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Tuesday, January 10, 2012


     robert ryman

Found a movie at Dollar General for $5, THE SOLOIST. On the cover, a black face and a white face. My mind registers another inter-racial feel-good relationship. I'd passed it over several times. I couldn't get past Robert Downey, Jr, being in it. For me, that's the sign of a good American film. I can't help but see him a great actor. I'm glad to see he's coming back from the blackballing having to do with his cocaine convictions. That's like picking one person to scold on Wall Street for cocaine use while all the others look on and laugh. Getting caught was his crime. But the name Robert Downey Jr rings a good movie to me. Guide For Recognizing Your Saints was an awfully good film I saw because it had Downey in it, the same as this one, the Soloist.

A white middle-class man, a columnist for the Los Angeles paper attempts to make a black fellow, Jamie Fox, who is a street musician, homeless, not right in the head, but more right than anybody else, to make him into an entertainer. Downey's character did the white middle-class thing, take charge of the black guy's life and force him into the mold Downey had in his mind of what he oughta be. The story was written by the white man, seen from his point of view. He didn't question his own need to make something of this homeless black guy who dropped out of Julliard when his mind fell apart. His violin only had 2 strings. I couldn't see why Downey's character wanting to help the guy never thought of buying him a package of violin strings. The answer to that can maybe be found noting that the guy writing the story, the white guy in the film, is revealing his own learning process from no knowledge at all when it comes to allowing other people their lives, to gradually getting it by the end, if he really did. He put his own ignorance up, front and center. It was the story of him learning, maybe. I was never really sure if he learned anything.

He did, by the end, manage to force the black, homeless fellow into an apartment, which he did not want. It was all the time like he knew better what the black man needed than the black man did. It's an awfully white story of knowing more what the black folks need than they know, themselves. In that respect, I felt it an awfully colonialist story. White man telling black man how to live his life. Black man says, "Caint do no different, boss." In that way, it's an allegory of black and white relations in America. White middle-class wants to right a wrong and take an interest in helping the black people become more like white people. The black people say, We're doing just fine, thank you. No you're not, you're not anything like me yet. Don't wanna be like you, boss. Who wants to be like a white man who can't keep his nose out of other people's business? It's the white I-know-more-than-you-do attitude toward black folks that this film seemed to me a comment on.

The film put me in mind of the Taoist view of subduing the restless heart by force. Fire when it is smothered produces toxic smoke that suffocates. It was in reference to meditation, but applies to everyday life as well. The white man throughout the film was forcing the black street musician into situations he did not want in, and tells him over and over, in effect, I know better than you do. I don't see black folks embracing this film. I can see white folks thinking it's just wonderful, helping that poor black boy,who can't take care of himself. Well, he had been taking care of himself for several years. White man comes along and messes with his head, forces him into situations he already knows he can't handle, makes him want to kill the white man.

The film, and I suppose the book, make a good, albeit unconscious, allegory of black and white relations in America. If it were a novel, I'd swear this was what the writer was pointing out, that the white middle-class people believe they know what is best for everybody (except themselves). And this is something black people know a whole lot better than white people. Like the man who wrote the story didn't know where his attitude came from. I really don't believe he knew that he was illustrating a problem black people have living under white people. Whatever the deal, it made a good story, both learning from the experiences in the story, to a degree, not enough to make a point of.

It turned out the white man got his way, and didn't necessarily make the situation better for the black man. The white man forced so much on the black guy that when some of it finally stuck, the white man felt satisfied and finally left the black man alone. Who can say whether the black man's life was better or worse for the interference from the white man? From a white middle class point of view, it was a valiant effort on white man's part, like a missionary who has to make do with slow progress. From the black man's perspective, he was doing fine before the white man came along. All through the story, the black man is saying he needs to play music in the noise of the city, and the white man insists he needs quiet. Black man says he needs the noise of the city for his music to live. White man had no idea what that meant. Forced him into an apartment so the white man could feel like he did something to help a poor black man. Black people have seen through that for so long it seems to have no beginning.

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