The current season of sickness – biological and political – is, indeed, strange, with no hint of a better day any time soon.
“Paul Newman thought it was the most important film he ever made.”
“Y’know things get funnier every day you live. They don’t get no better. Dig? But they sure as hell get funnier.”
This week I kept hearing those words in the back of my mind, as spoken by a Black journalist named “Roosevelt,” played by B.J. Mason, who works for a Black New Orleans newspaper in the 1970 film WUSA.
Critics trashed WUSA when it came out, and it bombed at the box office, but Paul Newman thought it was the most important film he ever made and I agree. He plays an educated, cynical, declassed drifter who gets a hack job reading news and editorials at WUSA, a racist, right-wing New Orleans radio station. The station is owned by a rich, right-wing racist with political ambitions and an agenda he’s using the station to advance.
Roosevelt, the Black journalist, is one of the most intriguing characters in the film, but his screen time is unfortunately limited. It all takes place in the bar of a hotel populated by eccentric Black people on welfare. When Mr. Clotho, the Black hotel owner, sees Roosevelt sitting on one of his bar stools, drinking and smoking a cigarette with a jaded but keenly observant eye, the two exchange hostilities.
Clotho: I don’t appreciate you bein’ here, Roosevelt. You know that.
Roosevelt: I come to spend my money on the good wine. Our outspoken Black press gives me the day off.
Clotho: I thought I had you fired.
Roosevelt: They must’ve forgot.
Clotho: Well, you can hang around, just usin’ your mouth to drink with.
(Attention then shifts to Rainey, a hapless young white social worker played by Anthony Hopkins, who arrives to continue what he believes to be a survey of the Black neighborhood’s residents. Mr. Clotho introduces him to Roosevelt):
Clotho: Roosevelt, this is Mr. Rainey. He’s one of those concerned young white folks who’ll walk through fire and water for the Negro race.
Roosevelt: Yeah, I saw him at it the other day.
(Clotho throws a packet of paper—survey results—down to Rainey, and leaves the scene. Then Rainey exchanges words with Roosevelt):
Rainey: You say you, uh, work on a newspaper?
Rainey: There are some things I’m tryin’ to make sense of. They mean a very great deal to me, and . . .
Roosevelt: Y’know things get funnier every day you live. They don’t get no better. Dig? But they sure as hell get funnier.
Rainey: What, what is this? Who is Clotho? What’s goin’ on here?
Roosevelt (whispering as though he’s sharing a secret): There is a definite pattern of discrimination in many parts of the United States.
Rainey: Man, for God’s sake, talk straight.
Roosevelt: Baby, don’t you tell me talk straight. That’s a straighter answer than you deserve. Shit, you stand here in the middle of Clotho’s place and say nobody’s treatin’ you right, and what’s goin’ on? Damn, man, you the boss, how ‘bout I ask you what’s goin’ on?
Rainey: Look, I’m only one man. And I don’t pretend to be innocent of anything that’s happenin’ here. I’m just tryin’ to figure out who these people are and what they’re usin’ me for.
Roosevelt: Well, little brother, Clotho runs the big store for all them Mister Charleys downtown. If they want somethin’ to happen in our happy little community, why Clotho’s here to make it happen. Like right now they want a lotta people cheatin’ on the welfare. They don’t have to go around botherin’ themselves with who is and who isn’t. Whatever they need, old Lester’s goin’ give it to ‘em.
You see, there ain’t no survey. Ain’t nothin’ bein’ surveyed. Just a buncha politicians whose current thing is gittin’ a lotta bloods kicked off relief. And you hear it on the radio, on old WUSA.
(Switch to a scene with the politicians and their hack WUSA Radio host played by Paul Newman. They’re planning a white supremacist rally in a Black neighborhood, but anticipating that there might be some violence despite security extremes.)
The story progresses to the seriously freaky white supremacist rally underway in a large arena. The stands are full of sorry-looking white people, many holding Confederate flags, American flags, or balloons that say “White Power.” Outside police are swinging batons and riding horses through a crowd of Black protestors. I won’t share the ending because WUSA is in part a suspense film.
Why review a little known 1970 movie now?
I’ve written six COVID-19 themed pieces for Black Agenda Report, but I couldn’t get a new handle on the story this week, except to say that it’s nothing if not strange. A week or so ago I saw a headline that said, “Masks Are the New Normal,” and today I saw a photo of people all bundled up in blue plastic suits and masks standing in line at an airport. That was in Forbes magazine, beneath the headline, “Future Air Travel: Four-Hour Process, Self Check-In, Disinfection, Immunity Passes.”
The great geographer Mike Davis wrote that the pandemic proves that globalism requires a global health infrastructure, but is this it? And does it include all the heightened surveillance and curtailment of civil liberties, most notably the right to assemble? Do authorities really have to call this a “lockdown,” which is also the name of the sadistic prison drama on MSNBC after midnight?
Don’t get me wrong. I think the virus is real. I don’t think it’s a global hoax orchestrated by the Illuminati, the Lizard People, or any actually existing elite, although the Lords of Capital are, as usual, taking advantage of crisis to make a killing and God knows what else. Neither, however, do I scoff at those now fearful of mandatory vaccines and more.
On Sunday’s “Mother of All Talk Shows” on RT, the eminently rational British physician Dr. Ranjeet Brara explained that vaccines are one of medicine’s greatest accomplishments, but that people do have reason to fear them because they’ve at times been tested or used on unwitting and vulnerable populations, particularly in Africa, before their usefulness has been proven and with harmful consequences. He also pointed out that epidemics have been spread to wipe out unwanted populations, as smallpox was in Native America. So people are understandably questioning some of what’s going down, if not the virus or the pandemic itself.
“Do authorities really have to call this a ‘lockdown?’”
COVID-19 is sweeping through Black communities at a far higher rate than in the general population, and police are beating up on Black people whether they’re wearing masks or not. They seem to presume that those with masks are lawbreakers, those without scofflaws. Meanwhile an ex-cop and his son committed a modern-day lynching in the State of Georgia, chasing a young Black jogger down a quiet, tree-lined, suburban road and shooting him dead. How much has really changed since WUSA was released 50 years ago?
The film includes plenty of prescient storylines. Bill Clinton “kicked the bloods off relief” in the 1990s, and the Black Misleadership Class is, like Clotho, doing its best to preserve the elite, white, warmongering power structure that never stops its hybrid warfare on working people, especially the non-white, neocolonized world here at home and in the Global South.
The freaky white supremacist rally near the end resembles a Trump rally of shrill white people in red MAGA hats. Has anything changed? Well, there are usually a few Black and Brown faces strategically placed in the small crowd standing behind Trump at his podium, and there’s nothing like that in WUSA. Those attending the rally and on the stage are all white.
Things did get funnier this week when the Trump campaign announced that Joe Biden is China’s ideal candidate. But, as Roosevelt says, “they don’t get no better.” The US Navy and Air Force still linger, locked and loaded, off China’s shores, and there are no doubt Black sailors and airmen aboard.
(WUSA has at times been available on the YouTube for free, but the copy there now stops and starts in all the wrong places and doesn't include the whole film. Netflix made it available for awhile but there weren't enough people watching it to warrant the cost of sustaining the contract with whoever holds the rights. I requested that they renew it at this page on the Netflix website: https://help.netflix.com/en/titlerequest, and other Netflix subscribers can do so as well. The film is based on Robert Stone's novel "Hall of Mirrors," published in 1966..)
Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. Please support her work on Patreon. She can be reached at ann-at-anngarrison.com.
Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/blackagendareport
Or, you can comment by emailing us at [email protected]