American Graffiti | The Nation


American Graffiti

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About the Author

Susie Linfield
Susie Linfield is the author of The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. She teaches journalism at...

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, author of Two Cities and Brothers and Keepers.


Directed by Steve James. 1994.

It's clearly one of the best treatments of African-American family life. One of the kids is a grasshopper; he lives in the moment. The other is a real worrier, an ant. The families that they come from make it quite clear why they're that way. The secondary characters are not stereotypical, but have lives of their own--you only get that in really good writing and filmmaking.

Part of the film's achievement is the direct presentation of African-American speech: This is not some scriptwriter's idea of what sort of master narratives black people fit into, as in all those ghetto shoot-em-ups. That quality of letting people speak, of taking us into surprising terrain that is generated by individual voices--I haven't seen that very much. I think Spike Lee's Crooklyn works the same turf in a very effective way.

The fact that these kids are good basketball players involves them in a major force in American life. Today there is only one industry in the country, and that's entertainment. The transition of these kids out of their families, out of their private worlds, into entertainment--in this case, "sports"--tells me a lot about the ethos of the country. How these kids are threatened by it, turned inside out, how they are consumed, commodified. In one sense, their private dreams are universal; but they are also dreams that young men probably wouldn't ever have had except in late-twentieth-century America.

The kids are the true believers, and that's where the tension comes in. I wanted to counsel them and say "Whoa!" But on the other hand, I wanted it to happen for them, too, because I'm an American. And maybe one of them could become Michael Jordan. I mean, when does anybody have the nerve to tell the kids that Santa Claus doesn't exist?


, artist.

I have to admit that I rarely go to see a movie. It seems such a momentous decision, debated for hours with friends. By the time the decision has been made, and the pain of disappointment (yet another bad movie) accepted, the recommended flick is in cableland.

However, there is a comfortable familiarity about the average Hollywood manifestation: Satan's spawn, comets falling, aliens landing, the silly President, Debbie Does Dallas, Babe does Burger King. And the blond twitchiness of the Pitts and DiCaprios. What these films have in common--a horror of nature, and awe and respect for technology--reflects the current investments of the wealthy. What a surprise! The planet is not important, but war is. We have the fear and anxiety...and they have the software. The yet-unreleased prequel to Star Wars will no doubt resolve that old chicken-and-egg question: Which came first, the pre-strike nuclear satellite defense system or Amerikkkan kulture?


, anti-impeachment activist and self-described "smut peddler."


Directed by Milos Forman. 1996.

I was very moved by it. Milos Forman did a magnificent job of capturing a character and of exposing the problems that exist in our judicial and political systems. But don't get me wrong: Even with all our imperfections, I still feel we're the greatest country in the world.

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