“The Defiant Ones”
Anyone who wants to understand America today should rent this 1958 movie. Although produced a half-century ago, it’s a perfect metaphor for where we are today. Politicians and policy makers should watch it several times.
The movie stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. They play two men, black and white, bound together with leg chains in a Southern chain gang. They escape early in the film, still chained together. They run from deputies and bloodhounds, through swamps and bayous, fighting each other and cursing their sorry fate. Slowly, painfully, they come to understand that their fates are intertwined. They begin to cooperate.
The plots moves through a bleak landscape of the postwar rural South. The men get help―often begrudging―from white people who are poverty-stricken and almost as desperate as they. They get betrayed for bounty. Eventually poor whites free them from their bonds. They part for a while, only to realize their chances for escape are still better together.
In the final scene, they race to catch a freight train that will make their getaway, but the white man can’t keep up. Trying to pull the man who has become his friend aboard, the black man loses his balance. He falls out of the boxcar, and both roll down the embankment as the baying bloodhounds draw near. Cradling his injured and exhausted friend in his arms, the black man sings a haunting refrain of Biblical resignation and hope delayed, but never abandoned: “Bowling Green . . . sewing machine.”
The script, acting and filming are superb. But the message is even better. White and black are bound together in America as surely as if we were chained. There is no going back. We can only go forward, together.
The film came out years before the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech lay five years ahead, the bloody, painful struggles and heady victories still further. No one could even imagine the three assassinations that destroyed our nation’s politics and spirit for two generations.
Much has changed in those two generations. An extraordinary man of both races sits in the White House. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a national hero, as he should be. Every well-educated person, of whatever color, knows his worth as our most important national martyr, far surpassing Nathan Hale.
But we are not there yet. The suspicion and jealousy so well depicted in the film still prevent white and black working folk from making common cause. They still prevent white working folk from realizing how much our “black” President could help them if only they’d let him.
As ever, our ruling class nurtures and inflames the suspicion and jealousy, deliberately and systematically, in a ghastly caricature of rational public policy. Divide and conquer. It’s a plan as old as Caesar.
Of course that’s what the so called “Tea Party” movement is. The recent racial and homophobic hazing of members of Congress was there from the beginning, for anyone with eyes to see. It was only a baby step from the lies that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim, that his noble and steady wife was “angry,” that he wasn’t born in the United States, and many others.
How Republican leaders can keep a straight face and claim their party’s politics has not relied on racism for forty years, and does not still do so today, is beyond my comprehension. In ways small and large, they rely on racism and division every day. What else have they got? Even Alan Greenspan no longer believes their economic fairy tales.
Although nearly all conscious and virulent racists have left the Democratic party, not all Republicans are racist. Using racist brown shirts like the Tea Partiers discomfits many Republicans, but not enough to make them rebel. When bossism conflicts with aversion to racism, which threatens ruling-class control, bossism wins. Every time. Republicans are practical people, often more so than Democrats. That’s why they’re nearly always better organized and more monolithic (except on religious issues), as Will Rogers quipped [Point 10].
That’s also why the President’s organizing skills are so scary for Republicans. They can now foresee Democrats as clear winners for the first time since the New Deal.
The movie is a perfect metaphor because it is the white man who can’t catch the train. African-Americans have known for centuries what was and is going on. With Biblical perseverance, they have kept their eyes on the prize: full, unconditional equality and economic justice for all, including them. They have always known they can’t get there without whites; but many whites have been arrogant and stupid enough to think they could get there alone. Injustice is an equal-opportunity abuser.
Nevertheless, things have changed. A century ago, racism was official U.S. policy. It came from as high as the White House. Today everyone condemns it, at least in lip service. Even Republicans give equality lip service while using every cheap trick to inflame and exploit racial division.
The final reason “The Defiant Ones” is the perfect metaphor is that the descendants of Africans hold the key. Poitier manages to get on the train. You have the feeling if he had been just a little better fed and a little less weary, or Curtis just a little quicker, they would both have made it.
Just so, African-Americans hold the key to reforming America today. In the 2008 elections, when their enthusiasm and hope peaked, they began to turn the “solid” red South blue. Now their spirit seems to have waned. They can see the lies clearly, but they have trouble sustaining hope.
So the nation literally hangs in the balance. For the last decade everything of consequence has turned on a few votes in Congress or a few percent in key districts. Swing the “solid” South, and you have a whole new nation. You don’t even have to swing the whole region, just a few key states, maybe only a few districts.
Descendants of Africa nearly did it alone in 2008. If we whites can run just a little faster, we can all jump on that train. We can break free from lies that have become so ludicrous and ugly, and from “states’ rights” that have mostly stood for keeping the little guy down.
All it takes is a bit more understanding and cooperation. The president’s new push for real mortgage reform is a good start. Home is where you live whether you’re black or white. Maybe we can all together indulge our defiance of economic “leadership” that nearly destroyed the global economy and keep our homes, too.