According to the lead article on page 1 of yesterday’s New York Times, Obama “in private…has talked longingly of ‘going Bulworth,’ ” in the face of “hindrances on him” (read, the hysterical nonsense that passes for politics in this country). As the co-writer of Bulworth, I have to say… “Nice!” The reporter of the Times piece, whose name I’ve already forgotten, calls Bulworth a “little remembered Warren Beatty film from 1998.” Well, it’s nice to think someone remembers it.
In Salon, Joan Walsh asks the question, “Should Obama Go Bulworth?” She doesn’t really answer her own question, but in interrogating what it might mean, she does heap a good deal of praise (and not a small measure of scorn) on the film. She quotes some of the lines I wrote for the raps Bulworth does at the big fundraiser at the Beverly Wilshire, calling them the political “high point” of the film. Also nice!
After offering a detailed account of the film—especially with regard to its handling of race, which she seems to mostly like, but also sees as occasionally cartoonish, naïve and relying on the racist trope of the Magic Negro (all points that I wouldn’t entirely concede, but would also have to say are not entirely lacking in merit)—she concludes that she “hated” the ending of Bulworth, because it was “a microcosm of unhealthy left wing fantasies, bad and good: that bold, progressive truth-telling will lead to landslide wins over corporate Democrats—and also get you killed.”
Now I would never deny being susceptible to unhealthy left-wing fantasies. We all need something to live for, after all. But I really don’t take her points on this at all. First of all, Bulworth’s landslide was meant as a punch line. It was a comic conceit that no one is meant to take literally or seriously.
His shooting is a different matter. Truth be told, I was originally very unhappy with the picture and sound editing of the final scene, because, I felt, it suggested too heavily that Bulworth was (as Walsh assumes) meant to be dead. But my intention for the final moments was for Bulworth’s life to be hanging in the balance, with the audience not knowing if he would live or die, at which point Amiri Baraka’s “magical negro” character clearly points us in a different direction.
“You can’t be no ghost, Bulworth. You got to be a spirit!” he demands. (These wonderfully poetic lines were written by the great poet himself, as was all the glorious dialogue spoken by his character—so if he’s magical, it’s Baraka’s own magic.) The meaning was clear to the 16-year-old girl in the test screening in the north Bronx. “He’s saying,” she told the interviewer, “you’ve got to make a difference with your life.” The point isn’t if you live or die, but whether your life is worth living. Warren Beatty often told me he wanted the message of the film to be from Martin Luther King: “If you have nothing worth dying for, you have nothing worth living for.”