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topcatsArmond White is a funny guy. That Armond’s excellent sense of humor isn’t often noted when people discuss his criticism doesn’t make his wit any less bracing. Of course, I don’t agree with everything Armond asserts— who could?— but still, it’s always strongly—sometimes strangely— argued, challenging and reverential of a life of the mind. As readers, we can ask no more, although a book or two would be quite welcome. Armond’s is one of the lesser-known New York Calling essays I’m most proud of (excerpt below), and elsewhere, time and again, I’ve found Armond’s critical acuities and enthusiasm right the fuck on, just when I needed it. Two recent examples where Armond helped clarify my own througts are his overview of the films of David Lean and his introduction to the unedited version of Mark Romanek’s brilliant video for Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”. There’s no use pretending most people I know didn’t check out on (or get fired from, natch) New York Press years ago but take a look sometime and Armond’s still there, doing his thing. Long may he inspire, and infuriate, and inspire again.Brian Berger*

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The City Sun wasn’t New York’s first black-owned weekly newspaper, but it was the first that anyone took seriously after the ’60s, when black militancy made The Amsterdam News seem New York’s closest thing to communiqués from the Front.When the City Sun proudly printed a cover story on the release of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, it was an era-defining day. The Brooklyn-based paper had been in business for only two years, but the premiere of that particular movie—and its local fanfare—became a media watershed. It not only announced a fresh start for independent filmmakers depicting contemporary black culture but made clear that black journalism also had cultural importance, was more than just missives from a war zone. Almost ten years later, Lee capitalized on his black independent-filmmaker image with Clockers, a Hollywood-studio-sponsored depiction of black American life that created a surprisingly different, deflating effect from the hipsterism of She’s Gotta Have It. Clockers, the story of a white Brooklyn cop who investigates a crime cover-up by two young black men,was a tribute to the sanctity of the police and a rainbow-hued reflection of ghetto treachery. In short, everything the City Sun had celebrated She’s Gotta Have It for not being. Ten years made a difference between Lee the black striver, using race pride as a calling card to get a foothold in Hollywood, and his eventual achievement of arrogant middle-class success.

Success for both the City Sun and Spike Lee belonged to a special period in New York’s history. The mid-’80s gave rise to African-American pop communication more varied and prominent than had ever been possible before. In journalism and the arts, the mainstream witnessed the attitudes and ambitions of a social group that had seized upon advances foreseen in the objectives of mid-century education reform and arts consciousness and wrought by the civil-rights movements and black radicalism. The effects were widespread, from newspaper ownership and filmmaker entrepreneurship to hip-hop music. The result was a popular culture that turned black experience and imagery into a new vanguard. Black culture came to fascinate media conglomerates, the fashion industry and academia; it also helped the profile of local politicians and small business folk. Iconic names cropped up across the city: Michael Jordan’s restaurant in Manhattan; Spike Lee’s Brooklyn emporium Spike’s Joint; the Brooklyn offices of the City Sun itself. Black advancement was not monolithic. There were discrete visions of what this new,private black autonomy would mean for life in New York City: black rock bands like Living Colour, self-published guru-authors like Sharazad Ali, and machine-politics straw men like New York’s first black Mayor, David Dinkins. This auspicious moment was not utopian; rather, it was unexpected proof of a now-fragmented dream—a quaking landscape of ideological monoliths.

This was confirmed by Lee’s change of heart with Clockers and the City Sun’s unavoidably disputatious reaction to the film. It was a small controversy, perhaps, but it illustrated that unpredictable dynamic between action and ethics. With Clockers, Lee sought to profit from a particular commercial depiction of urban and  black American life characterized primarily by racial and class division. Only the City Sun stood between Lee and his Brooklyn striver’s pose as the last word on black attitude. The two should not have been in opposition, but their clash demonstrated that another aspect of American plurality was cultural upheaval.

Following the wide range of black radical expression ofthe ’60sand early ’70s, white Americans’ formerly abashed reactions to civil-rights progress dominated the media—especially New York tabloid journalism. With Clockers, Lee forfeited black screen time to portray a white authority figure’s pent-up frustration—a sentimentality in which racist cops are not the products of bigoted indoctrination, just helplessly coarsened by the jungle/workplace. Clockers’ police sympathy misrepresented America’s—New York City’s—basic white cop/black citizen tension.

happy horse tire shopIn the film the police are the bearers of morality while black folks are the problem. Predictably, the white press loved this—Clockers was widely praised as Lee’s best film to date because it appealed to the media brokers’ own limited sense of social reality. Lee didn’t instruct his viewers about conflicting urban racial philosophies; instead, by making the white cop Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) a man of heart, he played to his audience’s prejudices by using the mainstream’s familiar game of equal-time race sentiment, giving white bewilderment the same dramatic weight as black grievance.It was an erroneous quid pro quo that ignored the fact of unequal social power by which the Police Department’s institutional racism was made to seem common-sensical.

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* Gowanus Houses setting and the sorta awesome “Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers” aside, I too dislike Clockers, taking issue not just with message but the messengers as well, especially the unbearable overacting of Harvey Keitel. Praise be Chubb Rock. O.C. and Jeru The Damaja, production by DJ Premier.

One Response to “Armond White: Speaking Truth To Power”

  1. Vee says:

    I read the book Clockers last year and saw the movie after the fact. The book is definitely better than the film. I think that is one of Spike Lee’s worst films. I haven’t seen all of his films, so I’m not an expert.

    It is what it is.

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