Saturday, March 29, 2008

Orson Welles Presents: American Radicalism and the Cultural Politics of Film Noir, 1940–1960

QUINLAN: Our friend Vargas has some very special ideas about police procedure.. He seems to think it doesn't matter whether a killer is hanged or not, so long as we obey the fine print...
VARGAS: (breaking in) : Well no, captain...
QUINLAN: (over) the rule books
VARGAS: ....I don't think a policeman should work like a dog...
[Tight Closeup: Quinlan and Vargas face each other in profile]
VARGAS: ...catcher...
QUINLAN: (over) No?
VARGAS: ....putting criminals behind bars. No! In any free country...
QUINLAN: (turning away, into camera) Aw...
VARGAS:...a policeman is supposed to enforce the law, and the law protects the guilty as well as the innocent.
QUINLAN: Our job is tough enough,
VARGAS: It's supposed to be. It has to be tough. A policeman's job is only easy in a police state. That's the whole point, captain. Who is the boss, the cop or the law?

--Dialogue from 'Touch of Evil' written and directed by Orson Welles (1958)

Harry Lime: (to his friend Holly Martins) "When you make up your mind, send me a message--I'll meet you any place, any time, and when we do meet, old man, it's you that I want to see, not the police...And don't be so gloomy...After all, it's not that awful--you know what the fellow said: In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed; and they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly."

--Dialogue from 'The Third Man' featuring Orson Welles as Harry Lime; directed by Carol Reed (1949)

Last night my wife and I went to view two classic films featuring the legendary filmmaker and actor Orson Welles at the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) on the University of California, Berkeley campus. The films--one directed by Welles himself, and the other featuring him in an important supporting role--were made during the beginning of the public decline of Welles's fame and influence on American and global cinema that occurred as a direct result of the notorious Hollywood blacklist that formally began in 1947 and officially continued until the early 1960s (and for some blacklistees lasted even longer into the 1970s and even early 1980s).

The films that we saw last evening (and have enjoyed seeing many times over the years) were 'The Third Man' (1949) beautifully directed by the famed British filmmaker Carol Reed and featuring Welles along with his longtime friend, artistic ally, and colleague Joseph Cotton in the leading role, and Welles's own critically acclaimed and international film noir cult classic 'Touch of Evil' (1958) that was not only written and directed by Welles but starred him in the leading role as well and marked Welles's very brief escape from the blacklist after a decade long physical and artistic exile from the United States before he and his career was once again consigned to the remote margins of American film where Welles, despite his own many valiant efforts, tragically remained until his death at age 70 in 1985.

The following critical essay on Welles and the larger cinematic project of film noir (and its fundamental ideological, social, and aesthetic connections to the rise of a dynamic and independent radical American cinema in the 1940-1960 era) was written by myself as part of a book of critical and theoretical essays on film, music, politics, cultural history, philosophy, art, critical theory, and literature that I recently completed entitled "What is An Aesthetic?": Writings on American Culture, 1985-Present.


Orson Welles and the Cinema as Political Essay
by Kofi Natambu

I. Directors & Writers

Orson Welles
Abraham Polonsky
John Huston
Jack Berry
Edgar Ulmer
Sam Fuller
Nicholas Ray
Robert Siodmak
Billy Wilder
Andre De Toth
Jules Dassin
Edward Dmytryk
Jacques Tourneur
Alexander Mackendrick
Fritz Lang
Joseph H. Lewis
Cy Endfield
Phil Karlson
Robert Aldrich

II. Films

Citizen Kane
Body & Soul
Double Indemnity
Try and Get Me
The Maltese Falcon
Pickup on South Street
Murder, My Sweet
Touch of Evil
Shock Corridor
The Naked Kiss
The Big Heat
Phantom Lady
Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival)
Night & the City
He Ran All the Way
The Asphalt Jungle
Sweet Smell of Success
Out of the Past
The Big Combo
In a Lonely Place
Force of Evil
Brute Force

So much has been said and written about film noir by writers, filmmakers, critics, academicians and artists, particularly over the past decade, that its seems almost excessive and unnecessary to add still another essay to the pile. However it is my contention that much of what has been written has failed to adequately account for the form’s on-going popularity and resonance with its audience in the United States. The reasons are varied and complex but they all essentially go back to a fundamental fact about film noir that most commentators either miss or are simply reluctant (afraid?) to admit: Film noir is, and has always been, a quintessentially political aesthetic. This not only means that it actively foregrounds and engages both ideological thought and expression but also that the creative conception of the form is never far removed from its ever changing social contexts. This concern is especially true of film noir’s origins in the cultural history and politics of the 1930s and 1940s, and its earlier incarnations in the largely pulp/proletarian literary traditions of crime/detective fiction and the mystery narrative as exemplified in the writing of such masters of the tradition as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich and Chester Himes. What all these writers have in common is an almost obsessive concern with how traditionally marginalized social and economic groups in American society (workers, the unemployed poor, women, oppressed national minorities etc.) have experienced the corrosive effects of poverty, racism, misogyny, and class exploitation as well as various forms of moral, ethical, political, and spiritual corruption in a voraciously capitalist atmosphere of greed, lust, hatred, fear and revenge. In the often highly melodramatic and expressionist narratives of these writers we discover how and why these twisted values and attitudes of American society actually encourages violent criminal behavior as a delusionary remedy for the pervasive problems of despair, alienation, disenfranchisement and social dislocation.

In fact, what remains distinctive about film noir to this day is that it paints a portrait of the United States, its institutions, and its citizens that is profoundly at odds with official representations of what American society is like. This insistence in noir on the perverse, destructive, and oppressive aspects of social reality and conflict in modern America is a transgressive feature of film noir’s ability to disturb and subvert our expectations of, and conditioned demands for, a ‘happy ending’, or an easy and simple resolution of the highly conflicted, complex and ambiguous problems that confront us in a given narrative (and by extension in our own lives). Thus it is no surprise that many of the most dynamic and critically acclaimed filmmakers of film noir in the U.S. were politically radical or conscious artists who were deeply concerned with the issues, problems, and challenges posed by the provocative thematic and aesthetic material suggested in noir.

For leftist directors and writers like Orson Welles, Abraham Polonsky, Jules Dassin, John Huston, Nicholas Ray, Edward Dmytryk, Jack Berry, Cy Endfield, and Joseph Losey, this meant there was a joint concern with both form and content in which the aesthetic aspect of their work would serve to enhance and provide needed structure and nuance for the expression of certain specific ideas, opinions and values that were either stated openly or implied/suggested in the narrative itself. The general objective was for these artists to find an idiosyncratic way of creating a ‘dialectical unity’ of elements within the script, mise-en-scène, montage, and behavior of major protagonists in the narrative that would ideally heighten the audience’s consciousness, understanding and knowledge of what themes, ideas, and values were being represented in both the film’s ‘open’ text and ‘hidden’ subtext. In this respect many of these filmmakers work appeared to echo that of the renowned German Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht in intent if not in aesthetic style and philosophy. Brecht’s idea that “to think or write or produce [a play] also means: to transform society, to transform the state, to subject ideologies to close scrutiny” finds its filmic correlative in such film noir classics as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, Abraham Polonsky’s Body & Soul and Force of Evil, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, Jules Dassin’s Brute Force and Night and the City, Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire, Nick Ray’s They Live by Night, Joseph Losey’s The Prowler, and Cyril Endfield’s Try and Get Me.

These films and others from the 1940-1960 era like Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole (a.k.a. The Big Carnival), Pickup on South Street The Big Heat, Sweet Smell of Success, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Big Combo (the latter films directed and written by such avowedly non-leftist or otherwise apolitical filmmakers as Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Alexander Mackendrick, Sam Fuller, Tay Garnett, and Joseph H. Lewis) all shared a concern with a pointed critique and exposure of the greed, duplicity, collusion, exploitation, and corruption of corporate and civil institutions such as banks, insurance companies, financial investment firms, mass media (particularly newspapers and television), the criminal justice system (specifically lawyers, prisons and the police), and the government (local, state and federal).

It is also no coincidence that much of the narrative content of film noir was derived from American social and political history. Thus major figures of 20th century politics and culture are often alluded to or referenced in metaphorical and allegorical terms within noir narratives: the wealthy and powerful newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane; the radio, TV and newspaper columnist Walter Winchell in Sweet Smell of Success; and notorious gangsters like Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, Al Capone, Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky in The Big Heat, Force of Evil, and The Big Combo. It is also striking that many of the protagonists in these narratives were individuals who were compelled for reasons of desire or necessity (or both) to take on large powerful institutions in their quest for either social justice or criminal competition with these forces. American filmmakers with a radical or leftist ideological bent were able, in the words of famed director Martin Scorsese (another contemporary master of noir), to ‘smuggle’ in the ideas and values that they wanted to portray, despite Hollywood’s constraints. This was especially true for artists like Welles, Polonsky, Dassin, Losey, Berry etc. who during the 1930s and ’40s were openly involved in radical political activity outside Hollywood and, within four years after the HUAC hearings began in the fall of 1947, were either blacklisted, imprisoned or forced into exile because of their political and cultural affiliations.

The purpose of this essay is to critically examine the film production of an individual filmmaker who during the pivotal period of 1940-1960 used the aesthetic and structural forms of film noir to investigate and critique the underside of the American Dream to reveal what ideas, values, attitudes and behaviors were lurking in opposition to the conventional or official version of U.S. society. I also intend to examine and reveal the larger social, cultural, economic, and political context of this film by focusing attention on what this director was consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously responding to in the form and content of his narrative and thematic concerns. To this end I hope to critically question and subvert the notion that noir is strictly a generic, formal, or stylistic approach to film aesthetics and narrative structure. Thus I will raise important issues of representation, ideology, historical interpretation and cultural philosophy.

Furthermore I am interested in how social reality and the art of film intersect in the work of directors and writers from the standpoint of their own broader concerns with discovering the links between their own lives as artists and that of the general history and identity of the United States. One of my major concerns is also with a close reading of the various films’ open and implied meanings as expressed in its textual and structural dimensions. The intent is to determine how individual films convey ideas and values through the expressive dynamics of cinematography, dialogue, editing, music, set and art design and acting.

It’s often been said that film noir was created in response to the extraordinary events of the era that had just recently preceded it: World War II, the Great Depression, large scale radical political and cultural activism throughout the globe and revolutionary advances in literature, theatre, music and painting. One could also say that noir sought to bring a tough new realism to modern cinema by insisting on the expression of emotions, ideas, human behavior and social values that until the 1940s had largely been ignored or censored by the Hollywood film industry. What this meant ultimately of course was that American film (and that of Europe, Latin America and Asia) would be forever changed by the innovations and stances advanced by a generation of filmmakers in the U.S. who were determined to create and develop a ‘new content’ (and thus identity) for American film that would not merely celebrate or reproduce homages to the official notions of what American society was, and could be, but also challenged the received and largely accepted explanations of what American society, culture and history meant. This is film noir’s greatest triumph and the enduring legacy/gift of its early cinematic creators who often told us disquieting things about ourselves, our history, and our reality that we still, more than ever, desperately need to know, confront, and change.

I. Orson Welles: Film Noir as Political Commentary & Social Critique

In late summer 1947, Orson Welles (1915-1985), the legendary filmmaker, actor, theatre director, radio writer and producer, magician, raconteur and genius enfant terrible of Hollywood left the United States for Rome, Italy after completing the shooting of his original adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, his sixth film in six years (and fifth as director). He was thirty-two years old and would not return to the U.S. for nearly ten years. A true Renaissance figure, no individual in the history of American cinema had even remotely accomplished what Welles had at such an early age. By 1948 three of Welles’ films (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Lady from Shanghai) were already considered by critics among the finest movies ever made in the history of the medium, and his many theatre and radio productions as director, actor, writer and producer during the 1930s were highly original, inventive and innovative benchmarks in their respective fields as well.

But what was also distinctive about Welles as artist and citizen was the extraordinary level of his political commitment and activism. A radical social democrat since his adolescence, Welles had directed the very successful stage version of Native Son (1940), the best-selling novel by the African American writer and communist Richard Wright, on Broadway in 1941, and had electrified the theatre world some five years earlier with an all-black version of Macbeth. Welles was also heavily involved in a very wide range of political and cultural causes, including a series of national radio broadcasts on CBS radio scripted, produced and hosted by Welles on his program Orson Welles Commentaries in 1946-47 that brought to national attention the case of Isaac Woodward, a black veteran of WWII who was beaten and blinded by a racist white South Carolina policeman in the summer of 1946. In the words of the famous black political cartoonist and radical Ollie Harrington (who was then public relations director for the NAACP) these “fantastically dramatic and interesting programs” featured Welles himself “playing the role of somebody out hunting these men who had done this.” As a result, they actually discovered the two policemen who were responsible for the act. As Michael Denning points out in his groundbreaking chapter on Welles from his outstanding book, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (Verso, 1996), Welles’ political drama began with a reading of Woodward’s own affidavit, followed by a direct address to the policeman that the blinded veteran had been unable to identify. The policeman, Welles pointed out in his broadcasts “brought the justice of Dachau and Oswiekem to Aiken, South Carolina.” In highly melodramatic tones, Welles’ narrative combined as, Denning states “Shakespearean bombast with echoes of [Welles fictional radio superhero] The Shadow”:

"Wash your hands, Officer X. Wash them well...You won’t blot out the blood of a blinded war veteran, nor yet the color of your skin...You’ll never wash away that leperous lack of pigment...the guilty pallor of the white man...What does it cost to be a Negro? In Aiken, South Carolina, it cost a man his eyes. What does it cost to wear over your skeleton the pinkish tint officially described as “white?” In Aiken, South Carolina, it cost a man his soul... Who am I? A masked avenger from the comic books? No sir. Merely an inquisitive citizen of America."

As Denning goes on to point out Welles made the search for Officer X a continuing and successful political drama. Eventually an eyewitness was found and it was discovered that Woodward had actually been taken off the Greyhound bus and beaten in the town of Batesburg, a few miles from Aiken, South Carolina. Welles then apologized to the town of Aiken but the controversy led the network ABC to cancel his show. As it turned out the Woodward case marked the end of Welles’ political career in the United States. In October 1947, the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC) formally began its notorious government-sponsored witch hunt for communists and other radicals in the Hollywood film community. Not coincidentally Welles had left just the United States for Europe just two months earlier, thus beginning his exile from the U.S. that lasted until December 1956 when he began work on his final Hollywood studio film, the film noir classic Touch of Evil, which was released in 1958. The exile ensured that while Welles would narrowly escape testifying before HUAC and thus avoid its reactionary prosecutorial wrath, he would still essentially be blacklisted like many of his friends and associates during the entire time he was away, and even afterward--an obvious fact that most of Welles’ biographers and critics have studiously and inexplicably ignored. These writers have pretended that this glaring decade-long gap in Welles’ career is not politically significant, despite the fact that he was forced to work only with European producers and studios on low budget productions of his own, and that from 1948 until his death in 1985, one of the most famous and critically acclaimed filmmakers in American and world cinematic history was allowed to make only one film (Touch of Evil) in the Hollywood studio system! It is also important to note that one of the earliest victims of the ensuing blacklist created by McCarthyism was one of Welles’ closest and most valued colleagues, the Mercury Theatre radio writer, Howard Koch.

Soon a staggering number of Welles’ friends and fellow artists (actors, writers, directors, technicians and producers) also had their careers and lives ruined by the deadly blacklist, including one of his co-stars in Citizen Kane, and fellow Mercury Theatre actor, Dorothy Comingore (who played Kane’s mistress Susan in the 1941 film). Indeed one of the many other American artists who, like Welles, chose exile rather than be interrogated by the rapacious committee was the radical black novelist Richard Wright who left Brooklyn, NY with his family in 1947 to live in Paris. Wright, who never returned to the United States, died mysteriously in France in 1960 at the age of 52.

The reason I have chosen to write at some length about Welles’ political background is that except for rare occasions, like those provided by Denning, almost none of Welles’ biographers and critics have investigated or written about this very important aspect of Welles’ life and career and its absolutely crucial role in his work as a film director, writer and actor (especially in terms of his highly creative and dynamic thematic and narrative uses of film noir in Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai, and Touch of Evil). It is indeed strange and even bizarre that most commentary by critics on Welles choose to ignore this major dimension of Welles’ work as a filmmaker until one begins to consider that one of the many still lingering consequences of McCarthyism and the blacklist in American culture in general (and the Hollywood film industry in particular) is an almost studied reluctance or refusal on the part of many to probe too deeply into the profound legacy and impact that state sponsored censorship and political repression (as well as widespread self censorship practiced by artists themselves) has had, and continues to have, on American cinema.

However, this tragic reality does not mean that we can blithely ignore the undeniable fact that as a leading Popular Front member, and perhaps as Michael Denning points out, “the single most important Popular Front artist in theater, radio, and film, both politically and aesthetically,” Welles had a major impact on the political direction of American film and theatre during the 1935-1950 period. As Denning notes:

“Moreover from his first appearance in New York in 1935 to his departure for Europe in 1947, Welles was active in the Popular Front social movement, lending his name, voice, and work to the New Theatre League, the League of American Writers, the Sleepy Lagoon Defense committee, the California Labor School, the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP), and the Progressive Citizens of America...”

But the influence doesn’t end there. Welles was also at the forefront of putting his art where his politics were through his tireless work as cofounder and director of the famed Mercury Theatre group (at the age of 22!) and his subsequent conquering of Hollywood just four short years later in Citizen Kane. Despite these radical breakthroughs Welles is still not often given his due in radical American cultural history. As Denning points out:

“Curiously, Welles is often overlooked in accounts of Popular Front culture, which usually suggest that Clifford Odets and the Group Theatre were the heart of the radical stage, and that the Communist screenwriters--the Hollywood Ten-- were the center of the film industry left. However none of the other Popular Front theater or film artists, either in New York or Hollywood produced a body of work comparable to that of Welles, neither writers like John Howard Lawson, Ring Lardner, Jr., Clifford Odets, or Dalton Trumbo, nor directors like Elia Kazan, Abraham Polonsky, or Joseph Losey. Eugene O’Neill and Charles Chaplin are perhaps Welles’ only equals, and they are both products of an earlier modernist moment.”

Given these essential facts, it is necessary to examine Welles’ films in a much broader social and cultural context than is customary. This is particularly true of his film noir productions, which were clearly conceived as both political commentary and cultural critique from their inception. For details about how and why Welles saw these films from a radical ideological and social perspective it is important to go directly to Welles himself to find the answers. What we will discover is an artist whose aesthetics were never far removed from his politics, in either form or content, nor his politics from his aesthetic notions about the world. This led Welles to not only developing a new creative approach to the use of drama, melodrama and documentary in his film noir work, but also to being closely monitored by the FBI which had been diligently tracking Welles since 1941. He was even put on the Security Index Card list as one of the intellectuals, activists and artists to be “immediately detained and imprisoned in the event of a national emergency” (i.e. large scale revolutionary activity). No wonder then that Welles was fascinated and horrified by the aesthetic, ideological and political power of fascism--a force that was to exert a definitive influence on all of his work and particularly in film.

II. Welles vs. Fascism: Film Noir as Aesthetic and Ideological Weapon

“It is now possible to bewilder and hypnotize an audience to an extent that they believe they are in the most high-priced bedroom ever seen, or that they are listening to the most high-priced foreign actresses available to Mr. Goldwyn. This kind of hypnosis is dangerous, not only politically, but aesthetically and culturally...

--Orson Welles
“Theatre and the People’s Front”
April 15, 1938
Daily Worker

“Fascism, we know, sells itself by making its appeal to emotions rather than to reason, to the senses rather than the mind. Showmanship is fundamental to the fascist strategy, and the chief fascist argument is the parade...”

--Orson Welles
“The Nature of the Enemy”
(speech given January 22, 1945)

The seven-year period that frames these public statements Welles made for both print and radio media are representative of many articles and speeches that Welles wrote during the 1930s and ‘40s before the blacklist and his personal exile from the United States. What’s striking about these bold declarations of war against fascism and everything it stood for both in the U.S. and abroad, is that Welles is making them at the very height of his career as an artist, and that they mirror so subtly and openly the form and content of his work as writer, actor and director in radio, theatre and film. The historical role of what became known as “People’s Theatre” was crucial to Welles’ vision as a filmmaker, and it was through his riveting and innovative work in his own radical repertory company, the Mercury Theatre, that Welles found both a viable technique and working method for staging and structuring his narratives. These methods and strategies were brought over and creatively renewed and extended within an entirely new aesthetic context-- the cinema--and then used to frame action and behavior from the different perspective of this other medium.

This was nowhere more apparent than in Welles’ extraordinary first film Citizen Kane (1941) where everything Welles had learned in a decade-long career in the theatre and radio was put to use in a highly charged and distinctive way in order to accomplish the same goals that Welles and his radical colleagues and friends in the ‘People’s Theatre’ movement had been so fervently fighting for. For Welles this meant, as it did for other active members of the Popular Front, a fierce opposition to the ever-growing fascist threat of a “hypnotized mass public.” Against this powerful political and moral evil Welles offered “the democratic promise of a movement that would openly use the new mass media of radio and film to democratize elite culture and expropriate the cultural wealth of the past for the working classes.” Thus the opportunity to direct, write and act in a film that would directly address the dangers of fascism at home led Welles to take on the highly controversial project of Citizen Kane at a time when a world war was being waged against fascism abroad. As Denning makes clear:

"The left wing theaters of the depression provided the context for the work of Welles and the Mercury Theatre. Welles was fascinated by fascism, and his great works—Julius Caesar, “The War of the Worlds” [radio broadcast], Citizen Kane, Native Son, the Isaac Woodward radio broad-casts, and Touch of Evil--are allegories of fascism.... Citizen Kane combined the two fundamental elements of Welles’ antifascist aesthetic: the portrait of the great dictator and the reflection on showmanship and propaganda. The wit and tragedy of the story of the yellow journalist Kane are produced by the jokes, fulminations, drunken diatribes, and soapbox rhetoric about the mass media..."

It is within this social context that the aesthetic decisions about the cinematic portrayal of Charles Foster Kane (a thinly veiled fictional stand-in for the all too real newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst) were made and carried out. In reality Hearst was a highly duplicitous and dictatorial man whose political sympathies and support were reserved for the fascists in Europe, and their supporters in the United States (of whom Hearst, along with the automobile magnate Henry Ford, was the most powerful and publicly visible leader). It is crucial to note that Hearst was seen by Welles and the general Popular Front left as an emblem of American fascism, “a powerful capitalist who was also a visible demagogue.” The Wisconsin sociologist Edward A. Ross wrote that:

“Hearst, with his twenty-seven newspapers, his thirteen magazines, his broadcasting stations and his film studios is a greater menace to the lovers of American institutions than any other man in the country. In the last three years it has become evident that he has an understanding with European Fascist leaders and is using his vast publicity apparatus to harry and discredit those who stand up for American democracy.”

Thus Citizen Kane’s depiction of Hearst was deeply indebted to this anti-Hearst sentiment, and in particular to Ferdinand Lundberg’s muckraking biography, Imperial Hearst published in 1936. Additionally, Hearst’s public statements supporting Hitler and Mussolini were notorious, and his newspapers were obsessively anti-labor. This historical background provides the general outlines of, and motivation for, the portrait of Kane but does not provide the focus of Welles’ narrative. Instead of simply making a movie about the rise and fall of a media empire and its impact on the politics and culture of its time (roughly from 1870-1940), Welles uses the modern sound and visual techniques derived from radio and documentary film and photography to juxtapose the conflict and tension between a so-called “objective” interpretation of Kane’s journalistic and political career as a newspaper mogul vs. a “subjective” point –of view that ironically privileges and critically examines Kane’s own sense of the ‘meaning’ of his life. In other words, the film Citizen Kane allows us to ‘see’ and interpret Kane’s life from the jaundiced and highly conflicted perspective of a news reporter named Thompson (who is significantly only viewed by the audience from the back or in deep shadows) who is told by his superiors to go out and find the “true meaning” of Kane’s life by investigating why Kane uttered the cryptic word “Rosebud” on his deathbed.

What’s doubly important about this narrative gambit for Welles’ complex film about the relationship between meaning and history (or appearances vs. realities) is that Thompson is given this assignment only after he and, of course, we as audience, witnesses the detailed and highly dramatic viewing of Kane’s “life, career, and death” by a “March of Time” documentary (called “News on the March” in the film) that serves as a public obituary for the passing of a very famous, wealthy and controversial man whose politics, morality and eccentric public behavior fascinated, repulsed and inspired his many enemies and supporters during a pivotal period in American history. By using sound and images to tell both the complex life of a fictional protagonist and his ‘real’ alter ego (rendered in stark allegorical terms), we are able to discern in a critical manner the differences and similarities in the way an individual’s life story is told in social and political terms by media, and the contrasting stories told about that person’s life (and its meaning) from the private perspective of the person being examined by the public. In this way Welles attempts to maintain a human connection with his protagonist that does not merely reduce that individual character/person to a social-historical caricature. The aim on Welles part is that by not losing sight of the flawed humanity being portrayed in his narratives-within-narratives approach we, as audience, will also not lose sight of what that character represents and “stands for” (or against) in his social and political life. It is the concept of the individual as seen in the context of his social and cultural milieu that is essential to Welles’ aesthetic.

The intent of this filmic strategy on Welles’ part is that we are made to think about the open and implied meaning(s) of his characters’ actions, motivations, behavior, ideas and beliefs and then decide for ourselves what our response to the film’s critique and investigation will be (both intellectually and emotionally). It is through this dialectical manipulation of, and engagement with, the ideological elements of his film narrative (both thematically and aesthetically) that Welles is able to interrogate the larger social, economic and political landscape of Kane’s and, by metaphorical extension, Hearst’s reality. This is the “Brechtian connection” in Welles’ film, and the structural device that allows the audience to see and experience what the characters cannot or will not experience for themselves.

This goal is accomplished in the film text through Welles’ innovative creative and technical use of the then seldom used cinematic methods that together were later to stylistically inform and become heavily identified with film noir: German expressionism, chiaroscuro lighting, deep-focus photography, use of voice-over narration (and for Welles such modern radio techniques as ‘cross-cutting dialogue’) and editing within the compositional frame (i.e. mise-en-scène). The use of severe or unusual camera angles, high contrast lighting that juxtaposed lights and darks in starkly dramatic ways through the manipulation of shadows and very bright light (or pitch darkness), and ironic uses of dialogue to comment on various actions of protagonists in the narrative were all techniques that Welles used to particularly dynamic ends in Kane and that served as almost textbook examples of noir aesthetics for his peers and contemporaries as well as future generations of filmmakers.

The brilliant application of these techniques and procedures to the structuring of Kane as a film noir is especially telling in Welles’ dramatic framing of Kane’s personal history as well as political rise and decline through the multiple perspectives of individuals who are connected to Kane as either family, friends, political and business associates, allies, enemies, wives and lovers. In this manner these various individuals play a narrative role that is similar in many ways to that of the news reporter Thompson (who is ironically a complete stranger to Kane who becomes connected to him only after his death). For example we first see Kane on the screen in extreme close-up where only his whiskered mouth is seen uttering in a dying whisper the word “Rosebud” as a glass ball containing snow-like flakes is shown falling and rolling away on the floor from Kane’s extended right hand and arm as he literally passes away. Our next shot of Kane is as a young boy of eight playing in the snow outside his home on his sled. This long shot is taken from the perspective of the inside of his home where his mother (Agnes Moorhead) is calling for the boy to come inside. We then see the boy in medium shot as he picks up the sled and strides toward the house where his mother, father and a third rather stern and ‘proper’ figure is standing off to his mother’s right side. Far in the background in the upper right side of the frame is the boy’s father who looks rather forlorn and anxious. At this point we first see the boy in close-up as he eagerly and then with a look of concern looks up at his mother’s now drawn and worried face. The boy is hugging his mother around her legs very tightly. Suddenly we see the tall stern patriarchal figure standing closer to the boy’s mother on the left side of the screen as he moves toward the boy with a wide smile and an outstretched hand seeking to introduce himself. The stranger addresses the now clearly frightened and suspicious boy who looks at his very grave mother with a pleading expression on his face in fear of the stranger. The mother informs the boy that he has nothing to fear from the stranger but the boy moves quickly away from him as the stranger tries to reassure the boy that everything is alright by walking toward the boy and making a friendly gesture while calling him “Charles” as if he were a long lost relative or friend of the boy’s parents. At this point the boy quickly lunges toward the stranger with the metal end of his sled telling the stricken stranger to go away and angrily calls out to his mother. By now Kane’s father has moved away from his isolated spot deep in the frame and is telling Kane that he is going to be very rich and that the stranger has come to "help" him. Meanwhile Kane’s mother looking just as grave and sad as before manages a small smile and tells Kane that he has nothing to fear, that the man now identified as a “Mr. Thatcher” has come to take Kane away to live with him in another town. Kane, now confused but hopeful that his parents are also coming along asks whether they will be joining him, and the mother tries to explain on the verge of tears that he will going alone but that Mr. Thatcher will take good care of him. Kane clutches his mother tightly and begins to defiantly face down Thatcher as his father continues to cackle over Kane’s shoulder that he is going to be very wealthy and famous. It is suggested through body language and the distinct disapproving looks of Kane’s mother that Kane’s father is a wastrel and perhaps an abusive alcoholic as the mother says that it will be good that “Charlie will be going to a place where you {the father} can’t get at him” (this is in response to the father raising his hand to strike the boy in retaliation for pushing Mr. Thatcher with the sled) as Kane now moves away from his father. Meanwhile the father continues to extol the virtues of Charlie leaving with the stranger as the mother with obvious deep regret and inner pain signs some sort of contract with Mr. Thatcher.

As it turns out of course the boy’s worst instincts about the stranger are completely confirmed when we discover after a brief flurry of shots of the young Kane responding scornfully to a series of very expensive birthday and New Year presents being given to Kane as he grows older. Then there is a brilliant cut to Kane as a now young man in his mid twenties--Welles' precise age at the time!-- who with his back turned to the audience suddenly swivels in his chair to reveal him talking with a very bemused and ironic smirk on his face to a now withered and rapidly aging Thatcher. It turns out that Kane’s parents (with his mother’s reluctant but finally approving consent) have essentially ‘sold’ their child to a large East Coast based bank of which Thatcher is Chairman of the Board. This development has come about as a result of a former boarder of Kane’s parents’ home leaving them stock in a silver mine as payment for his debt which has turned out to be extremely lucrative, and has unintentionally made Kane and his family very wealthy. It is suggested by the scene of the mother signing the contract with Mr. Thatcher that she is hopeful that her son can now be ‘properly brought up’ in a new environment befitting his new status and to shield him from his father.

As the now adult Kane points out with a mixture of bitterness, ironic humor, anger and a fatalistic philosophical shrug of his shoulders he has been raised by a bank! In this scene we first see Kane speaking in a deceptively amiable tone that dramatically becomes a rageful and hurt anger while a deeply disturbed and world-weary Thatcher complains about the considerable fortune that Kane has “irresponsibly” squandered away on wine, women, and song throughout the United States and Europe while attending, and then being expelled from, a series of major Ivy League colleges for his rebellious hijinks and complete indifference to institutional learning and authority. The dialogue here (and the visual dynamics of the scene itself) reinforce and finally foreground an underlying sense of catastrophe with regard to the now wealthy and powerful young man who sits resentfully across from a notoriously greedy and manipulative old capitalist-guardian who wonders openly how such a spoiled and ungrateful man could have emerged from his (and the bank’s) ‘wise care.’ Besides, Thatcher views Kane as a very dangerous and ‘unstable’ investment that must be disciplined. Thus what Thatcher now offers Kane is some kind of cynical business compromise that he (vainly) hopes will ensure Kane’s loyalty to his revered capitalist principles.

Toward this end Thatcher informs Kane that as a new full-fledged member of the capitalist class that he has a responsibility to the stockholders and investors in the many diversified corporate entities that Thatcher and his bank have developed. He formally drafts a letter upon Kane’s 25th birthday informing Kane that this occasion officially marks Kane’s complete independence from the firm of Thatcher & Co. as well as giving Kane full corporate responsibility for the “world’s sixth largest private fortune.” However the young, dynamic (and resentful) Kane has a decidedly different view of both his wealth and what should be done with it:

Thatcher: [who is still dictating the business letter to Kane]
Charles I don’t think you quite realize the full
Importance of the position you are about to
occupy in the world. I’m therefore enclosing
for your consideration a complete list of your
holdings extensively cross-indexed...

[Abrupt cut to Thatcher’s assistant reading Kane’s written
reply to Thatcher as the old man sits looking exasperated]

Assistant: “Dear Mr. Thatcher”...It’s from Mr. Kane...
“Sorry, but I’m not interested in gold mines,
oil wells, shipping, or real estate...” [At this
point Thatcher angrily grabs the letter
and snorts “What? Not interested?” and
reads on]...However one item on your list
intrigues me, the New York Inquirer, a little
newspaper you acquired in a foreclosing. Please
don’t sell it. I’m coming back to America to
take charge. I think it would be fun to run a
newspaper...[At this point Thatcher expresses
his disgust by angrily repeating Kane’s
flippant phrase “I think it would be ‘fun’ to run
a newspaper!” (Thatcher then growls)...

At this point a rapid montage series of newspaper headlines are shown bearing the masthead New York Inquirer. The headlines read: TRACTION TRUST EXPOSED! TRACTION TRUST SMASHED BY THE INQUIRER! LANDLORDS REFUSE TO CLEAR SLUMS! I NQUIRER WINS SLUM FIGHT! COPPER ROBBERS INDICTED! GALLEONS OF SPAIN OFF JERSEY COAST! As a now fulminating Thatcher openly bemoans what Kane is doing as the camera pulls back to reveal Thatcher, holding the “Inquirer” with its headline, standing in front of Kane’s desk. Kane is seated behind the desk as it swivels around to address Thatcher directly. Kane is calmly drinking a cup of coffee as he looks up at Thatcher...

THATCHER: Is this really your idea of how to
run a newspaper?

KANE: I don’t know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher.
I just try everything I can think of.

THATCHER: (Reading the headlines) “Galleons of Spain off
the Jersey coast” You know you haven’t the
slightest proof that this--this armada-- is off the
Jersey coast...

KANE: Can you prove that it isn’t?

(At this point Kane’s friend and accountant for the paper,
Bernstein rushes in, a cable in his hand. He stops when he
sees Thatcher)

KANE: (Genially introduces them) Mr. Bernstein, Mr.

BERNSTEIN: How are you, Mr. Thatcher?
(Thatcher gives him only a very brief nod)

BERNSTEIN: (con’t) We just had a wire from Cuba, Mr.
Kane (he stops embarrassed, eyeing
Thatcher warily)

KANE: That’s all right. We have no secrets from our
readers. Mr. Thatcher is one of our most devoted
readers, Mr. Bernstein. He knows what’s wrong
with every copy of the “Inquirer” since I took charge
Read the cable.

BERNSTEIN: Food marvelous in Cuba--girls delightful stop
could send you prose poems about scenery.
Don’t feel right spending your money…
Stop… there’s no war in Cuba signed Wheeler.
Any answer?

KANE: Yes. Dear Wheeler--(pauses a moment)--you
provide the prose poems--I’ll provide the war.

BERNSTEIN: That’s very good Mr. Kane. (Thatcher,
now bursting with indignation, sits down)

KANE: (looking rather pleased with himself) I kinda like
it myself. Send it right away, Mr. Bernstein.

BERNSTEIN: Right away.
(Bernstein leaves. After a moment of indecision, Thatcher
decides to make one last try)

THATCHER: Charles. I came to see you about this--cam-
paign of “Inquirer’s” cam-
paign-- against the Metropolitan Transfer

KANE: Good. You got some material we can use against

THATCHER: You’re still a college boy, aren’t you

KANE: Oh, no, I was expelled from college--several
colleges. Don’t you remember? (Thatcher
glares at him)...I remember. I think that’s when
I first lost my belief that you were omnipotent,
Mr. Thatcher--when you told me that the dean’s
decision at Harvard, despite all your efforts was
irrevocable--(He thinks, and looks at Thatcher
inquiringly)--irrevocable--(Thatcher stares at
him angrily, tight-lipped)...I can’t tell you how
often I’ve learned the correct pronunciation of
that word, but I always forget.

THATCHER: (Not interested, coming out with it) I
think I should remind you, Charles, of
a fact you seem to have forgotten. You
are yourself one of the company’s
largest individual stockholders.

KANE: The trouble is, Mr. Thatcher, you don’t realize
you’re talking to two people. As Charles
Foster Kane, who has eighty-two thousand,
six hundred and thirty-one shares of Metropo-
litan Transfer--you see, I do have a rough idea
of my holdings--I sympathize with you. Charles
Foster Kane is a dangerous scoundrel, his
paper should be run out of town and a
committee should be formed to boycott him.
You may, if you can form such a committee,
put me down for a contribution of one thou-
sand dollars.

THATCHER: (Angrily) Charles, my time is too valu-
able for me--

KANE: On the other hand--(His manner becomes very
serious and his voice rises)--I am the pub-
lisher of the “Inquirer.” As such, it is my duty
--I’ll let you in on a little secret, it is also my
pleasure--to see to it that the decent, hard-
working people of this city are not robbed
blind by a group of money-mad pirates be-
cause, God help them, they have no one to
look after their interests! (Thatcher has
risen from his chair. He now puts on his hat
and walks away)--I’ll let you in on another
little secret, Mr. Thatcher (Thatcher stops.
Kane walks up to him)...I think I’m the man
to do it. You see I have money and property.
If I don’t defend the interests of the underpri-
vileged, somebody else will--maybe somebody
without any money or any property--and that
would be too bad.

THATCHER: (Puts on his hat) I happened to see
your consolidated statement this morn-
ing, Charles. Don’t you think it’s rather
unwise to continue this philanthropic
enterprise--this “Inquirer”--that’s cost-
ing you one million dollars a year?

KANE: You’re right. We did lose a million dollars
last year. We expect to lose a million next
year. You know, Mr. Thatcher--at the rate
of a million a year--we’ll have to close this
place--in sixty years (smiles smugly)

Significantly this early scene of a now young adult Kane foreshadows much of what is to happen in both the main narrative of Welles’ film text and in the celluloid life of his main protagonist. For what is brilliantly demonstrated in this tension filled dialogue between the emerging newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane and the wily, aging capitalist/guardian Walter Parks Thatcher is the self serving power, hubris, condescension, ethical hypocrisy and misplaced liberal idealism of the ‘new’ American bourgeois class as represented by Kane vis-à-vis the traditional elitist pragmatism, corporate cynicism, and reactionary conservatism of monopoly capitalists embodied by Thatcher. What is especially striking about all the early scenes between Kane and Thatcher in the film is how they so openly and subtly encapsulate so many of the major themes, ideas, and values that Welles is addressing and expressing in the film text.

For example, in the above scene the dialogue as well as the mise-en-scène suggests that Kane is so wrapped up in his own personal resentment and ego war with Thatcher (and what he represents) that he has a massive blind spot with respect to his own motivations and actions. The content of the dialogue and the physical juxtapositions of Thatcher and Kane within the compositional frame continually reveal a fundamental contradiction between Kane’s somewhat heroic view of himself (and his stated intentions) and the actual meanings and implications of what he says and does. This is represented visually in the camera’s systematic positioning of Kane figuratively and literally ‘rising’ from beneath the patriarchal and class-based authority of Thatcher’s domination and control [see series of adjoining stills]. This is echoed in the script where Kane constantly undermines, attacks, ridicules and condescends to Thatcher’s blustery, self-righteous presumption of power and counsel over his former ward.

When Kane sarcastically and with bitter irony tells Bernstein that “Mr. Thatcher is one of our most devoted readers” and that “He knows what’s wrong with every copy of the “Inquirer” since I took charge” he is both acknowledging the (unwanted) historical role of Thatcher in his life, and serving notice that Thatcher (and people like him) will never again dictate to him or the “hardworking people” (that Kane naively insists he “represents”), what their personal, social, economic and political destinies will or should be. It’s important to note once again that Welles never separates the individual from the social, the personal from the political or the present moment from the historical, in either the narrative and thematic thrust of Citizen Kane, nor in his filmic representations and strategies. The mise-en-scène, montage (as in the rapid series of newspaper headlines that Thatcher and we in the audience reads), music, sound, set design and dialogue are presented as a structural, textual, and ideological unity that provides the viewer with multileveled and complex perspectives on the dialectical interaction of personal/psychological behavior and motivation as seen within the fluid but clearly discernible context of social-political reality. Thus we are able to glimpse what the various class interests, prejudices, actions and motivations are from the cinematic standpoint of their varied and complex positionings within the frame.

Toward this end Welles continually references, through the innovative and expressionist uses of deep focus and chiaroscuro photography (as taken by the legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland), the conflicts and tensions of various members of the cast as they are portrayed in relationship to Kane. As a result the viewer is able to discern from both the different behavior of individual actors and the dynamic juxtapositions of action and movement within the frame what Welles is attempting to get them to ‘see.’ What the viewer witnesses in the exchanges between Kane and his friends, colleagues, enemies, and acolytes is how his flawed ‘personality’ and behavioral choices and decisions are not merely a reflection of his psychological state at any given time in the narrative, and how these personal aspects of character dovetail with, or serve as distinct contrast to, the political and ideological concerns, attitudes and values of the other ‘personalities’ Kane interacts with.

Thus we able to see how Welles, like Brecht in his theories of the theatre, sought to use the cinematic techniques and sensibility later associated with film noir to illuminate his larger concerns with what Welles in another context referred to as the ‘poetry’ of his approach to the visual demands of the cinema:

"With me, the visual is a solution to what the poetic and musical form dictates. I don’t begin with the visual and then try to find a poetry or music to stick in the picture. The picture has to follow it. And again, people tend to think that my first preoccupation is with the simple plastic effects of the cinema. But to me they all come out of an interior rhythm, which is like the shape of music or the shape of poetry. I don’t go around like a collector picking up beautiful images and pasting them together...I believe in the film as a poetic medium. I don’t think it competes with painting, or with ballet--the visual side of films is a key to poetry. There is no picture which justifies itself, no matter how beautiful, striking, horrific, doesn’t mean anything unless it makes poetry possible. And that suggests something, because poetry should make your hair stand up on your skin, should suggest things, evoke more than you see. The danger of cinema is that you see everything, because it’s a camera. So what you have to do is to manage to evoke, to incant, to raise up things which are not really there...And the interior conception of the author, above all, must have a single shape.” [italics mine]

What Welles reveals here is a precise concern with the formal demands of the medium that is not reductively tied to an idealist notion of the aesthetic as an end in itself (art for art’s sake). Rather form and content are dialectically linked to the narrative and thematic dynamics of the medium (i.e. its ‘poetry’) that allows it to, in Welles’ vivid language “evoke, incant, to raise up things which are not really there...” Precisely by working to find and express the “interior rhythm” of his poetic and musical shapes, Welles is able to go beyond the self-justifying poses of the image itself (“no matter how beautiful, striking, horrific, tender...”) to an expressive and creative area of activity that “makes poetry possible.” By making this poetry “suggest something” the visual image is compelled to follow the poetic and musical demands of the “author’s” (read filmmaker’s) interior conception or vision. This philosophical concern is dramatically portrayed in the film text and subtext of Citizen Kane, which utilizes the “poetic and musical forms” that dictate how the visual is going to be expressed (“the visual side of films is a key to poetry”). A major representative of Welles’ conviction that “film is a poetic medium” is found in Citizen Kane where film noir is used “ to suggest things, to evoke more than you see.”

This idea is of course central to Welles’ notion that the individual is not estranged or separate from his/her social or cultural milieu or context. In the words of film critic and Wellesian scholar Joseph McBride this goes for Welles’ structural and textual conceptions of Citizen Kane as well:

“The image is suspect in Kane; each moment in the musical pattern of the film has significance only in the context of all the other moments, past and to come. What is on screen at a given moment is not definitive but is part of a state of mind shared by the author and his audience.”

Throughout the entire film Welles is concerned with showing how and why Kane acts as he does, but is careful never to dismiss or underestimate the role that the social dimensions of his experience plays in what might be called the ‘ecology of capitalism.’ This immersion in, and dependence on material things, ownership, and property is a recurring motif in the film in both its expressive and textural dimensions. There are endless references to the power of money and the things it can buy vis-à-vis the necessity of values and attitudes that would go beyond, supercede or critique the tyranny of materialism. This dynamic is represented forcefully in the friendship and subsequent conflict of Kane and Jed Leland (played by Joseph Cotton), whose character not only acts as a metaphorical and actual conscience for Kane, but whose romantic idealism (and eventual disillusionment and cynicism) is linked to his personal integrity, independence and faith in the principles and ideals that Kane blithely uses and discards in his single-minded and selfish quest for power and all the things that Kane thinks it can ‘buy’ (including love and friendship). One of the pivotal scenes in the film is the scene where Leland finally confronts Kane about his hubris and abuse of power. However before that revelatory scene there is an earlier one that bears repeating and serves as a foreshadowing of what Kane later betrays in both his personal and professional life:

KANE: I’ve changed the front page a little, Mr. Bernstein.
That’s not enough--There’s something I’ve got to
get into this paper besides pictures and print--I’ve
got to make the New York “Inquirer” as important
to New York as the gas in that light.

LELAND: What’re you going to do, Charlie?

KANE: My Declaration of Principles--don’t smile, Jed--
(who is getting the idea) Take dictation, Mr.

BERNSTEIN: I can’t write shorthand, Mr. Kane--

KANE: I’ll write it myself. (Kane grabs a piece of paper
and a crayon. Sitting down on the bed next to
Bernstein, he starts to write)

BERNSTEIN: (Looking over his shoulder) You don’t
wanta make any promises, Mr.Kane, you
don’t wanta keep.

KANE: These will be kept. (Stops and reads what he has written). I’ll provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly. (Starts to write again; reading as he writes) I will also provide them--

LELAND: That’s the second sentence you’ve started with “I”--

KANE: (Looking up) People are going to know who’s responsible. And they’re going to get the news--the true news--quickly and simply and entertainingly. (With real conviction) And no special interests will be allowed to interfere with the truth of that news (Writes again; reading as he writes) I will also provide them with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and human beings--Signed--Charles Foster Kane.

LELAND: Charlie--(Kane looks up)--Can I have that?

KANE: I’m going to print it--(Calls) Mike!

MIKE: Yes, Mr. Kane

KANE: Here’s an editorial. I want to run it in a box on
the front page.

MIKE: (Very wearily) Today’s front page, Mr. Kane?

KANE: That’s right. We’ll have to remake the front
page again--better go down and let them

MIKE: All right, Mr. Kane. (He starts away)

LELAND: Just a minute, Mike. (Mike turns) When
you’re done with that, I’d like to have it
back. (Kane looks at Leland)--I’d just
like to keep that particular piece of paper
myself. I’ve got a hunch it might turn out
to be one of the important papers of our
time(Grins, a little ashamed of his ardor)
A document--like the Declaration of Inde-
pendence--and the Consitution--and my
first report card at school. (Kanes smiles
back at him, but they are both serious)

By examining this and other similar excerpts from the script it is possible to discern how and why Welles chose to emphasize the social and personal relationships of Kane and his various moral and political alter egos, supporters, and detractors in order to structure the film as a recurring series of pivotal dramatic conflicts and indeterminate conversations within the film text. This enables the viewer to experience these dramatic tableaux as an ongoing debate between the characters in the narrative over the central questions of power, authority, history, society, ethics, economics, and the law. It is this almost obsessive motif that Welles comes back to again and again in both the film’s visual text and thematic subtext as he persistently drives home the idea that the individual crises of his main protagonists are not in any way divorced from the larger historical, social, and ideological concerns and dynamics affecting and shaping American life during the seventy year period (1870-1940) that frames the diegetic chronology of the film.

Thus the ‘poetry’ that is created by Welles and his co-workers through the creative uses of cinematography, direction, acting, and most importantly, editing is used to “evoke and incant” a sense of a society undergoing a massive historical transition from a formerly isolated and constricted xenophobic nationalism to an international engagement with the world that is marked by an underlying irrational fear, exploitation, and cavalier dismissal of other cultures, societies, and peoples. These societal perspectives are of course reflections of the United States’s own domestic pathologies, especially those regarding “race”, class, gender, and cultural identity. It is these attitudes, values, and national traditions that helps usher in the age of American imperialism after 1890 in South American as well as African and Asian diasporic societies and cultures in Cuba, the Phillipines, and Haiti, all of which are invaded by North America and quickly become dependent and semicolonial, hemispheric outposts of the United States by 1915. What Welles asks the viewer to “see” and acknowledge is how these kind of seemingly abstract and prosaic concerns and tensions are embodied and expressed by individual characters in his film seeking to confront, defend, or overcome oppressive systems of domination and control inherited from the past. This struggle requires however that these characters come face to face with the so-called ‘dark side’ of their society and of course themselves. This is where the centrality of film noir aesthetics plays such a crucial role in Citizen Kane. Through the dense prism of the psychological and emotional conflicts that occur between Kane, and his mistress Susan, as well as his parents, colleagues, fellow travelers, partners, and archrivals (e.g. Jed Leland, Mr. Bernstein, Thatcher, ‘Boss’ Gittes, Kane’s wife and son, etc.) one begins to glimpse how noir devices in film take on more than merely a stylistic or generic identity in Welles’ vision as a filmmaker. By paying close attention to Welles’ ideological and aesthetic motivations for making the film Citizen Kane as well as its subsequent major impact on three generations of filmmakers throughout the world one can also determine how and why film noir became a much preferred cinematic medium for radical American directors and writers (as well as actors) seeking to find their own ‘poetic’ solutions to the creative challenges of using film to critically examine and comment upon social and political reality.

(This essay is an excerpt from a new book of critical essays by Kofi Natambu entitled "What is An Aesthetic: Writings on American Culture" (c) 2008)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tim Wise on Dr. Wright, Barack Obama, the National Elections, and White Racism in the U.S.


The following message and the attached essay was sent to me today by an educator at the University of Wisconsin. Please read its profound contents and pass it on. It contains the best and most intelligent essay extant on the Dr. Jeremiah Wright episode and more importantly its real implications not only for the national elections and Barack Obama this year but for this country as a whole. Tim Wise is not only a highly respected author, teacher, and scholar but that increasingly intellectual and ethical rarity among so many Americans today--a honest human being.


YES WE CAN! Brace yourselves people. . .this is not for the faint at heart. This essay is long, insightful, honest, and very penetrating-so read when you have time to digest it all - sitting down of course. You have to read the entire thing!

Please share this essay by Tim Wise. Wise, author of White Like Me is among the most prominent (white) anti-racist writers and activists in the U.S. Wise is originally from Louisiana and resides in Nashville, TN.

Here is my latest essay, addressing the dust up over Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor, and the white backlash that some of his comments are engendering in many circles. Although Obama may have to distance himself from Wright, those of us in the antiracism struggle must take this opportunity (or so it seems to me) to raise the issues that Wright has raised, so many of them with accuracy and courage, and force our white brothers and sisters to confront that history and legacy (and contemporary reality of racism) honestly. If from the Obama campaign we can end up with a more honest, albeit tense, conversation about racism, it will have been for the better. So here is the link: please, if you like it, please pass it around...As always, I'm long-winded and so I apologize for the length, but there was a lot that I felt needed to be said...

Thanks everyone,

Tim Wise

Of National Lies and Racial Amnesia:
Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and the Unacceptability of Truth

By Tim Wise

March 18, 2008

For most white folks, indignation just doesn't wear well. Once affected or conjured up, it reminds one of a pudgy man, wearing a tie that may well have fit him when he was fifty pounds lighter, but which now cuts off somewhere above his navel and makes him look like an idiot.

Indignation doesn't work for most whites, because having remained sanguine about, silent during, indeed often supportive of so much injustice over the years in this country--the theft of native land and genocide of indigenous persons, and the enslavement of Africans being only two of the best examples--we are just a bit late to get into the game of moral rectitude. And once we enter it, our efforts at righteousness tend to fail the test of sincerity.

But here we are, in 2008, fuming at the words of Pastor Jeremiah Wright, of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago--occasionally Barack Obama's pastor, and the man whom Obama credits with having brought him to Christianity--for merely reminding us of those evils about which we have remained so quiet, so dismissive, so unconcerned. It is not the crime that bothers us, but the remembrance of it, the unwillingness to let it go--these last words being the first ones uttered by most whites it seems whenever anyone, least of all an "angry black man" like Jeremiah Wright, foists upon us the bill of particulars for several centuries of white supremacy.

But our collective indignation, no matter how loudly we announce it, cannot drown out the truth. And as much as white America may not be able to hear it (and as much as politics may require Obama to condemn it) let us be clear, Jeremiah Wright fundamentally told the truth.

Oh I know that for some such a comment will seem shocking. After all, didn't he say that America "got what it deserved" on 9/11? And didn't he say that black people should be singing "God Damn America" because of its treatment of the African American community throughout the years?

Well actually, no he didn't.

Wright said not that the attacks of September 11th were justified, but that they were, in effect, predictable. Deploying the imagery of chickens coming home to roost is not to give thanks for the return of the poultry or to endorse such feathered homecoming as a positive good; rather, it is merely to note two things: first, that what goes around, indeed, comes around--a notion with longstanding theological grounding--and secondly, that the U.S. has indeed engaged in more than enough violence against innocent people to make it just a tad bit hypocritical for us to then evince shock and outrage about an attack on ourselves, as if the latter were unprecedented.

He noted that we killed far more people, far more innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki than were killed on 9/11 and "never batted an eye." That this statement is true is inarguable, at least amongst sane people. He is correct on the math, he is correct on the innocence of the dead (neither city was a military target), and he is most definitely correct on the lack of remorse or even self-doubt about the act: sixty-plus years later most Americans still believe those attacks were justified, that they were needed to end the war and "save American lives."

But not only does such a calculus suggest that American lives are inherently worth more than the lives of Japanese civilians (or, one supposes, Vietnamese, Iraqi or Afghan civilians too), but it also ignores the long-declassified documents, and President Truman's own war diaries, all of which indicate clearly that Japan had already signaled its desire to end the war, and that we knew they were going to surrender, even without the dropping of atomic weapons. The conclusion to which these truths then attest is simple, both in its basic veracity and it monstrousness: namely, that in those places we committed premeditated and deliberate mass murder, with no justification whatsoever; and yet for saying that I will receive more hate mail, more hostility, more dismissive and contemptuous responses than will those who suggest that no body count is too high when we're the ones doing the killing. Jeremiah Wright becomes a pariah, because, you see, we much prefer the logic of George Bush the First, who once said that as President he would "never apologize for the United States of America. I don't care what the facts are."

And Wright didn't say blacks should be singing "God Damn America." He was suggesting that blacks owe little moral allegiance to a nation that has treated so many of them for so long as animals, as persons undeserving of dignity and respect, and which even now locks up hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders (especially for drug possession), even while whites who do the same crimes (and according to the data, when it comes to drugs, more often in fact), are walking around free. His reference to God in that sermon was more about what God will do to such a nation, than it was about what should or shouldn't happen. It was a comment derived from, and fully in keeping with, the black prophetic tradition, and although one can surely disagree with the theology (I do, actually, and don't believe that any God either blesses or condemns nation states for their actions), the statement itself was no call for blacks to turn on America. If anything, it was a demand that America earn the respect of black people, something the evidence and history suggests it has yet to do.

Finally, although one can certainly disagree with Wright about his suggestion that the government created AIDS to get rid of black folks--and I do, for instance--it is worth pointing out that Wright isn't the only one who has said this. In fact, none other than Bill Cosby (oh yes, that Bill Cosby, the one white folks love because of his recent moral crusade against the black poor) proffered his belief in the very same thing back in the early '90s in an interview on CNN, when he said that AIDS may well have been created to get rid of people whom the government deemed "undesirable" including gays and racial minorities.

So that's the truth of the matter: Wright made one comment that is highly arguable, but which has also been voiced by white America's favorite black man, another that was horribly misinterpreted and stripped of all context, and then another that was demonstrably accurate. And for this, he is pilloried and made into a virtual enemy of the state; for this, Barack Obama may lose the support of just enough white folks to cost him the Democratic nomination, and/or the Presidency; all of it, because Jeremiah Wright, unlike most preachers opted for truth. If he had been one of those "prosperity ministers" who says Jesus wants nothing so much as for you to be rich, like Joel Osteen, that would have been fine. Had he been a retread bigot like Falwell was, or Pat Robertson is, he might have been criticized, but he would have remained in good standing and surely not have damaged a Presidential candidate in this way. But unlike Osteen, and Falwell, and Robertson, Jeremiah Wright refused to feed his parishioners lies.

What Jeremiah Wright knows, and told his flock--though make no mistake, they already knew it--is that 9/11 was neither the first, nor worst act of terrorism on American soil. The history of this nation for folks of color, was for generations, nothing less than an intergenerational hate crime, one in which 9/11s were woven into the fabric of everyday life: hundreds of thousands of the enslaved who died from the conditions of their bondage; thousands more who were lynched (as many as 10,000 in the first few years after the Civil War, according to testimony in the Congressional Record at the time); millions of indigenous persons wiped off the face of the Earth. No, to some, the horror of 9/11 was not new. To some it was not on that day that "everything changed." To some, everything changed four hundred years ago, when that first ship landed at what would become Jamestown. To some, everything changed when their ancestors were forced into the hulls of slave ships at Goree Island and brought to a strange land as chattel. To some, everything changed when they were run out of Northern Mexico, only to watch it become the Southwest United States, thanks to a war of annihilation initiated by the U.S. government. To some, being on the receiving end of terrorism has been a way of life. Until recently it was absolutely normal in fact.

But white folks have a hard time hearing these simple truths. We find it almost impossible to listen to an alternative version of reality. Indeed, what seems to bother white people more than anything, whether in the recent episode, or at any other time, is being confronted with the recognition that black people do not, by and large, see the world like we do; that black people, by and large, do not view America as white people view it. We are, in fact, shocked that this should be so, having come to believe, apparently, that the falsehoods to which we cling like a kidney patient clings to a dialysis machine, are equally shared by our darker-skinned compatriots.

This is what James Baldwin was talking about in his classic 1972 work, No Name in the Street, wherein he noted:

"White children, in the main, and whether they are rich or poor, grow up with a grasp of reality so feeble that they can very accurately be described as deluded--about themselves and the world they live in. White people have managed to get through their entire lifetimes in this euphoric state, but black people have not been so lucky: a black man who sees the world the way John Wayne, for example, sees it would not be an eccentric patriot, but a raving maniac."

And so we were shocked in 1987, when Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall declined to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution, because, as he noted, most of that history had been one of overt racism and injustice, and to his way of thinking, the only history worth celebrating had been that of the past three or four decades.

We were shocked to learn that black people actually believed that a white cop who was a documented racist might frame a black man; and we're shocked to learn that lots of black folks still perceive the U.S. as a racist nation--we're literally stunned that people who say they experience discrimination regularly (and who have the social science research to back them up) actually think that those experiences and that data might actually say something about the nation in which they reside. Imagine.

Whites are easily shocked by what we see and hear from Pastor Wright and Trinity Church, because what we see and hear so thoroughly challenges our understanding of who we are as a nation. But black people have never, for the most part, believed in the imagery of the "shining city on a hill," for they have never had the option of looking at their nation and ignoring the mountain-sized warts still dotting its face when it comes to race. Black people do not, in the main, get misty eyed at the sight of the flag the way white people do--and this is true even for millions of black veterans--for they understand that the nation for whom that flag waves is still not fully committed to their own equality. They have a harder time singing those tunes that white people seem so eager to belt out, like "God Bless America," for they know that whites sang those words loudly and proudly even as they were enforcing Jim Crow segregation, rioting against blacks who dared move into previously white neighborhoods, throwing rocks at Dr. King and then cheering, as so many did, when they heard the news that he had been assassinated.

Whites refuse to remember (or perhaps have never learned) that which black folks cannot afford to forget. I've seen white people stunned to the point of paralysis when they learn the truth about lynchings in this country--when they discover that such events were not just a couple of good old boys with a truck and a rope hauling some black guy out to the tree, hanging him, and letting him swing there. They were never told the truth: that lynchings were often community events, advertised in papers as "Negro Barbecues," involving hundreds or even thousands of whites, who would join in the fun, eat chicken salad and drink sweet tea, all while the black victims of their depravity were being hung, then shot, then burned, and then having their body parts cut off, to be handed out to onlookers. They are stunned to learn that postcards of the events were traded as souvenirs, and that very few whites, including members of their own families did or said anything to stop it.

Rather than knowing about and confronting the ugliness of our past, whites take steps to excise the less flattering aspects of our history so that we need not be bothered with them. So, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, site of an orgy of violence against the black community in 1921, city officials literally went into the town library and removed all reference to the mass killings in the Greenwood district from the papers with a razor blade--an excising of truth and an assault on memory that would remain unchanged for over seventy years.

Most white people desire, or perhaps even require the propagation of lies when it comes to our history. Surely we prefer the lies to anything resembling, even remotely, the truth. Our version of history, of our national past, simply cannot allow for the intrusion of fact into a worldview so thoroughly identified with fiction. But that white version of America is not only extraordinarily incomplete, in that it so favors the white experience to the exclusion of others; it is more than that; it is actually a slap in the face to people of color, a re-injury, a reminder that they are essentially irrelevant, their concerns trivial, their lives unworthy of being taken seriously. In that sense, and what few if any white Americans appear capable of grasping at present, is that "Leave it Beaver" and "Father Knows Best," portray an America so divorced from the reality of the times in which they were produced, as to raise serious questions about the sanity of those who found them so moving, so accurate, so real. These iconographic representations of life in the U.S. are worse than selective, worse than false, they are assaults to the humanity and memory of black people, who were being savagely oppressed even as June Cleaver did housework in heels and laughed about the hilarious hijinks of Beaver and Larry Mondello.

These portraits of America are certifiable evidence of how disconnected white folks were--and to the extent we still love them and view them as representations of the "good old days" to which we wish we could return, still are--from those men and women of color with whom we have long shared a nation. Just two months before "Leave it to Beaver" debuted, proposed civil rights legislation was killed thanks to Strom Thurmond's 24-hour filibuster speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate. One month prior, Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus called out the National Guard to block black students from entering Little Rock Central High; and nine days before America was introduced to the Cleavers, and the comforting image of national life they represented, those black students were finally allowed to enter, amid the screams of enraged, unhinged, viciously bigoted white people, who saw nothing wrong with calling children niggers in front of cameras. That was America of the 1950s: not the sanitized version into which so many escape thanks to the miracle of syndication, which merely allows white people to relive a lie, year after year after year.

No, it is not the pastor who distorts history; Nick at Nite and your teenager's textbooks do that. It is not he who casts aspersions upon "this great country" as Barack Obama put it in his public denunciations of him; it is the historic leadership of the nation that has cast aspersions upon it; it is they who have cheapened it, who have made gaudy and vile the promise of American democracy by defiling it with lies. They engage in a patriotism that is pathological in its implications, that asks of those who adhere to it not merely a love of country but the turning of one's nation into an idol to be worshipped, it not literally, then at least in terms of consequence.

It is they--the flag-lapel-pin wearing leaders of this land--who bring shame to the country with their nonsensical suggestions that we are always noble in warfare, always well-intended, and although we occasionally make mistakes, we are never the ones to blame for anything. Nothing that happens to us has anything to do with us at all. It is always about them. They are evil, crazy, fanatical, hate our freedoms, and are jealous of our prosperity. When individuals prattle on in this manner we diagnose them as narcissistic, as deluded. When nations do it--when our nation does--we celebrate it as though it were the very model of rational and informed citizenship.

So what can we say about a nation that values lies more than it loves truth? A place where adherence to sincerely believed and internalized fictions allows one to rise to the highest offices in the land, and to earn the respect of millions, while a willingness to challenge those fictions and offer a more accurate counter-narrative earns one nothing but contempt, derision, indeed outright hatred? What we can say is that such a place is signing its own death warrant. What we can say is that such a place is missing the only and last opportunity it may ever have to make things right, to live up to its professed ideals. What we can say is that such a place can never move forward, because we have yet to fully address and come to terms with that which lay behind.

What can we say about a nation where white preachers can lie every week from their pulpits without so much as having to worry that their lies might be noticed by the shiny white faces in their pews, while black preachers who tell one after another essential truth are demonized, not only for the stridency of their tone--which needless to say scares white folks, who have long preferred a style of praise and worship resembling nothing so much as a coma--but for merely calling bullshit on those whose lies are swallowed whole?

And oh yes, I said it: white preachers lie. In fact, they lie with a skill, fluidity, and precision unparalleled in the history of either preaching or lying, both of which histories stretch back a ways and have often overlapped. They lie every Sunday, as they talk about a Savior they have chosen to represent dishonestly as a white man, in every picture to be found of him in their tabernacles, every children's story book in their Sunday Schools, every Christmas card they'll send to relatives and friends this December. But to lie about Jesus, about the one they consider God--to bear false witness as to who this man was and what he looked like--is no cause for concern.

Nor is it a problem for these preachers to teach and preach that those who don't believe as they believe are going to hell. Despite the fact that such a belief casts aspersions upon God that are so profound as to defy belief--after all, they imply that God is so fundamentally evil that he would burn non-believers in a lake of eternal fire--many of the white folks who now condemn Jeremiah Wright welcome that theology of hate. Indeed, back when President Bush was the Governor of Texas, he endorsed this kind of thinking, responding to a question about whether Jews were going to go to hell, by saying that unless one accepted Jesus as one's personal savior, the Bible made it pretty clear that indeed, hell was where you'd be heading.

So you can curse God in this way--and to imply such hate on God's part is surely to curse him--and in effect, curse those who aren't Christians, and no one says anything. That isn't considered bigoted. That isn't considered beyond the pale of polite society. One is not disqualified from becoming President in the minds of millions because they go to a church that says that shit every single week, or because they believe it themselves. And millions do believe it, and see nothing wrong with it whatsoever.

So white folks are mad at Jeremiah Wright because he challenges their views about their country. Meanwhile, those same white folks, and their ministers and priests, every week put forth a false image of the God Jeremiah Wright serves, and yet it is whites who feel we have the right to be offended.

Pardon me, but something is wrong here, and whatever it is, is not to be found at Trinity United Church of Christ.

The White Privilege Conference is April 2-5, 2008!

The Democratic Power & Potential of Civic Agency in Obama's Campaign


An important and perceptive article on the U.S. Democratic Party primary election by academic critics and political analysts in South Africa that outlines and confirms precisely what I and many others have been saying from the very beginning about the programmatic, strategic, and tactical dimensions (as well as larger ideological implications) of Obama's mass participatory and community based grass-roots campaign vis-a-vis Clinton's traditional and fundamentally authoritarian top-down micromanagement style (all italics and bold face type in article are mine)...


Obama Presents Decisive Choice Not Only to U.S.
Business Day (Johannesburg)

25 March 2008

By Harry Boyte And Peter Vale
Johannesburg, South Africa

A PHRASE that US presidential hopeful Barack Obama has used in several speeches -- "We are the ones we've been waiting for" -- comes from a song of the American civil rights movement. It has an interesting link with SA, having been inspired by June Jordan's The Poem for South African Women, which commemorated the August 9 1956 Women's March to Pretoria.

And the way it is resonating in the buildup to the US presidential election suggests that civic agency, the form of politics it has captured, has relevance to SA. Civic agency politics views citizenship as active, informed and skilful participation.

Bernice Johnson Reagon composed the song, We Are The Ones, in the early 1960s. It became a rallying cry of the freedom movement, capturing the spirit of citizenship and freedom schools, which trained blacks in skills of collective action. These skills fed into the community organising movement that shaped Obama as a young organiser in Chicago. Today, civic agency and self-empowerment are the secret of Obama's appeal.

Commentators who miss the point about this form of self-empowerment invariably mischaracterise the US civil rights movement. A case in point was the debate in January's New Hampshire primary election about which leader, Martin Luther King or Lyndon Johnson, should get credit for civil rights achievements. As King often acknowledged, the power of the movement came not from great leaders but rather from ordinary men and women in communities who saw themselves as agents of change.

Civic agency is different from most forms of citizen action, which take the form of mass mobilisation. These strategies are all largely formulaic: find a target to demonize, stir up emotion with inflammatory language, and create a "script" defining the issue in terms of good and evil. The activist experiences of the Clintons have always been closely associated with this approach.

In contrast, Obama and other broad-based citizen organising networks made up of religious congregations, trade unions and other civic groups, emphasise organising rather than mobilising. This involves an intense focus on developing the public skills and talents of citizens. Members of broad-based organisations are taught to understand human complexity. Activists become skilled at creating what are called "public relationships", overcoming differences for the sake of effective public action. They are encouraged to think in long-term and strategic ways.

Organisers pay close attention to local cultures and networks. Their overall goal is not simply to win victories but also to foster what Doran Schrantz, a leader in Obama's old organising network, calls people's "public growth".

So, the idea of civic agency shapes not only Obama's message of "a different kind of politics", but also his entire operation. This partly explains why his campaign has been far more attentive to local cultures, social networks and the building of public relationships than have other recent contests within the Democratic Party. Skilful organising and faith in citizen agency, far more than Obama's personal charisma, is the reason for the large voter turnout he has inspired.

Are there lessons for SA in this?

Since the late 1970s, a pervasive culture of "customer service" has become the dominant motif of government throughout the world. Notwithstanding the recent genuflection towards the idea of a "developmental state", South African policy discourse is shot through with the logic of management and delivery. As a result, South Africans are more prone to ask, "What can I get?" than, "How can I help solve public problems?" Not only has this left them powerless, but it has undermined the buoyancy once found in vital corners the country's civic life -- the unions, the universities, the churches.

South African democracy is certainly poorer by this retreat of citizens from the everyday decisions which determine their individual and collective futures.

It will of course take far more than a US presidential campaign to change this trend in SA and, indeed, elsewhere.

But the power of civic agency is certainly on the rise -- Obama's success shows that ordinary people can respond to the message that they can become responsible, powerful architects of their lives and shapers of their environments.

The choice between Obama and Clinton is the choice between a new kind of politics based on civic agency and the politics of division and fear based on consumerism. It is the choice between a citizen-driven and an expert-driven world. It is also a choice between democracy and control by the rich, the powerful and the expert.

Boyte is founder and co-director of the Centre for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota and author of the forthcoming The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference. Vale is the Nelson Mandela Professor of Politics, Rhodes University, and professor in the department of politics and international relations at Macquarie University, Sydney.

Copyright © 2008 Business Day. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

African American Voters Reject Billary, Inc.,1,6032953,print.column


I said back in early January that if the Clintons (Billary, Inc.) decided to race-bait Obama in any way they would pay dearly for that transgression and live to regret it. I knew that the masses of black people would never stand for it on any level whatsoever and that we would then do everything in our collective power to see to it that the offender(s) were seriously punished politically. After voting in whopping margins of 9-1 for Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996 and then openly defending and supporting him during the Lewinsky scandal and opposing the Republicans bid to impeach him the black voting bloc showed the Clintons tremendous loyalty, respect, and trust. Now to have that compassion and support thrown right back in our collective faces and have the Clintons turn on us-- their most loyal and supportive base of voters in the entire country-- by engaging in the most opportunist and sleazy race baiting imaginable is justly considered a major outrage by black voters nationally who historically are not only the most sophisticated and savvy ethnic voting bloc in this country but also the one with the longest (and strongest) memories. By "fronting" black folks off in public through a vulgar and demagogic display of condescension and indifference and by taking black votes for granted the Clintons have committed a monumental political gaffe that frankly they may never recover from. But there's no need for pity on anyone's part. Billary, Inc. EARNED and thus thoroughly DESERVES their comeuppance in this situation. So if black voters have anything to do with it (and trust me--we will!) Hillary Clinton will NOT be the second "black (minstrel) president" of these United States. We're looking for the REAL DEAL this time around...


Clintons lose luster with black voters
Dawn Turner Trice
Chicago Tribune

March 24, 2008

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken this month found that former President Bill Clinton, the so-called first black president, is falling out of favor with African-Americans.

More of the poll's respondents view him negatively (45 percent) than positively (42 percent). Compare this to his ratings just last year—a positive of 48 percent compared with a negative of 35 percent—and it's a pretty big deal.

Beyond scientific polls, anecdotal evidence reveals that his wife also is losing support from the Democratic Party's most reliable constituency.

A lot of black people are furious at Sen. Hillary Clinton in part because of the actions or infractions of her surrogates. They're angry at Bill for the dust-up he created after the South Carolina contest comparing Sen. Barack Obama's win there to that of Rev. Jesse Jackson's when he ran for president. They're angry at Geraldine Ferraro for suggesting Obama is mostly an affirmative action candidate.

They blame the Clinton camp for circulating the picture of Obama in Somali garb, an attempt to incite anti-Muslim fears. Some even blame the Clintons for initiating the controversy over the inflammatory sermons made by Obama's former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Nevermind whether these last two examples are true.

What's striking for me is the number of black voters who tell me they could never bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton, even if by some miracle, she became the Democratic presidential nominee.

Some have said they would sit out the general election, and risk a win by Republican Sen. John McCain. And these are people for whom not voting is anathema.

Indeed Clinton has her share of detractors. But, until recently, not too many blacks were counted among them. In fact, until South Carolina, a lot of black people felt heartsick about having to choose between Clinton and Obama.

Now folks' hearts are hardened and the resentment is visceral. Blacks didn't expect the Clintons to play the race card. You could argue that the Clinton strategy is just politics. It's not personal. It's not really racial. But this year voters of all stripes are rejecting the same old, same old.

Black people in particular (and others too) are rejecting this brand of politics that plays on voters' worst fears. If Republicans use race-baiting (think: footage of Mexicans scaling border fences) to stir the base, who is shocked by it? But it is shocking coming from someone who always has been considered an ally.

For years, blacks appreciated Hillary Clinton's work at Yale, tutoring black law students; her work at the Children's Defense Fund; her efforts on behalf of public education and health care. The list goes on and, frankly, her civil rights roots may run deeper than Obama's.

But in just a few months, the Clintons may have squandered a lot of goodwill capital. Black voters expected a spirited debate between the Clinton and Obama camps. But on the issues.

In New Hampshire, when Bill Clinton called Obama's Iraq war position a "fairy tale," that was in bounds. The Jesse Jackson comparison—out of bounds. Not because it wasn't true, but because Clinton was slyly playing the race card.

Of all Obama's moves, the most brilliant has been making unity and hope fundamental campaign themes. You look pretty mean-spirited slinging mud on a guy who is reluctant to get down and dirty. You also look profoundly clueless next to one who can deliver an eloquently nuanced speech on transcending racism.

At any other moment in history, Clinton would be the IT candidate for many black Democrats. But life is complicated. Race is complicated. So are feelings of betrayal.

If the Clinton strategy has been "win at any cost," it appears to have cost a lot.

Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune