If you remember back to late 2016, the internet was hotly debating the topic of cultural appropriation. The conversation was centered around La La Land, the latest movie to signal a resurgence of musicals that’s failed to take off any of the last six times in the previous 15 years it’s been pegged as the next big genre because of one movie’s success. People were upset, often seriously but sometimes jokingly, that Ryan Gosling’s struggling club musician was being positioned as the savior of jazz, a traditionally black musical art form.
This debate came back to mind recently as I was listening to the radio and “Soul Man” from The Blues Brothers came on. It occurred to me that I’ve heard this version more often than I have the original from Sam & Dave and I started thinking about The Blues Brothers movie in general. The story involves two white guys from the south side of Chicago who, essentially, set out to save the blues. Yeah, they want to preserve the orphanage where they grew up, but that’s not because of the nuns who ran the place but the relationship with Curtis (Cab Calloway), who introduced them to the blues greats. Along the way they interact with characters played by some of those icons, including Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. So black people are relegated to supporting roles in the story of a musical genre that they created and mastered, while we’re asked to root for the white guys who perform watered-down, overly-showy versions of soul classics.
It’s a mystery to me why this movie, which I still love and hold up as a classic in many respects, hasn’t come under more fire in the last few years. It’s a pretty blatant example of cultural appropriation, which as a recent NPR op-ed points out is never truly alright, regardless of intent. That’s going to be disappointing to many people, especially the millions of white guys who randomly drop Kanye lyrics into their Facebook posts or white girls who post “YAASSS QUEEN” along with an inspirational quote photo of Beyonce.
Were the movie to come out today – or even if it were to get some sort of substantial theatrical re-release (it will turn 40 in three years) – it would rightly get slammed for its depiction of the white savior who adopts black culture as their own and decide they are the best one to defend it. The way black people are portrayed as secondary participants in their own culture is…not great.
The Blues Brothers isn’t the only example of this by any means. But it’s a stark example of how the problem many people had with La La Land is by no stretch of the imagination new. There’s a place for white people to signal their enjoyment and appreciation for art forms that have traditionally been associated with other ethnic or racial groups and even champion them, bringing the attention of a larger audience to them. There’s a line, though, where that championing and appreciation crosses over into ownership and *that’s* where we, as white people, get into trouble. That’s the line The Blues Brothers crosses a bit too often.
This is not me knocking down the movie entirely. As I said, it’s absolutely a comedy classic and one of my favorite movies of all time. And I’m not taking the position of many who read Huck Finn or other novels and want to flush them down the memory hole because the society portrayed in them is no longer acceptable in polite society. I believe we need to view these cultural artifacts as what they are, snapshots of where we were at the time and reminders to not return to those mores and attitudes. The movie has value and we can enjoy it while not endorsing its attitudes and approach. But we *do* need to be aware of what it’s saying and view it with open eyes. Cultures change and art from the past needs to be reevaluated, not forgotten.