Last night in New York, Steve McQueen won an award.
The 12 Years A Slave director took the Best Director honours at last evening's New York Film Critics' Circle Awards, accepting his trophy after a heartfelt introduction delivered by Harry Belafonte. But not everyone was thrilled.
Armond White, the controversial CityArts critic, attempted to heckle McQueen, jeering, "You're an embarrassing doorman and garbage man. Fuck you. Kiss my ass." White, apparently, could not be heard from the stage, so he didn't really interrupt the proceedings, despite his best efforts.
The resulting hangover of the gala, and the over-reportage of White's boos, is sure to give him the attention he wants, and merits. Because Armond White is, basically, the Kanye West of film criticism. (Yes, that's a bit like calling someone "the Drake of plate-spinning" or "the Evander Holyfield of origami," but it sticks all the same.)
Last month in Phoenix, during an on-stage "rant" (which has become something of a mid-show feature on West' recent tour) Kanye West railed against his latest record not being named amongst the Grammy Awards' Album of the Year contenders. "I've never won a Grammy against a white artist," he stated.
Earlier this year, on Kimmel, West called out the barriers to entry in the fashion industry, barriers defined predominantly along the axis of race. Whether you buy West's argument - maybe the world's top designers don't want to work with West because of his fickle egoism, or the fact that he produced (and sold out of) $120 white t-shirts - is sort of besides the point. Kanye West performs what may well be a vital cultural function. To redraft that scene from Goodfellas, West responds to any claim, attack, criticism with an almost automated, "Fuck you, you're racist."
Like: "Snub me for album of the year? Fuck you, you're racist." "Won't let me design clothes? Fuck you, you're racist." "Think I sound crazy in a BBC interview? Fuck you, you're racist."
So it is with Armond White, who is no less vanguardist (though I'm sure he'd sneeze at that term's Leninist connotations) in his handling of race and class in the American arts. In his review of 12 Years A Slave, White likens the film to "torture porn" horrorshows like Saw and The Human Centipede (though he also compares it to the work of Damien Hirst, albeit, again, unfavourably). For White, 12 Years A Slave is a film "being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend ‘a conversation about race.'"
When 12 Years A Slave premiered at TIFF last year, studio honcho Harvey Weinstein chalked up the success of such films to a post-Obama renaissance. "He's erasing racial lines," Weinstein told The Wrap's Sharon Waxman. "It is the Obama effect. It's a better country. What a great thing."
Like Kanye, Armond White poses a threat to this idea of the "Obama effect." The election, then reelection, of Barack Obama, and the arrival of a film like 12 Years A Slave (if we're to believe that the latter is contingent upon the former) signals the erasure of racial lines only in the sense that they deny the continued existence of such lines. These lines are not being erased. They're being matted over. As White put it in his review, the film "makes it possible for some viewers to feel good about feeling bad...12 Years A Slave lets them congratulate themselves or ‘being aghast at slavery.'"
That many are similarly aghast at White's disruptive behaviour at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards only certifies this point. Of course it's rude and coarse, etc., to call someone "an embarrassing doorman and garbage man." (The specific insults are also loaded with racial connotations that square with White's criticism of McQueen; he's basically calling the filmmaker a steward of white liberal America's metabolic repression of its own racism.)
White may have deficiencies as a film critic proper. His knowledge of the medium's history is often confused and scattershot; his contrarianism (itself a valid function in the whole broader apparatus of cultural taste-formation) often treads precariously close to straight-up trolling. But White's coarseness, and the attempted egoism of his mocking of McQueen, are not among his flaws. Rudeness is precisely the point. White is denying (or trying to deny) this continued process of guilt-assuaging and artful feel-goodery. Like Kanye West, Armond White essentially stages (in grand, performative sweeps) the return of this repressed material in a way that film like 12 Years A Slave never could. He knows that it is difficult for certain people to reconcile his identity as a black, gay, right-wing Christian. And that's why he puts his personality across so forcefully. That anyone regards him as a problem is the problem.
As this lilywhite awards gala finds itself drunk on their self-congratulatory blush, Armond White is saying - to McQueen, to the New York Film Critics Circle, to Harvey "It's A Better Country" Weinstein, to America - "fuck you, you're racist." And there's bravery in that bravado.