I get the feeling she thought Tavis Smiley’s Get on the Bus 2.0, his documentary “Stand” which aired on TV One last month, was lacking a little something.
Its low production value, wandering narrative, flat history and self-important egoism did little to reveal the shortcomings of the Obama phenomenon. Instead, the piece exposed and embodied the contemporary crisis of the black public intellectual in the age of Obama.
The film and its participants (two of them my senior colleagues at Princeton University) appropriated the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to implicitly claim that they, not Obama, are the authentic representatives of the political interests of African-Americans. They used King’s images and speeches, gathered on the balcony where King was assassinated, and explicitly asserted their desire to play King to Obama’s LBJ, and Frederick Douglass to Obama’s Lincoln.
On its face, this is not a bad model. Presidents are deeply constrained by the structural and political limitations of their office. A robust administration needs an active and informed citizenry to engage, push, cajole, criticize and applaud its efforts.
But this appropriation misrepresents rather than preserves King’s legacy. King was a powerful questioner and, at times, ally of President Johnson because he was at the helm of a massive social movement of men and women who were shut out of the ordinary political process. It was not King’s intellectual capacity or verbal dexterity that made him an effective advocate for racial issues; it was his own accountability to that movement.
This is not true of Smiley and his “soul patrol,” who are mostly public personalities and tenured professors largely unaccountable to the back constituency. King’s meager income, though supplemented by the lecture circuit, was grounded in the voluntary contributions of black churchgoers.
Smiley is backed by powerful corporations, like Wal-Mart and Nationwide, that have troubled relationships with these communities. The college profs on the bus are comfortably supported by well-endowed universities. This does not invalidate their views on race, but it does make the analogy with King a poor fit.
Further, Smiley and his “soul patrol” seemed to have missed the intervening 40 years between the era of King and the election of Obama. African-Americans are no longer fully disfranchised subjects of an oppressive state.
Harris-Lacewell also criticizes Smiley for what she sees as his narrow focus criticism of President Obama on race, arguing that the policies that Smiley suggests and Obama is pushing are both very similar but “Smiley insists on explicit and repeated acknowledgement of race, while Obama typically seeks to address inequality within a racially neutral frame.”
She also was a tad annoyed that the men of “Stand” spent a great deal of time talking about women, but never actually talked to a woman for the documentary.