Brad Bird, Todd Haynes and the real audience of Barack Obama’s race speech

For me, the most striking part of Barack Obama’s uberspeech about race Tuesday was the extent to which he seemed to be talking directly to the individuals in the media, and not just in a facile “okay, this is a chance to change the weekly narrative” way.

Here’s the undertow of most of this week’s coverage: for all his noble striving, Obama didn’t get his message out to the working-class white men that he’ll need if he’s going to do well in Pennsylvania.

He didn’t speak in made-for-TV rhyming couplets (“mend it, don’t end it“), designed to clatter through the media pipe and emerge, undamaged, in America’s living room; or in poetic diction destined to bypass the media altogether (“the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together“). He didn’t do that.

Crowley says only elites will get it. Kaus says Obama alienated workaday whites by talking about slavery and by maligning his prejudiced-in-a-perfectly-normal-way grandmother. Meanwhile, Compton (via Yglesias) concedes Obama’s soundbyte deficit but argues that the Internet, with its full-length videos and instant transcripts, make soundbytes unnecessary.

I’d love to think, as the New York Observer did, that Obama was just treating us all “like adults,” letting us sit at the grownups table while he carved into this stringy issue. More likely, I think, is that Obama had a very unusual, interesting goal for this address: an appeal to the personal patriotism of the journalists who cover him.

This passage is from his big finish, as he’s getting to the operative “therefore” clauses of the address:

We have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

Who’s he talking to here? It’s CNN producers, Time Magazine reporters, USA Today headline writers. He wants them to make individual, patriotically motivated choices not to cover his candidacy in a shallow, theatrical way. The analogy is to the founding fathers with whom he opened the whole address: the ones who decided to postpone a resolution of the slavery issue as they wrote the constitution.

He might have used this as a chance to theatrically renounce affirmative action or welfare or some other black Democratic sacred cow, in order to demonstrate his moderation. Instead, he chose a very cerebral way to address his problem. A libertarian sort of way. A community-organizer sort of way.

Maybe Obama decided there was no way to reach poor white men anyway without the press’s help. Maybe he is simply right that the media actually wields the power here. I don’t know. But if the press raves are any indication, this tack seems to be working fairly well so far. Both the New York Times and LA Times articles on Obama’s talk quoted from this passage at some length.

Here’s the goofy pop-culture thing this reminds me of: Ratatouille and I’m Not There, two movies by auteur directors (Bird and Haynes) that became some of of the best-reviewed of last year not by being flawless but by being movies about criticism — and by making direct requests, it sometimes seemed, for critics to deliver positive reviews of those movies. Critics obliged.

Effective? Dunno. (Ratatouille: $200 million. I’m Not There: $4 million.) Interesting? Hell yes.

-posted by Mike


5 Responses to Brad Bird, Todd Haynes and the real audience of Barack Obama’s race speech

  1. rmutt4m says:

    Thoughtful post. I thought Obama was targeting a number of different audiences during the course of the speech, which led to some problems, particularly the shift there at the end which you quote and assess, accurately I think, that he was targeting the media in an attempt to persuade them not to play those clips of Rev. Wright over and over and over.

    Unfortunately for Obama, he can only reach one segment of the media. The conservative media will have a field day with this through the election.

  2. paulanthony60 says:

    Al sharpton Jesse Jackson, There are done ,,, they have a double standard,,, when it come to whites and black,, there is racism in the United State, most of it is coming from the Black Americans,,,, How can Al Sharpton say, its ok for black to get imus fired,,, for the comments imus made, but Jeremiah Wright is ok thousands of excuses a double standard,, its time for Jesse and Al to get out of the lime light,,, Had respect for all sharpton,, until I seen him on Oreilly ,, Just like Obama,, I voted for Obama
    in California,, but now when it comes time for the presidency He does not have my vote,, On CNN And Msnbc, I seen alot of barack Obama supporter out there saying
    I Hilary is given the primary,,, with the super delegates,,, Obama supporter are going to Vote for McCain,,, there for OBama lost my Vote, in fact I will Vote for McCain,,
    If OBama wins the primary,,, because

    Barack Obama is a liar,,,

    To all
    Obama speech ,,,, Not sure if you caught Not only did Obama,,, Refuses to denounce him,, but even More,, He say in his own words,,,
    Barack Obama was in church when Jeremiah Wright,, was spewing Anti-American, Racist ism ,,,, Those were his own words,,, barack was there
    After going on keith Oberman ,Show obama said he would denounce that if he heard that language he would leave and not tolerate it , and denounce it
    After he went on MSNBC,, he went on FOX CNN ABC< all the news station saying he was never there,,, in his church when he said these things,,
    But Now today during his speech,,He states flat out Say’s HE was there,,, Last week Barack Obama Lied,, went on all the news stations, and Lied,,
    But your not reporting that,,,, You can rest assure,,, cnn ,,, Fox , ABC,,, Msnbc,, are getting more on this ,,, they will be reporting on this, and we will see
    If you chose to report, Obama Lying on tv,,, If this was Hilary clinton lying and caught lying on all the new station,,, you can be sure,, you would talk about it every hour
    people will be on your station debating this,,,, people analysing , if it is hilary clinton but it was not her it was Barack Obama, ,, it bad enought He lied, about being in church
    With Jeremiah Write, when he said these anti american ,,,,,and still refuse to denounce him…all the news agency want to do is speak on how good his speech was,
    Not that he lied,,, Last week on all the news agency ,, He was never there today in how own speech He say I was there,,,,should play all Obama videos from last week
    stating he was not there,,, or heard any of the anti-american Jeremiah Write, said in his churc then play his speech today saying he was there and he did hear him in church and refuse to denounce Jeremiah Wright..

  3. Mike says:

    See, what interests me about paulanthony60’s take is the “You can rest assure,,, cnn ,,, Fox , ABC,,, Msnbc,, are getting more on this ,,, they will be reporting on this, and we will see.”

    Since when did people like him make arguments like that? Maybe the MSM aren’t doomed after all. Rock.

  4. Mike Shapiro says:

    I think I’m confused. In protest of Obama supporters who might vote for McCain, paulanthony60, an Obama supporter, will vote for McCain?

    Wouldn’t the correct protest vote be for Kodos?

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