as a whole is Jay Gatsby. Jay Gatsby is a gangster, a bootlegger, though his crimminal activities are kept backstage. Gatsby is a striver toward the American dream who took the back route, and strives for acceptance through his fabulous lifestyle. We find also, his attainment of the American dream is not so much to impress the many, as it is to impress the one, a lady named Daisy. But there is something quintissentially American, and therefore, quintissentially Black about Jay Gastby. He could be Berry Gordy, Frank Lucas/Nicky Barnes, Huey P Newton, or Sean “Diddy” Combs. Gastby represents the American Dream, which is not simply to get rich, but to get rich and gain legitimacy through a process of self creation and recreation, that allows you to leave your old background and caste status way behind. I’ve always thought the great thing about America is the promise it gives us to free us from the old systems of heirarchy in England, India, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, etc. However, the Great Gatsby also proves that this freedom from status is highly illusory as well, though the American elite may be relatively new, there is still most definitely and elite.
Many comparisons have been made over the years of Gatsby and his connection to hip hop. I remember a fashion spread being done by Diddy based on Gatsby, it was right around the time Diddy took on his own “Jerome”, Fonzworth Bentley. But in truth, it seems Diddy’s whole career has been influenced by figures such as Berry Gordy, James Brown, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Andre Harrell, Russell Simmmons, Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas, and this fictional character by the name of Jay Gatsby. I mean, all white parties in the Hamptons, where no rapper has gone before? Gatsby. Gatsby is almost the ultimate in “getting over”, though even he doesent quite make it. I am definitely in love with this versions choice of Jay Z as music supervisor, and a soundtrack that includes hip hop.
The decadence of Gatsby’s 1920s setting is reminiscent of hip hop in the late 1990s, which KRS ONE in his book “The Gospel of Hip Hop” refers to as “The Platinum Age.” Diddy’s parties look like a carbon copy of Gatsby’s. And yet, is there any happiness in them? Of course, as I’ve mentioned to several friends, another aspect of appeal for me is the dynamite, suited and booted, handcrafted 1920s wardrobe. Also I understand that Bryan Ferry takes one of my favorite songs from his Roxy Music time period, 1975s disco funk workout, “Love is the Drug”, and does it Duke Ellington Jungle Music style, sounding like “Black and Tan Fantasy” or something of that ilk. Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music were prime artists in bringing that 20s-40s swing image and glamour into pop music of the ’70s, being a prime influence on the image of the disco funk overlords, Chic.
I feel that Gatsby and this film version in particular can be another one of those books that will work in the urban setting to teach kids about American history through literature, and also enhance appreciation for American literature. The signifigance of the “jazz age” setting, the multi racial all American archetype of Jay Gatsby, the attention to sharp dressing, the elements of criminality, legitimacy, and MAKING IT, and the connection to hip hop in both imagery and circumstances can all be used to defuse that perennial question kids have when being given something to read: RELEVANCY. So sometime in the next week or so, bad reviews be damned, I’m going to engulf myself in the superslick fantasy world of the Great Gatsby.
“We the Peeples” is simply one of those movies that is a must see because I love the cast, and I can relate to the story line. It’s about a regular working dude with a beautiful girlfriend who is about to meet her parents. It is complicated by the fact that her parents are wealthy, bourgeois people, and they also just happen to be Black. I’ve always had this feeling that black bourgeois people were even harder to please than whites. Maybe this is partly a result of old stories and myths, but some of it comes from dirty looks and personal experience. It’s been pretty much a fear of mine of meeting some girl and going through that with her parents, so, I like to see it played out to comedic effect. “Jumping the Broom” tread in similar territory, but the difference there was that although the male lead was from a humble background, he was successful in a white collar proffesion and very much someone who tried to adapt his life to the middle class lifestyle, Craig Robinson’s character is much more solidly blue collar in this film. Also in “Jumping the Broom” the mother of the bride was the one with the misgivings about her daughter marrying below her station, but in this one, the male lead must contend with pops himself.
The cast is one that excites me as well. Coming red hot on the heels of her dramatic television success in “Scandal”, and her cinematic success in “Django Unchained”, is the ever lovely Kerry Washington, a lady I have lusted after since Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me” (no lie). She’s exactly the type of woman I’d like to imagine in the situation. Craig Robinson is an actor I’ve been a huge fan of through his roles in Seth Rogans movies, and I feel his unassuming, intelligent, sarcastic humor is highly unique among black comedians working in film. It’s a sense of humor that is much closer to myself and many people I’ve known growing up. Of course, David Allen Grier is the OG of the game, a man I’ve long admired from “In Living Color”, and I like to visualize his character in this film as the grown up version of the reporter he played in “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” (I got made fun of because I couldn’t speak Jive/and like, the only dance I knew was that dance Springsteen did in the Dancing in the dark video……”In the words of our Negro poet, Don Cornelius….). In short, a movie I can actually relate to in terms of lifestyles and the perfect movie to take mother and girlfriend to!