Culture

The Baltimore Culture Wars: A History

Barry Levinson at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)
A conservative guide to undercut disingenuous pop politics

The city of Baltimore has been an object of celebration, defense, argument, and embarrassment in the arts since long before the latest political conflict. Conservatives who crumble at allegations of racism — the fiercest tactic of contemporary Democratic-party strategists — fall victim to this rhetorical skirmish for one reason: As usual, conservatives don’t have an arsenal of arts knowledge. It might work as their defense. Some cultural background could help rebuff intimidation during the current battle of Battle of Baltimore.

Songwriter Randy Newman dealt with Baltimore as urban hellhole back in 1977 on his Little Criminals album. In “Baltimore,” he described the already crumbling infrastructure and torn social safety net. It followed the redneck satire of Newman’s Good Ol’ Boys album (1972) with equal-time social lament. The political sentiment was close to pandering except for such precise observations as “Beat up little seagull /on a marble stair / tryin’ to find the ocean / lookin’ everywhere,” which told you Newman had been there. He’d seen the marble stairs and the urban blight, just like the politicians and journalists who ride the Acela train past Baltimore on their way to D.C. but continue to ignore it.

The clarity of Newman’s response had an inspiring effect on racially conscious singer Nina Simone, who covered the song. In her sullen, woeful, jazzy tone, she emphasized the refrain “Baltimore / Man, it’s hard to live.” Have we forgotten what Simone verified as the unchanging hardship of Baltimore lives with nothing left to lose?

That intractable city, state, government, and society became a pop-music subject again four decades later when Prince pandered to it in a lesser song, written in response to the 2015 Ferguson and Baltimore protests. But Prince’s “Baltimore” is useless, avoiding Newman’s social observation and Simone’s grief: “The system is broken. It’s going to take the young people to fix it this time. We need new ideas, new life.”

A young black filmmaker and Prince fan told me, “Before the controversy, black folks in Baltimore didn’t a damn about Freddie Gray.” Prince exploited the controversial deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray (a reputed thug and reputed drug dealer) by first referencing Ice Cube’s great colloquial “It Was a Good Day,” then going all Black Lives Matter–commercial. Prince’s grumbling supposition of anger and blame expressed the last days of the Obama era, when facts of black demoralization were left unaddressed. That meant that politicians, pundits, and pop artists could exploit it at will. “Baltimore” lacked Prince’s spontaneity in “Dance On” (1988), an earlier, more buoyant lament, in which he reacted to intractable black urban misery with a dry inquiry: “Detroit, what’s happening?” Another Democratic-run city bemoaned.

*   *   *

Filmmaker Barry Levinson became known as “the bard of Baltimore” when his autobiographical movie Diner appeared in 1982, sentimentalizing the arrested-development experiences of the city’s young white males — working-class guys aspiring to what politicians fetishize as ”the middle class.” Fellow Baltimore native John Waters had worn worn the ”bard” moniker previously, for his outré satires — Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, Female Trouble — in which he dared to tout Baltimore denizens, such as the drag star Divine, who aspired to validate their outsider, underground status.

But Levinson bested Waters through middle-class approbation, not through talent. The cultural establishment praised Levinson’s brand of assimilation even if it was, obviously, a pale knock-off of George Lucas’s American Graffiti and Martin Scorsese’s New York–Italian Catholic coming-of-age film Mean Streets — which was already an Americana knock-off of Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni.

Levinson’s depiction of class and social deprivation was relatively banal, in the suspicious manner of a politician’s handshake. I’d previously described the “self-flattering provincialism” of Levinson’s urban tales, his Baltimore-set movies Diner, Tin Men, Avalon, and Liberty Heights: “That series contrives an explanation of modern American disintegration by idealizing an already specious view of the past — telling oversimplified stories of social dilemmas from immigration (Avalon) to petit-bourgeois mercantilism (Tin Men) and youth culture (Diner).” In Liberty Heights (1999), Levinson combined those interests into his most aggravating hometown romance:

His dishonesty sentimentalizes the Kurtzman boys Ben (Ben Foster) and Van (Adrien Brody), sons of a Jewish numbers-runner and burlesque-house manager Nate (Joe Mantegna), as the definitive intermixing 50s generation. Ben has a crush on Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the only black girl in his high school, while Van goes after the WASP country club set, particularly the blonde Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy). Nothing suggests an imminent civil rights movement; Levinson’s hints at the culture of assimilation . . . seems to come from . . . resentful nostalgia for the days before social conflict and political correctness.

Liberty Heights reached bottom (what once could be called “racist,” but that term has currently lost validity during this political free-for-all) when profiling the single black male character as the local pimp. Levinson cast comedian Orlando Jones to look like a comical lunatic: a Stepin Fetchit–type lazy black criminal, complete with conked hair, gold teeth, and bug eyes — a caricature.

This tendency toward Baltimore race caricature would proliferate in the bard’s work. As if to prove some kind of native loyalty, Levinson went on to produce the TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets (1993–99), an urban police drama that used Baltimore’s deprivation as fodder — normalizing urban and moral decay. Levinson followed that with the scabrous HBO series The Wire (2002–8), which introduced a roster of new-generation black stereotypes to authenticate the social fears first put into law through the 1994 Clinton crime bill. Even Obama saluted The Wire (“one of the best shows of all time”) and called the homicidal black gay villain Omar (Michael K. Williams) his favorite character.

Playwright Tony Kushner also praised The Wire, calling it the greatest television he’d ever seen. Given Kushner’s prominence (Angels in America, Spielberg’s Lincoln), this was the ultimate example of bleeding-heart liberal hyperbole, making racial awe, terror, and pity a cultural standard.

And yet, after so much self-satisfying self-delusion, we’re now meant to disregard social fact and cultural observation as racist. We’re not expected to apply our cultural experience to our political sense. The Battle of Baltimore isn’t exactly a battle of words, between President Trump’s tweet about conditions in Baltimore and Representative Elijah Cummings’s race-card-by-tweet defense, but a cultural contretemps suggestive of something more insidious: This sinister propaganda game is really a new culture war in which negative inference is used to distract from the civic issue. The legacy of all these pop artifacts proves what everyone — including President Trump — knows: that politicians have failed Baltimore.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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