EXCLUSIVE: In New York City and Washington D.C. on Monday, thousands of protesters took part in a “Die-In,” blocking traffic and, in Manhattan, diverting Martin Luther King Birthday observers from — what else? — shopping, at Bloomingdale’s on the Upper East Side. Similar scenes played out in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston and scores of other cities across the U.S. In some places, sound trucks broadcast the Nobel laureate’s speeches.
I can only speak for New York, where I live, but the protests — which focused on the Rev. Dr. King’s legacy in light of the deaths of unarmed black citizens at the hands of police — crossed more than tangentially with disappointment over last week’s Academy Awards nominations and the idea that too many white people just don’t get it. The images from Monday — of marchers holding placards insisting that “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” their arms locked in solidarity, some laying their bodies down on crowded streets — triggered memories of King and his era during a time when we take perhaps false comfort in the progress that has been made since the passing of the Civil Rights Act.
It seemed appropriate as well that New York’s progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, arrived this morning in Paris to meet with his counterpart there, Anne Hidalgo, and to show solidarity with that city’s citizens following the January 7 murders of 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and four at a kosher market. Paris is still smarting from the failure of the Obama Administration to send a senior representative to events in the wake of the murders, hardly assuaged by the appearance late last week of Secretary of State John Kerry with James Taylor in tow.
“Black Lives Matter” and “Je Suis Charlie” are words indelibly connected to images. In the case of the former, to the TV images of Alabama police beating peaceful protesters marching from Selma to the state capital and, inevitably, of Dr. King delivering his “I have a dream” speech in Washington. In the case of the latter, to the Charlie Hebdo cover caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed, and then to the buttons that sprang up like mushrooms, announcing Je suis Charlie and, finally the subsequent Charlie Hebdo cover, with its poignant yet no less controversial portrait of a tearful Muhammad under the headline “Tout Est Pardonne” — “All Is Forgiven.”
‘What matters most is that Ava direct another picture and then another and then another.’
And somewhere in between is the divide between people who believe Selma deserved nominations for its director and leading actor, Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo, and those who think its two nominations, including Best Picture, were plenty enough.
Pain and ager intermix in all of these issues, heightened by the images that signify them. The smartest comment I’ve heard yet on the subject of Selma‘s Oscar nominations comes from the prolific writer and director George C. Wolfe, who satirized black iconography in The Colored Museum, staged Angels In America on Broadway and Fires In The Mirror for the stage and PBS, and recently directed Hilary Swank in the film You’re Not You. Bottom line: He has more on his mind than images.
“Awards are emotionally consuming, silly distractions,” Wolfe told me when I asked if he was disturbed about the attention, or lack of it, Oscar paid to Selma. “What matters most is that Ava direct another picture and then another and then another. And if that doesn’t happen, then there’s a real conversation to be had about how Hollywood works.”
That sounds right. Of course, the murdered staff members of Charlie Hebdo will never have that opportunity, and I still wonder whether it would have been useful for more of us to actually confront the images presented by that magazine, rather than merely read about them. Because I heard lots of discussion about whether the caricatures on Charlie Hebdo’s covers constituted hate speech, in the same way, for example that the vicious caricatures of Jews that ran in the vile Der Stürmer in the 1920s and ’30s were hate speech.
`Caricature is no more paraphrasable than poetry. You can’t describe it in a way that captures its essence. Visual language has a power of its own.’
Like George Wolfe, Victor Navasky — who probably knows more about the power of political imagery than anyone on the planet — also said I was asking the wrong question when I wondered what he would say about where the line is between satire and hate speech. A self-described First Amendment absolutist who edited and published The Nation for three decades, Navasky was inspired to write The Art Of Controversy: Political Cartoons And Their Enduring Power by the violence in 2005 that followed the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten‘s publication of 12 cartoons also depicting Muhammad. Images, especially political cartoons, need to be taken very seriously. Even — maybe even especially — when it’s (protected) hate speech.
“There can be great satire that is hate speech,” he told me. “There ought to be a right to publish without exception.” We were discussing whether or not the New York Times should have published some of the images from Charlie Hebdo. I thought they ought to have and I was certain Navasky would agree. At first, however, he seemed on the verge of offering up one of those buts I hear whenever an absolutist turns out not to be.
“As an editor, I would never have published the vicious anti-Semitic caricatures that were in Der Stürmer,” he said, “and in this country I would never publish racist caricatures. It’s not either/or, it’s editorial judgment.” The refusal of the Times and other publications to run the cartoons so central to their coverage of the murders at Charlie Hebdo, he said, were legitimate editorial license, not censorship: “The Times is entitled to decide as a medium what it will and will not publish.”
Then he swerved back around, thank goodness. “Having said that,” Navasky continued, “and especially since it regards itself as the Paper of Record, I believe the Times should have published the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Because caricature is no more paraphrasable than poetry. You can’t describe it in a way that captures its essence. Visual language has a power of its own.”
Rarely in my own life has that simple truism — that visual language has a power of its own — been more resonant than during the last few weeks on Planet Hollywood and Planet Manhattan. There’s riveting symbolism in one mayor’s show of support for another in Paris, just as there will be when Selma ascends to the global podium the night of February 22 and Oscar reveals whose images really matter most.