Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Entre Sombras

Malcolm X would be 85 today, and naturally one wonders how he'd view contemporary events. Might he have mellowed and embraced Obama's presidency? Impossible to say, though Obama's circle would doubtless distance their meal ticket from someone named El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. White liberals would be typically confused, while reactionaries would howl, sputter and fume. Malcolm would be revered by most African-Americans, especially the young, and the developing world would most likely view him as an inspiring figure, like Mandela. But who really knows.

Fact is, Malcolm, along with King and Fred Hampton, were never meant to see old age. They represented Black political and cultural power and the possibility of revolutionary change, something the white imperial structure clearly feared and would not tolerate. So it was no surprise that they were eliminated in their prime, before they could wreak further damage. I'm not saying that the government had a hand in Malcolm's murder, but it sure was fucking convenient. Nefarious plots aside, Malcolm X fostered an evolving radical consciousness that reached beyond color. Unlike Obama, whose fraudulent appeal is fading somewhat, Malcolm was the real deal.

When a rightist relative went off about liberal PC Hollywood, I agreed there was truth to the cliché. But when you closely inspect the gears, Hollywood can be as racist as any other American institution. Example: Denzel Washington received a Best Actor nomination for Malcolm X, but lost to Al Pacino's "Hoo Ah!" Mr. Magoo from Scent Of A Woman. Clearly, the Academy felt that Washington's brilliant portrayal of a street hustler-turned-American radical was not Oscar worthy. Fair enough. But for what role did Washington eventually win Best Actor? A corrupt, violent cop beholden to the white power structure in Training Day.

Racist? Or simply more Hollywood bad taste? You be the judge, but I doubt the Academy wanted to honor a Black Muslim who desired to smash American racism by any means necessary -- unless the demographics supported it. Then we would get two, three, many Malcolms, Nat Turner fighting insectoid aliens, Angela Davis as Queen Latifah's sassy friend, Frederick Douglass splashing through time in a hot tub. With enough finesse and shrewd test marketing, Black radicals could be the next Na'vi.

Jay Leno spouts plenty of bullshit, but his statement about Howard Stern being no longer relevant is accurate. Moving to satellite radio made creative sense and was financially lucrative for Stern, yet it took him out of the limelight and into the margins. Much of Stern's fan base followed him to Sirius, but that seems to have leveled off, and Stern's show is rapidly winding down to single note status.

At its best, Stern's show resembled Jack Benny's. His staff used their real names but were characters in the larger narrative. The plotlines and gags revolved around their actual lives and personalities, with Stern as the neurotic, manic boss and occasional father figure. Despite his crude reputation, Stern possessed a very quick mind and kept the show moving at a fine comedic pace. He did this live for four, sometimes five hours daily. I once chatted with longtime Stern collaborator Fred Norris, and he told me that Stern had an innate sense of where the show should go, that his instincts were almost always correct. "Howard's the captain," Fred said. "He's got twenty different things going at once, and he handles it beautifully."

You don't get that sense anymore. Stern is incredibly rich, hobnobs with Hollywood actors and Hamptons socialites, has a young model wife devoted to vanity projects, and seems tired and bored. Losing Artie Lange hurt the show's balance, and basically he and Robin Quivers talk about American Idol and their personal diets. Occasional flashes of inspired humor appear now and then, but it's more a twitch on a decaying body. Howard Stern's Jack Benny period is past. He's becoming what he has long despised -- Don Imus. The captain's all but wearing a cowboy hat.