Art in melting pot America: What's appropriation and what's appropriate? New movies explore

A few months ago the internet was abuzz over an audio recording of a word that sounded to some listeners like “laurel,” others as “yanny.”

The differences had to do with the way the brain sorts high and low frequency sound, but the debate was enlightening. We all assume that we hear the same things that other people hear, but in truth, we don’t. Not in simple acoustic terms, certainly not in cultural terms.

Case in point: You can listen to Elvis Presley’s 1954 version of “That’s All Right” and hear country, bluegrass, gospel and blues reinventing an Arthur Crudup R&B tune, or you can hear appropriation and theft.

Cultural commentator Van Jones hears the latter, and says so in the upcoming documentary The King, opening Friday.

Presley is guilty of “the clear charge of racial appropriation,” Jones says. “It’s very hard to express sometimes the frustration that black people feel at having given so much to the culture, and that great value, which really helped to define America ultimately, benefiting others.”

Witness for the defense: David Simon, creator of The Wire, a TV show that set a sophisticated modern standard for inclusiveness — demonstrating that you can’t tell a story of a diverse place without telling everybody’s story.

When he listens to those early Elvis tunes, that’s what he hears – a guy telling multiple stories all at once. Synthesizing everything he heard growing up in Memphis projects, in white churches and black churches, on Beale Street, listening to Crudup on black radio, or the Grand Ole Opry and Bill Monroe (whose own music is covered on the “That’s All Right” B-side, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”).

>> READ MORE: ‘Elvis Presley: The Searcher’ aims to restore the King’s reputation

The weird photo-negative of the Elvis debate in The King turns up in Whitney, a documentary on the life of Whitney Houston that opened Friday. Trained by her soul-singer  mother, Cissy, to sing “legacy” music rather than “fad”  music, Houston achieved broad popular success with her style and delivery, but was sometimes — the film notes — accused of sounding “white.” She was twice booed at the Soul Train awards, and the target of an Al Sharpton boycott that labeled her “Whitey” Houston.

The blowback left Houston hurt and more than a little confused, and no wonder. In a country that celebrates its status as a melting pot and at the same time wrestles with a chronic history of racial and cultural exploitation, the intersection of art and culture can be tricky.

>> READ MORE: ‘Whitney’: A moving, revealing look at the life of Whitney Houston

The King and Whitney are among a slew of new, recent and upcoming movies that explore that intersection — its pitfalls, its possibilities, and the beauty that can arise when cultures combine to form something innovative and new, part of what Simon calls the optimal “journey” of America.

Rapper/activist Boots Riley drew on his own journey (he once paid the bills with a telemarketing job) for his movie Sorry to Bother You, opening Friday. He wrote and directed this story of an unemployed black man (Lakeith Stanfield) who gets a phone sales job and rises quickly when he learns to sound “white.” This is more than sonic mimicry – as a co-worker (Danny Glover) explains, sounding white is an attitude, one that conveys the stature of a person who gets “laid off rather than fired.”

It’s a karmic reversal for Stanfield, who co-starred as a black man invaded by white consciousness in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, considered a definitive modern movie take on cultural appropriation, an idea made horror-movie literal with a gory twist.

>> READ MORE: ‘Get Out’: Jordan Peele’s horror debut takes aim at racism in white liberal America

In an essay on Get Out that appeared in Harper’s and her book Feel Free, Zadie Smith celebrated the ingenuity of a movie that simultaneously appealed to whites and blacks for different reasons – for blacks, “a compendium of black fears about white folk.” For whites, the “illuminating feeling of suddenly being othered. (Oh, that’s how we look to them?)”  White audiences had to adjust to the idea of woodsy, exurban McMansion as a house of horrors (perhaps because we know there aren’t really torture chambers in the basements, unless unassembled Nordic Tracks and Joni Mitchell albums are instruments of torture).

Smith wondered, though, about the rigidity of the us and them polarity in Get Out. The movie’s horror fantasy “in which we are inside each other’s skins and intimately involved in each other’s suffering – is neither a horror nor a fantasy. It is a fact of our experience. The real fantasy is that we can get out of each other’s way, mark a clean cut between black and white … for many of us in loving, mixed families this is the true impossibility.” (Smith, like Peele, is mixed-race).

It’s worth noting that there were actually two hit movies in 2017 about a white consciousness swapping races. Get Out, yes, but also Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a wildly successful action-comedy that had audiences laughing at the spectacle of a timid white teen entering the body of bulging bad-ass Dwayne Johnson.

>> READ MORE: ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’: Whoa, a reboot that isn’t lame?

Jumanji played out, disarmingly, in the realm of sci-fi – people inhabiting video game avatars. Reality is much more complicated, and racial and cultural lines remain perilous to cross. We see this in Daveed Diggs’ Blindspotting, which played at the Philadelphia Film Society’s SpringFest and opens next month. His screenplay tells the story of an Oakland man (Diggs) and his white best friend (Rafael Casal) who share an upbringing  in hip-hop culture, and an antipathy to the gentrification that’s overrunning and altering their neighborhood. At a party, a black tech worker mistakes Casal’s character for a white arriviste pretending to be “street,” and the multiple racial/cultural misunderstandings in play explode into a fight.

That fight, in different forms, is longstanding. The King includes an interview with rapper Chuck D, who in a Public Enemy song that famously declared “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant s- to me.” In the documentary he clarifies his point of view: “My conversation never was this white dude stole black music. I think [Elvis’ producer] Sam Phillips was a business guy who tried to sell those records with black folks and could not get them across. He found a guy who was able to sell a black sound with a white face. [Phillips] knew what to sell to America,” the rapper said.

“I think culture is culture. Culture is to be shared,” he added. Blacks pianists who excel at Bach and Mozart don’t have to be European, and “if a person is able to do the twisted stanky leg and it happens to be Justin Timberlake, I think it’s cool.”

And it is cool, when done right. Stan Lee can look to black culture for inspiration for the character of Black Panther, and Ryan Coogler can reclaim it, improve it, and update it, turning the movie adaptation into a rousing and thoughtful inquiry into Afro-Futurism.

>> READ MORE: ‘Black Panther’: A heroic achievement

Perhaps the year’s most interesting cross-cultural artifact is The Rider, a movie based on the life of a Sioux Indian, Brady Jandreau, who is a cowboy, and sees no conflict in that. He loves what cowboys love — horses, the range, the rodeo, freedom. On the reservation, where status and success are hard to come by for young Sioux men, rodeo stars are heroes – Indians find validation in being cowboys.

>> READ MORE: The western rides back from the sunset in ‘The Rider,’ one of the best films of the year

>> READ MORE: In the neo-Western ‘The Rider,’ the cowboy and the Indian are the same person

The freedom to blend and borrow can represent America at its best, argues Simon in The King, citing the story behind the song “Hound Dog.”

Before Elvis had a hit with it, “Hound Dog” was recorded by blues artist Big Mama Thornton. But the song’s history is complex. Thornton producer Johnny Otis (actually Alexandres Veliotes, son of Greek immigrants) was looking for material, and hired two Jewish teenagers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, to write a song for her, which they did, in 12 minutes.

She looked at the two white lads, looked at the music, sang it like Doris Day, which is what she thought they wanted. They said no, they wrote it for her, for her style and idiom, and when she recorded it that way, and it became her best-known tune.

Who “owns” that song?  Somewhere there’s a lawyer who’d be happy to tell you.  Spiritually and culturally, it’s more complicated. Two guys of one race who loved Thornton’s music, turned that affection into inspiration and music for the artist who inspired them.

“Hound Dog” was later a hit for Presley, who upped the tempo and gave it a rockabilly edge. The song traveled through many cultures and influences, and so did Presley, representing an American journey, Simon says, “we all need to be on.”

And sometimes are.

In Whitney, we hear an anecdote about Houston’s famous 1991 Super Bowl rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” arranged by Rickey Minor, who tells of swapping the song’s three-four waltz signature for a four-four gospel structure tailored to Houston’s style, and to her soul.

The stage, the song, the voice, and the reinvented music coalesced into a performance of our national anthem that moved millions to tears. It sounded new and newly beautiful to people who’d heard it a thousand times, because it was.

It remains unsurpassed.