Bulworth is the most politically radical film from Hollywood since, well, Warren Beatty’s Reds. It slashes at the two-party system in America, corporate domination of economic life including healthcare, corrupted mass media, and racial injustice. Unlike Reds, which employed realistic techniques to evoke the revolutionary fervor surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution, Bulworth is a tragicomedy. Its humor often becomes farce, a kind of cinema of the absurd. The language and images are particularly sensationalistic. Sometimes rather than mocking society as spectacle, Bulworth becomes that spectacle. In so doing, thoughtful observations about America at the end of the century lose some of their sting.
The film opens with a left-liberal senator from California, Jay Billington Bulworth, watching his reelection campaign tapes with growing despair. On the walls of his office are photographs from the 1960s, when Bulworth was part of the civil-rights and antiwar movements. To survive politically, he has become a Clinton New Democrat, but the psychological cost has been mortal. Bulworth concludes that he has nothing to live for and puts out a contract on his life. Before doing so, however, he forces the point man of the insurance lobby to write him a $10-million life insurance policy. In exchange, Bulworth agrees to kill in committee legislation that would provide universal access to low-cost insurance for all Americans.
The first stop in his reelection campaign after striking this deal is a black church in Los Angeles. Bulworth begins with the usual pap, but suddenly interrupts himself and begins to speak candidly. He tells the parishioners that his speech is the same as last time and the problems are the same as last time, and, just like last time, even the promise of change will cease once the election campaign is over. While the immediate target of this moment of truth is Bulworth himself and politicians like him, the speech is also a criticism of politically ambitious black ministers and churchgoers who ought to know better. The acknowledging laughter and applause that greet his outburst indicates that they do know better.
Not knowing when or how the assassin he has hired will strike, Bulworth proceeds to an after-hours dub in a black neighborhood. The images are spectacle writ large. Every character and situation is an outsized caricature that some viewers will find humorous and others offensive. Bulworth begins to speak in rap. His sense of rhyme and rhythm is far from perfect, but he is having fun. As the film progresses, spontaneous rap messages and hip-hop music signal Bulworth’s growing estrangement from mainstream culture. Unlike the white Negro of the 1950s who coveted black culture, was ultracool, and highly protective of his image, Bulworth is very aware that he is a kind of buffoon on his last hurrah. He is letting go as one might at Madri Gras or Carnival.
What keeps Bulworth from simply being a white frat boy on a rampage in darkie town is that he really does care about society in general and African Americans in particular. His new entourage includes three black women. Two of them are the kind of groupie that political campaigns always attract, but rather than well-dressed grads from good colleges, they are flygirls from the college of hip-hop, full of irreverent energy and experiences of the kind that political handlers abhor. The third, Nina (played by the lovely Halle Berry) has signed on to be one of Bulworth’s potential assassins in order to settle a debt her brother owes to a drug dealer. At first she is not particularly attracted to Bulworth, distrusting his politics and wary of being too close to a man she must kill. Bulworth, on the other hand, is immediately beguiled by her beauty. Sensing her ambiguous response to his attentions, he wonders if it is a matter of his age or his race. Perhaps in an effort to impress her with his activities during the 1960s, he asks her what she knows about that time.
Nina responds that her parents were involved with the Black Panther movement and as a child she was fed by the Panther breakfast programs. Of far greater importance is her political analysis of black poverty. Rather than a diatribe against a vaguely defined white-power structure delivered in the language of the ghetto poor, Nina offers a Marxist interpretation of black oppression that highlights capital flight (rather than white flight), malign neglect (not benign neglect), assassinations, and manipulation by the media. All these are seen as conscious ploys by the power elite and not irrational racism. Her speech is delivered calmly in complex and well-crafted sentences.
Later in the film, when asked by news media to explain the problems of blacks, Bulworth will begin to respond with the old cliches, then stop himself, and deliver her analysis verbatim. One interpretation of this action is that Bulworth has appropriated the ideas of others and palmed them off as his own invention. But that creates an impossible situation for black-white communications. Whites cannot simultaneously be damned for not listening and then damned anew for listening and accepting what they hear. Bulworth has become involved with an intellectual woman, has listened to her, and has now shared her insights with a larger audience. This is not be confused with radical chic in which anything said by any black person about race is automatically considered insightful or the view of the community.
The sequence in which Bulworth delivers this analysis is one of the most successful in the film. When a television reporter poses a question, Bulworth reminds the audience watching their television (and the audience watching this movie) that the reporters are as highly paid as he and his opponent. Moreover, they are being paid by the same people, so the reporters could easily answer their own questions. This is Noam Chomsky-for-the-masses, and it works. Bulworth makes a pitch for socialized medicine and leaves the stage with one of his better rap sequences.
Bulworth has regained the will to live and tries to call off the contract on his life. Finding that calling off the hit requires some time, he goes into hiding. Nina, who has only slowly come to realize she is not going to kill him, offers him refuge at her home. Her family, however, is not entirely happy with having him as a guest, a few going beyond indifference to hostility to whites. Bulworth relocates to a shed in the backyard. Later, he puts on a disguise so that he can go into the streets for air. The outsized clothing, stocking cap, and other paraphernalia are part of the farcical aspect of the film. Rather than mocking ghetto clothing, they seem to be making fun of whites who adapt them for wear without much thought about their social meaning or origins.
An incident that occurs while Bulworth is in his “old white man” drag is indicative of the thin ice on which the film often skates. The disguised Bulworth encounters a gang of black kids who are a fully armed juvenile unit of the local drug dealer. Almost as a joke, the terrified Bulworth offers to buy them ice cream! A jump cut then shows the kids walking out of an ice-cream parlor licking cones. Beatty is trying desperately to remind us that, in fact, these are children. Behind their hostile leers are human beings as vulnerable as his Bulworth. The quasi-surreal scene loses its slim chance of going anywhere credible when the gang is confronted by two white cops, who are as crudely drawn racist cartoons as the juveniles. The cops pull out their guns and spark a confrontation that Bulworth barely manages to keep from becoming a bloodbath.
These events eventually bring Bulworth into contact with L.D., the dealer for whom the kids work. Rather than being an unfeeling exploiter of children and merchant of death in his community, L.D. thinks of himself as simply doing what is necessary to survive. He even fancies himself a protector of the neighborhood, an echo of the claim of some black street gangs. He gives Bulworth an analysis of racial dynamics that is more populist than Nina’s, but of the same character. As he had with Nina’s analysis, Bulworth will also use L.D.’s at a public event later in the film. From a dramatic aspect, L.D. is far less credible as a character than Nina, as his social analysis appears to rationalize not only L.D.’s personal behavior but also his criminalizing of children.
As Bulworth frolics through various political landscapes, his rapping improves and his targets multiply. At a Hollywood fund-raiser, Bulworth challenges Jews in the film industry regarding their self-congratulatory support of the civil-rights movement, while doing little in the media they dominate to address race issues. He blasts away at Israeli hard-liners in the Middle East. On other occasions, he redefines obscenity as social injustices rather than word choice. Through camera shots that punctuate his verbal thrusts and by the actual naming of names, Bulworth goes against the entire political establishment – Clinton, Gore, Gingrich, Forbes, Buchanan, et al. The word socialism slips out positively twice in what may be a record for a Hollywood production.
Exhausted by his weekend of truth and use of stimulants, Bulworth eventually falls into a deep sleep. His campaign managers inform us that the new rapping senator is far more popular than he ever was as a New Democrat. When Bulworth awakes, he begins to behave like a normal person for the first time in the film. A mob of photographers awaits as he puts on the familiar political jacket, white shirt, and tie. Is it all over? Was rapping some truth just a momentary fling? Nina watches him warily, the campaign managers watch, the audience watches.
Bulworth refuses to go outdoors to remeet his public until he learns what Nina really thinks of him. In the course of their interaction, Beatty throws the audience two of the film’s biggest zingers. On the question of how racial problems will be solved in this nation, Bulworth proclaims that there ought to be so much mating between the so-called races that the only category left will be mixed. Only he doesn’t say it that way. He uses the impolite four-letter words and suggests his solution will be a lot of fun as well as just. Anyone knowing Beatty’s sexual reputation may want to just write this idea off as an aging star’s fantasy. But this happens to be the answer which is slowly taking form in the United States, an answer that would have been a crime in numerous states not so many years ago. Beatty has the courage to say that, rather than fearing the darkening of America, he welcomes it.
The second zinger is the exchange in which Nina says to Bulworth, “You my nigger.” This is an unprecedented use of the n-word in film. Just what it means is open to all manner of interpretation. What is clear is that Nina uses the word affectionately and approvingly. One thinks of how members of ethnic groups, who bridle when certain epithets are used against them by outsiders, reverse the meaning of the word and make it an endearment when used amongst insiders. Rather than bestowing some form of symbolic blackness upon Bulworth, Nina appears to be saying he is now to be included among the dangerous ones who will do whatever is necessary for their survival. But the sentence comes out of nowhere and is left undeveloped. Such ambiguous sensationalism runs the risk of simply being sensationalist.
Bulworth needs to know if Nina will be at his side in the dangerous world beyond the door. Does this mean he is once more the white leader asking a black companion to take a secondary role? Is it the male once more asserting patriarchal order? Or does he really need her intelligence and her love to meet the challenges ahead? Even if it wasn’t a Hollywood film, Nina would be compelled to join him. Separately they were both sinking. Together they have the potential for success. As they go outside and become enmeshed in a crowd of photographers and thrill-seekers, a lone rifleman hiding on the roof shoots the senator. The shooting is not the macabre result of his own contract inappropriately being carried out. The shooting has been ordered by the betrayed insurance-company lobbyist with whom Bulworth had negotiated the $10-million payoff. The fallen Bulworth is whisked off to a hospital, his ultimate fate uncertain, the symbolic best in white America once more wounded, perhaps fatally.
The coda for the film falls to an aging black man. He has appeared in several earlier scenes, speaking directly to the camera. His role is much like that of the unnamed revolutionaries whose observations were inserted between various scenes in Reds. Similarly, the interlocutor of Bulworth is not identified as Amiri Baraka. If you know he is a poet/playwright who has vigorously proclaimed his Marxist ideology for decades and whose first work goes back to the era of the Beat generation, well and good. If not, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is what he says each time he appears, and what he says is: “You got to be a spirit. You can’t be no ghost.”
The spirit the griot is evoking has been clearly established in the opening scenes and reinforced throughout the film. It is the spirit of what is called the Sixties, but is actually an era beginning in the mid-1950s and extending to the mid-1970s. Everyone has their own vision of that time, but whatever one’s vision, it was an era of change and, despite the carnage in Vietnam and the urban insurrections, a time of hope. Baraka and Beatty are stating in no uncertain terms that nostalgia for this era, the scrapbooking of its heroes, and the endless retelling of moments of the glory days, is not good enough. What the nation needs is a return to the spirit of those times. That spirit was multifaceted. It infused those incredibly brave individuals who risked their lives (and sometimes lost) in a thousand marches against institutionalized racism. It moved Abbie Hoffman to shock Wall Street by contemptuously showering the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange with dollar bills. It manifested itself in movements for sexual liberation, concerns for the survival of spaceship earth, and some awfully good music. So what they are saying is, “You got to be a spirit. You can’t be no ghost.”
The sensational aspects of Bulworth are often counterproductive to its political messages. A good many viewers of the film are likely to respond to the spectacle rather than the politics. That’s a gamble that Beatty was willing to take and one for which he must be held accountable. What is not fair is to conflate Beatty-the-star with Bulworth-the-character. To be sure, Beatty has been a prominent Hollywood supporter of the liberal Democrats for a long time. He probably does think the Black Panthers and Bobby Kennedy exemplify the 1960s. He most likely is thoroughly disgusted with President Clinton’s wretched political compromises. As coscriptwriter on the film, such feeling influenced his shaping of Bulworth’s persona, but Bulworth is not Beatty any more than Beatty was John Reed, Bugsy Siegel, or Dick Tracy, characters he portrayed in other films.
Although Beatty has never had great range as an actor, his early success and good looks make it easy to forget just how effective he can be in quite different roles. In Splendor in the Grass, The Parallax View, and Bonnie and Clyde, to name just three films, he’s given portraits of diverse American types that have staying power. To that list can be added the energetic, flappable, vulnerable, but utterly sincere title character of Bulworth.
Bulworth is not a film that is likely to take a place in the pantheon of cinematic masterworks. Many of the chances it takes do not pay off. Humor always pushes unexpected emotional buttons, especially when it is as wacky as in Bulworth. One can imagine all manner of credible subtexts. But sometimes an exploding cigar is just an exploding cigar. Sometimes it’s just a simple story about learning to listen to what others have to say about their pain, about falling in love when you least expect to, and about responding to the bravest part of your personality. At a time when Hollywood films are largely devoid of any ideas, Bulworth is filled with ideas. Bulworth takes on the big issues and, like it or not, posits radical solutions. And in case you didn’t get the subtext, the supertext, and the text: “You can’t be no ghost. You got to be a spirit.”