Concussion v. the Hijacking of the Civil-Rights Movement

Will Smith’s Concussion turns out to have an appropriate title. The hijacking of the civil-rights movement by today’s black race hustlers and white liberals, all acting through the sanctimonious media, produces a continuing series of blows to the spirit and to the body politic.

Witness the irony that Smith’s widely ignored film has come to figure in the current controversy about “diversity” in the Academy Awards. Yet, no one talks about the content of Concussion itself, even though it may be the most unexpectedly head-on movie about racial experience made during the Obama era.

Smith portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born forensic pathologist whose findings on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (brain and nerve damage suffered by boxers and football players) were published in 2005 and rocked the National Football League. The movie distinguishes itself from typical bio-pic uplift when it concentrates on Omalu’s ostracism and punishment spearheaded by NFL authorities. In one of the best scenes, Omalu asks, “Why are they doing this?” That is where his hospital chief and mentor Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) explains how power — and American racism — works:

“Did you think they were going to say thank you? What the hell for? I understand: You think you’re being a good American. So the city of Pittsburgh spent $239 million to build their glorious Steelers a new stadium, all the while they were closing schools and raising taxes. These people are not out to change the world, and this is not some quaint academic discovery stuck in the back of some obscure medical journal. Bennet Omalu is going to war with a corporation that has 20 million people on a weekly basis craving their product the same way they crave food. The NFL owns a day of the week, the same day the church used to own. Now it’s theirs. They’re very big.”

Thanks to Brooks’s wry comic edge, that speech, despite its didacticism, personalizes and clarifies the way that people who control institutions retaliate when they are challenged — and that’s where Concussion hits hard. It skips over the familiar black man’s struggle against glass-ceiling professionalism to dramatize the seldom-told story of how a black professional faces the oppression brought on by being too smart, of being more capable than his peers will tolerate. (Workaday scenes of Omalu bearing on-the-job friction are more convincing than any of the workplace banalities Aaron Sorkin has formulized on various TV shows.)

Director Peter Landesman’s athletic milieu forms an almost sardonic backdrop for the intellectual head-butting and career competition that Omalu faces and that even the fantastically successful and outwardly glib Smith surely intuits. Concussion also has good moments when strapping football players epitomize gladiatorial sacrifice — both professional and personal (health) costs. Although the subplot about linesman Mike Webster (David Morse) is overwrought, the black players’ subplots, tellingly, are more freshly revealing. A street confrontation between players Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Andre Waters (Richard Jones), both facing career troubles, conveys the intricate dynamics of black machismo, with Waters retreating into hoodie-wearing anonymity.

This aspect of Concussion touches on the phenomenon of “Afro-Pessimism,” an academic concept of historic, institutionalized racism as practiced upon “the black body” as a site of violence, hatred, and discrimination. The concept has been widely corrupted in media accounts of the Michael Brown and Freddie Gray controversies in Ferguson and Baltimore.

This is singular: the screen’s first dramatization of black intellectual pride.

Concussion elevates the discussion through Omalu, who is not a ghetto miscreant but an educated, accomplished, dignified immigrant (married to an equally refined fellow immigrant, Prema Mutiso, played by the radiant Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who characterizes the unfeeling America as “this rusty place”). Not coincidentally, Omalu’s social status carries a trace of Obama-like respectability (at the end, Smith even raises his chin and cocks his jaw in a familiar presidential posture). Still, the ignominy Omalu endures becomes the focus. It goes from examining physical pressure on the black body (including Prema’s complicated pregnancy) to Omalu’s internalized stress. When he is publicly humiliated, Omalu exclaims: “It’s offensive. I am offended.” No black actor has ever before had the chance to perform such a scene on screen. Omalu’s sense of self-worth differs from Sidney Poitier and Juano Hernandez’s quiet manly poise. It may have been intended to dramatize the outrage Obama’s followers feel when criticisms are perceived as threats and indignities, yet this is singular: the screen’s first dramatization of black intellectual pride.

Now humbled (“They want to pretend that you don’t even exist,” an ally says), Omalu prays to his unborn son as if to his ancestors: “You are still with God. Please ask him to help me.” Although Smith is far from a Paul Robeson–style “race man,” after all the swill he has made in Hollywood, he has finally found access to his most serious on-screen moment.

Concussion ends by making conspicuous gestures toward the White House (Omalu is offered a federal-government post, and a montage on the actual football controversy includes prominent black Democratic politicians). But despite its obvious partisanship, the film most interestingly grapples with the crisis of the black body as a new political formulation. Through the specifics of Omalu’s perseverance, it proceeds to depict a social experience — ostracism, abuse, and intellectual affront — that can wound body and spirit. As Smith’s awkward title suggests: Trauma is the aftermath of America’s civil-rights action-movie.

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Smith has managed the confounding trick of making a movie about what Harold Cruse called “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” without his usually enormous fan base noticing or caring. Concussion, like Smith’s sci-fi life-counseling film, After Earth, has been a box-office flop. But whereas the latter was used by the media to ridicule Smith, hoping to whip him back into his banal blockbuster mode, Concussion has become a pawn in the new cultural strategy that uses the specter of racism to redefine African-American social and cultural status — in this case, manipulating an institution as trivial as the Academy Awards simply to force Hollywood into political correctness.

This vulgar “boycott” — to protest the lack of black actors (including Smith) among this year’s Oscar nominees — continues the concussive hijacking of the Sixties civil-rights movement, as if every black grievance relates back to that golden moment of purpose and advancement. (A sour-grapes video post by Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, didn’t help.) Complainers call for diversity, a catch-all term that asserts preference and entitlement (now replacing the social equality once implied by “integration”). It suggests that black artists should not be judged according to excellence but simply be guaranteed quotas.

Politicizing the Oscars more than ever is driven by a bored media elite desperate to prove that they themselves are above racism who pretend to be protecting African Americans’ well-being — primarily by keeping blacks in the position of a patronized class that always needs help (new laws, cultural welfare, a revamped Motion Picture Academy). It was a Los Angeles Times survey of the Academy’s membership that gave complainers tired statistics about the organization’s mostly white, elderly voting body. But the use of these data is specious — as if younger, non-white members would necessarily vote differently.

You can tell this “boycott” is media-driven rather than a sincere grassroots movement because it always pertains to high-profile films that publicists already promote to media outlets that are otherwise culturally clueless. By targeting the Academy as if it were FEMA during Hurricane Katrina, the media deflect attention from our culture’s actual ideological problem: the perceptual gap that automatically overlooks the work of black artists. This includes the way the media stereotype black artists while neglecting those who defy stereotypes.

The profiteering British actor David Oyelowo, who appears in some of the worst PC American films, condemned the Academy in a Hollywood Reporter interview that divulged his private conversation with the Academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Isaacs is not only the first black president of the Academy, she is also the first president without filmmaking credentials; her background as a hack may explain why she responds to the boycott with a publicist’s appeasement rather than by attempting to protect her organization’s sovereignty. Isaacs’s special private meeting with Oyelowo showed favoritism, and her statement about being “heartbroken” is reminiscent of Obama’s tearful gun-control theatrics (it also suggests pre-feminist melodramatics).

#related#Isaacs might have defended the Academy by pointing out the fact that its longstanding demographic is the same one that made Oscar progress for African Americans — voting awards to Hattie McDaniel, James Baskett, and Sidney Poitier, and nominating such films as Hallelujah, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Defiant Ones, Lilies of the Field, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Sounder while upholding the proposition that the excellent artistic expression of our social values mattered most. (Today’s boycotters prefer that meretricious films such as Precious, The Help, The Butler, and Straight Outta Compton be honored — in fact, congratulated — for perpetuating our cultural disunity.)

Isaacs represents a generational shift in American racial thinking. Diversity, that dirty word based in political correctness, has become a specious cause célèbre that encroaches upon the Oscars just as it has threatened U.S. campuses. Despite justifications made by progressives, this diversity gripe is anti-progress and offends the valiant history of actual civil-rights struggle. The boycotters are not sufficiently discerning to do justice to movie history, and they disgrace the sincerity and kindheartedness and strength of black Americans’ boycott tradition.

— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.



Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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