The Truth According to Bulworth

Revolutionary Worker #961, June 14, 1998

"Rap music is the language of social
protest. He who fails to listen, fails to
hear at his own peril."
Warren Beatty

"There's a time when every homey
Got to risk his neck and fight
For the thing that he believe in,
And he got to preach it right."
Jay Billington Bulworth

With his new film, Bulworth, Warren Beatty has risked his neck and preached it right. Beatty takes us on the wild ride of Jay Billington Bulworth--a demoralized politician having a nervous breakdown who collides with the rap culture of South Central and is transformed by the savvy people of the 'hood into a wacky and dangerous critic of the system. Along the way, hard realities and hilarious culture clashes ricochet off the screen. Laughing all the way, we are drawn into a tale that provokes us to confront the injustices faced by Black people and the ruthlessness of capitalist politics in America.


We're introduced to Bulworth with some familiar images. Opening credits roll over photos on the senator's wall--Huey Newton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall. Then, suddenly, these mementos of past political sympathies are interrupted by an ugly message we've all heard: The 30-second campaign ad. Republican-sounding Democrat. Against welfare. Against affirmative action. Family values. Blah, blah, blah.

Cut to Bulworth's face. He's crying like a baby. Crazed look in the eyes. Clearly on the edge of insanity.

So begins the story of Jay Billington Bulworth. Warren Beatty, who plays the California senator, also produced, wrote and directed Bulworth. And it's a must see.

It is so funny, it'll make you laugh til it hurts. It delivers a great soundtrack--blending classic scoring by Ennio Morricone with rap and hip-hop artists like Dr. Dre, LL Cool J, and Ice Cube. And it drops some deep truth on you, like no other Hollywood movie that's come along in years.

So why is Bulworth weeping? He's listening to himself in an endless ad loop, reciting, Clinton-like, over and over--"America is standing on the doorstep of a new millennium." He's totally disgusted with what he sees as a betrayal of the liberal democratic politics he once stood for. He's not eaten or slept in three days. He's thinking suicide.

He gets a $10 million life-insurance policy from a corrupt lobbyist. In exchange he promises to sabotage a bill that would require insurance companies to sell policies to poor people. He takes a hit out on himself. And now he's got three days to live.

Bulworth is up for re-election and the vote is only days away. He's got a non-stop schedule of speaking engagements. But now, Bulworth isn't thinking about winning no election. He's got nothing to lose. And when he starts telling it like it is, he puts a whole new spin on the saying, "the truth will set you free."

First stop: A Black church in one of the most downpressed ghettos in the United States--South Central, LA. Bulworth can't bring himself to repeat the "new millennium" crap. He throws out his script and starts saying some shocking things. One moment he's like a right-wing politician who's lost his political muzzle--insulting the Black people. Next minute he's speaking some truth. He tells people, the Democratic Party doesn't care about you--you don't contribute to our campaigns. "Half your kids are out of work and the other half are in jail. You see any Democrat doing anything about it?"

Afterwards, Bulworth says to himself, "That was good. Really good." For the first time, he's enjoying a political campaign.

Next he's off to a high-class party for the rich-and-famous. He's supposed to woo the crowd and get them writing checks, but instead he asks them, why is it that mega-million budgets produce such bad movies? And you can almost hear jaws drop in the room of big-money big-wigs when Bulworth wonders out loud, "It must be the money that turns everything to crap." By this point, we're starting to get the idea that maybe the senator is talking about more than just Hollywood.

Bulworth also goes after the system's media machine. At a TV debate being moderated by three Koppel-type newspeople, he rips off their mask of "objective journalism": "We got three pretty rich guys here, getting paid by some really rich guys, to ask a couple of other rich guys questions about their campaigns. But our campaigns are financed by the same guys that pay you guys your money."

Bulworth's campaign manager is freaking out--he thinks his "product" is headed not only for an election loss, but the looney-bin as well. He orders an aide to call a shrink. But Bulworth is now out of control and on a roll. He's riding an outlaw rollercoaster, getting giddy-high by telling the truth. Happy to no longer be a sell-out. And just when we think this movie couldn't possibly get any funnier, Bulworth's truth act goes to another level.

Bulworth's Education

A homeless Rastaman, played by Amiri Baraka, sees how Bulworth has come alive by telling the truth. He tells the senator, "You got the life, ain't life good. You got to be a spirit, not a ghost. Your spirit will not descend without song."

Taking this advice, Bulworth becomes a bad (as in terrible), but truth-telling rapper. The sellout Senator reclaims his soul and his will to live by getting deep into urban Black culture. He tries to call off the hit.

At a big fundraiser full of rich, capitalist donors, Bulworth grabs the mike, goes out into the audience and starts rapping:

One man one vote
Now izzat really real?
The name of our game is
Let's make a deal.
Now people got their problems
The haves and the have-nots.
But the ones that make me listen
Pay for 30-second spots!...

I ain't getting' it in South Central
I'm getting' it in Beverly Hills.
So I'm votin' in the Senate
The way they want me to and
I'm sending 'em my bills.

But we got babies in South Central
Dyin' as young as they do in Peru.
We got public schools that are nightmares
We got a Congress that ain't got a clue...

We got factories closin' down
Where the hell did all the good jobs go?
Well. I'll tell you where they went --
My contributors make more profits
Hiring kids in Mexico.

A trio of Black women from South Central have hooked up with Bulworth after volunteering to work on his campaign. Bulworth is heart-struck by one of them--Nina, played by Halle Berry. They take him into the hood--to drive the streets, party all night, have dinner with the family, and experience the ever-present LAPD copters flying overhead.

As the spirit and anger of the people gets in Bulworth's head, this makes his message even more potent. The people Bulworth meets in South Central have a generous spirit and they welcome his new alliance with those on the bottom. Bulworth gets a real education about the lives, hopes, and brutality Black people face in America.

Bulworth gets transformed through learning about and from the people. Bulworth talks with people who, wise and sharp, get right to the point when talking about what American means for Black people.

LD, played by Don Cheadle, is a crack-dealer who turns out to be an articulate critic of the system. He tells Bulworth, "You greedy-ass politicians" send a message to inner-city youths "every time that y'all vote to cut them school programs, every time y'all vote to cut them funds to the job programs." And when Bulworth goes out on the streets of South Central alone, he gets a first-hand lesson on police brutality in the hood. He's confronted by a group of young kids--they're acting hard but turn out to be kids at heart. When the police pull up and start messing with the kids, Bulworth intervenes--now incognito, wearing cutoff sweat pants, a red T-shirt, black stocking cap pulled low and narrow sunglasses. And just when you're thinking it's gonna be a "can't we all get along" moment, things get really crazy. For those who know what it's like to be brutalized by the police every day, Bulworth does not disappoint.

When Bulworth asks Nina about Black leadership, she gives him an earful about how the system has destroyed hopes in the Black community with the closing of factories and the lack of jobs. And there is a sense of a "job unfinished" when she talks about the '60s--she tells Bulworth, "My mother was a Panther, Huey fed the kids on my block."

Next time the senator appears on TV, he repeats, word-for-word, some of what he's heard from LD and Nina. And when a shocked TV interviewer asks him about his new "obscenity" Bulworth comes back with, "That's the real obscenity, Black folks living every day/Is tryin' to believe a fuckin' word Democrats and Republicans say."

Beatty's Education

Warren Beatty is no stranger to films that challenge the status quo. In 1981 he wrote, directed and acted in Reds--about American communist John Reed who goes to report on, and then joins, the Russian Revolution. Coming out during the ugly reign of Ronald Reagan, Reds went right up against the government's right-wing, anti-communist, cold-war propaganda. It is a wonderful and moving piece of work; and as director, Beatty won an Academy Award. Now more than 15 years later, Beatty speaks again to a burning issue.

Bulworth is a movie that's hard-edged with a lot of heart. It portrays the masses with a lot of respect and it couldn't have been done without some serious learning from the people.

Beatty started getting into rap about 10 years ago. He met two of rap's leading promoters, Russell Simmons, who runs Def Jam Records, and Suge Knight, chief executive of Death Row Records. Simmons says, "He wanted to know everything about the rap world--he'd ask the same question three times sideways." Beatty would call Simmons up in the middle of the night to ask a question about a rap video he was looking at and he'd invite Simmons over for discussions that went long into the night. Suge Knight, who grew up in South Central, also spent a lot of time at the house, talking about his area of expertise. By the time Beatty started writing the script for Bulworth in 1996, he was deep into rap culture.

Now he says, "Anybody who doesn't deal with rap, including gangsta rap, with the utmost respect and attention ought to wake up and smell the coffee.... Rap music is the language of social protest. He who fails to listen, fails to hear at his own peril."

And on those who criticize this form of Black culture, Beatty contends that, "The same people who are objecting to rap music now would in the '60s have been objecting to Huey Newton or Bobby Seale or Eldridge Cleaver or Stokely Carmichael."

In a sense, Bulworth is the product of a growing relationship Beatty has had with Black people and Black culture and politics. He grew up in middle-class Arlington, Virginia, which he says had "an atmosphere where not only were there no Black people but a Catholic was exotic." But in the '60s he got close with many Black civil rights activists.

With strong feelings about the oppression of Black people and the need for political change, Beatty has identified with the bourgeois-liberal politics of Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy and George McGovern. He has worked to try and elect various Democratic Party candidates. But in recent years, Beatty has spoken out about the diminishing distinction between the Democratic and Republican Party. As Bulworth raps it, "Rich guys/Democrats/ Republicans/It's a club."

When interviewers ask Beatty how someone as "rich" as he is, can make a movie like Bulworth, he tells them, "I'm a traitor to my class." And he told one reporter, "Well, deep down I'm not rich. I'm from a Southern family... Bulworth says it in the movie when he says [ordinary] white people have more in common with [ordinary] Black people than they do with rich people.... In truth I was lucky, because I had a set of parents who had strong ideas about fairness. My father was in public education; so was my mother. There's something in my past that's very democratic..."

When asked about what "impact" he would like Bulworth to have, Beatty says, "I think things and I'm lucky enough to be in a profession where I can express them.... The question is, when you have the freedom to make choices, what do you do? What are the choices that you make?"

For Beatty, having control over the final cut of Bulworth was crucial. "I wanted to have complete freedom to do what I wanted to do. I always felt I would set it in this world, but I didn't want to be influenced by commercial considerations. I wanted to do a movie about contemporary politics because I felt I knew it better than other people in the movie business."

He said, "When executives at Fox, which is distributing the film, saw the script, I think they thought I should have my head examined." The background to this is that Fox had originally agreed to make Dick Tracy with him but backed out of the deal. By way of an informal settlement, Fox agreed to give Beatty a $30 million budget and complete control over his next film. Beatty explains, "I told Fox, `I have an action against you, and it would be better for us both if I didn't pursue it.' Without these odd circumstances, I don't think the film would have been financed."

On the problem with the American political system, Beatty says, "It's money. Money and technology. It should increase democratization. But the technology is not controlled democratically. Technology's owned by wealthy interests, and so advertising serves the advertiser. And this goes across the board in all areas..." He then goes on to say, "The real issue is the disparity of wealth in this country. And that gets unattended and unacknowledged. Traitors to their class are marginalized in political discourse. They're seen as nuts. Their motives are weird. They're antithetical to our stock portfolios."

And Beatty knows it's not easy to integrate this kind of political message into a piece of art: "You can say things in a movie: You can say Black people are treated badly in the United States. It's an oversimplification but it needs to be said. You can say rich people control politics. It's an oversimplification but it needs to be said."

"I'm in the entertainment business. The message happens to be true, but any time you try to have a message in a movie, you sound like you're on C-Span. Listen, I have a lunatic in this movie who has a nervous breakdown, runs around in short pants, acts like an adolescent, talking in a voice that's not even his own. He oversimplifies the message pretty drastically, but he's funny. I tried to make it funny enough and move it quickly enough so they don't walk out... It doesn't work unless they laugh. The intention is always to entertain."


Speaking about his view that the Democratic Party has "lost its mission," Warren Beatty says, "I'm still a Democrat. I'm just not one of these Democrats. I'm a Bulworth Democrat." Beatty may still be hoping that it's possible to work within the system for change. But his movie suggests that people shouldn't hold their breath.

By the end of Bulworth, you're wondering whether or not there's going to be a Hollywood happy ending. But while Bulworth is hardly a proletarian revolutionary, his message proves to be dangerous to the system. As Bob Avakian has said in Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?: "To `get anywhere' once elected--both to advance one's own career and to `get anything done'--it is necessary to fit into the established mold and work within the established structures. This is partially because those already entrenched in positions of power and influence are thereby in a position to make others conform and work through the accepted avenues, but more basically it is because, once again, the political system must serve the underlying economic system... If you are prepared to see--and work for--the overthrow of the existing order, and if you say so openly, you will never be allowed to hold any real position of power; or if, on the other hand, you have this perspective but hide it and attempt to `get in the power structure and work from within,' you will be swallowed up--or chewed up and spit out--by that structure."

We won't give away the ending, but Warren Beatty has said this about what happens to Bulworth: "This picture can't have any other ending than the one it does. It never could. This was very clear to me early in the game. For this picture to do what it needed to do, it had to come that end."

This movie is as brave as it is funny. It has an optimistic message about the masses of people, of all nationalities, uniting together to channel their energy into fighting the system and finding a way out of the American nightmare. And our interpretation of its final message is that people got to take things into their own hands if they want to bring about real change. When the Rastaman repeats his message "Don't be a ghost, be a spirit," he looks right into the camera--as if to say to us all--finding a solution to this whole mess is up to you.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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