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Bulworth for president?

Warren Beatty in a scene from “Bulworth,” which he also directed, co-wrote, and co-produced.
Warren Beatty in a scene from “Bulworth,” which he also directed, co-wrote, and co-produced.Sidney Baldwin/20th Century Fox

Downloads of “Bulworth” must have been through the roof last week.

After The New York Times reported that, in private, President Obama “has talked longingly of ‘going Bulworth,’ ” people all across the world were challenged to figure out what he meant. Some defined it simply as speaking in an unvarnished, truthful manner. But this was one of those little comments that speaks multitudes — not just about transparency, in this case, but also about race, public versus private personas, and the difference between being an “angry” and a “moderate” black politician in America.

One might expect the 1998 film, which took place at the height of pre-Internet media saturation, to be more than a little dated. But it turns out that “Bulworth” has a lot to say about the Obama presidency — and the frustrating rhetorical boundaries the president has occasionally brushed up against.

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In the movie, Warren Beatty (who also directed, co-wrote, and co-produced the film) plays Jay Billington Bulworth, a Clintonesque Democratic senator from California facing a stiff primary challenge from the right. The film opens with Beatty in the midst of a full-blown nervous breakdown in D.C. — he takes out a hit on himself so that he will be assassinated during an upcoming trip to California for some last-minute campaigning.

But when Bulworth gets to Los Angeles, he engages in a different sort of self-harm: politically suicidal truth-telling. At a South Central church, an audience member asks if the Democratic Party doesn’t care about black people. “Isn’t that obvious?” Bulworth responds. “Hey, you got half of your kids out of work and the other half are in jail. Do you see any Democrat doing anything about it? Certainly not me. What are you gonna do, vote Republican?” Then, at the house of a wealthy Hollywood mogul, Bulworth insults the entertainment industry and says of the affluent assembled, “You’re mostly Jews here, right? What, three out of four, anyway.” Then, gesturing to his speech: “I’m sure Murphy [an aide] put something bad about Farrakhan in here for you.”

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Things spiral out of control from there for Bulworth, with a visit to an all-black nightclub, several other memorable interviews and campaign stops, and an infatuation with a quiet but very intense and well-informed young black woman played by Halle Berry. Bulworth starts talking in rhyme and then rapping answers to reporters’ questions.

The movie alternates between Bulworth’s (very educational, to him) private interactions with black folks and public appearances in which he relates their messages to the masses. He ends up as an unlikely prophet for black America — on several occasions during interviews and debates he repeats, almost word-for-word, the grievances of the African-Americans he speaks with. There’s no black politician who could get away with this, the film seems to be saying, so Bulworth is the next-best thing.

As it turned out, of course, America got a black president. But he’s constrained in a way that Bulworth isn’t.

For years, now, comedians have tweaked (and liberals have criticized) Obama for being so calm and mild-mannered. The comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, for example, have a recurring segment in which Obama’s “anger translator,” Luther, played by Key, interprets characteristically mild remarks made by Obama (Peele) in a much more vociferous manner. (Obama, just after the election: “While we had huge turnout from our faithful supporters. . .”; Luther: “Thank you black folks! We made it to two elections in a row, man! Now how hard was that?”)

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So, while Obama has to be endlessly conscious of how non-black America views him and must therefore vigilantly project prudence and moderation, Bulworth, on the other hand, can afford to be an “angry black man” — because he’s white. He’s a “respectable” establishment politician who can’t be brushed off the same way as an unknown, scary insurgent.

The “anger translator” bit works because it’s so distant from the mild-mannered Obama we see every day — it’s much more Bulworth than Obama. Obama’s comment was a rare (and indirect) acknowledgment of the way his race hamstrings his ability to use his rhetorical and intellectual gifts to their full potential.

America has proven it’s ready for a black president. It just isn’t ready for a black Bulworth.

Jesse Singal can be reached at
jesse.r.singal@gmail.com
.