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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March 15, 2011: The Personal is Political

The more I read and learn about HBO’s The Wire, the more I realize that I need to find a way (or rather find time in my not-exactly-wide-open schedule) to watch every season and episode of that show. Partly that’s because it sounds quite a bit like my favorite John Sayles movies—a multi-character, multi-plot-arc portrayal of a particular community and the many different identities and lives and relationships and settings and themes that constitute it. Partly that’s because it dealt with so many crucial AmericanStudies issues, both contemporary and overarching, from cities, poverty, race, and the justice system to politics, education, and the media. But partly it’s because of an essay from a couple years ago that I just discovered, a piece in Time magazine by the show’s three creators where they used their experiences in and work on the show to make some very impassioned and convincing arguments about drugs, poverty, crime, and race in America.
Of the many things that make the essay (linked below) great, I think the most impressive is its understanding of just how personal and intimate a giant, national political issue like the “war on drugs” always also is. The writers make that case both by thinking about specific real-life situations (including a hypothetical trial for a non-violent drug offender) and by considering the multi-faceted and complex characters on whose identities and intersections their show focuses so fully (and, apparently, so successfully, although again I haven’t myself seen it yet). To echo my post from yesterday, this link of the personal to the political doesn’t mean that the creators envision their characters as simply or simplistically representing political arguments; quite the contrary, they argue (here and elsewhere) that their goal has been to create layered and complex characters, people who feel “real” in the most meaningful sense of the word, individuals whose lives connect to, are impacted by, and help shape larger social and cultural and political issues and conversations and controversies, making clear just how personal all such issues are at their core.
Two of the best films about the war on drugs seem to focus on the opposite ends of the personal and political spectrum: Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) portrays many different elements and worlds within the political, legal, and criminal communities of both the United States and Mexico, while Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace (2004) tells the story of a single, pregnant Colombian teenager (played by Catalina Sandino Moreno) who travels to America as a mule for a local drug lord. Yet both movies succeed because they too blur the boundaries between these categories: Maria’s personal story, in its many complications and changes and intersections with other lives, becomes profoundly (if far from simplistically) representative of political and social issues; while Soderbergh’s film is at its best when it focuses on the layered identities of individual characters, perhaps none more so than the drug-addicted daughter (played by Erika Christensen) of a wealthy judge (Michael Douglas) who becomes a national drug czar but nearly loses his family in the process. If Soderbergh’s film and these characters’ arcs are slightly more overtly didactic, conclude with somewhat more blatant political points than Marston’s, at the very least it and they have arrived there through similarly believable and realistic portrayals, fictional identities that feel as if they do justice to the messiness and ambiguity and depth of every individual life.
Perhaps the most wrong-headed aspect of the war on drugs lies precisely in its conceptual dissonance, in the fact that a war on drugs would always by definition mean a war not only on these illicit substances but also on the individuals affected by and linked to them. And such individuals, as these works remind us, are not just dealers or drug lords—they’re among others teenage girls, in Colombia or Columbus (Christensen’s character and her family live in Ohio). The least we can do is try to remember all those complex, layered, significant lives and identities behind and at the core of any political issue, including this one. More tomorrow, on maybe the greatest name in American history and the very interesting life and woman behind it.
PS. Four links to start with:
2)      One of Christensen and Douglas’ climactic scenes:
3)      The opening of Maria:
4)      OPEN: Any works of art that you’d say especially, successfully capture political or social issues?

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