96 Min rated R- sexuality, minor violence
BS DISCLAIMER: WHITE SUBURBANITE WRITING ABOUT CLASS TENSIONS WITHIN BLACK CULTURE
Now that I have that pre-amble out of the way: The true genius of adaptation is to remain true to the themes and plot of the story while not becoming the prisoner of the prose. This is the first film adaptation of The Great Gatsby to avoid the pitfall of trying to make Fitzgerald tell the story rather than telling the story.
On first hearing about an African-American cast version of The Great Gatsby, set in modern hip-hop culture, I wondered how they could pull it off. It’s not exactly like you can have a black Tom Buchanan hissing the words “You can never be one of us. It’s in our blood.” to Gatsby. But Christopher Cherot did something better. This film modernized the crisis. To explain, I’m going to have to talk about two major black icons, and how they can be construed to represent different interpretations of the end goal of the civil rights struggle.
President Barack Obama never loses his temper. He’s banked the right way at almost every turn of his political career. He’s practically a Vulcan- Ta-Nehsi Coates does a better job of discussing the double standards of integration in America. He’s the ultimate meritocratic striver, one who has compartmentalized every emotion in the pursuit of being the most diplomatic person in the room.
Kanye West is successful despite being an egotistical, needy mess. He is successful, in part, because he wears his heart on his sleeve- I can’t recall another rapper admitting to wetting the bed as a child (Family Business). Kanye gets a creative charge from counter-attacking his critics. He doesn’t conceal insecurities or personal failings. He doesn’t particularly filter his thoughts, only the quality of the expression of said thoughts, and for that (along with just being one of the best producers and samplers in the business), he is one of the largest musical stars of today.
Both of these men are pioneers for the upward mobility of black men. Barack Obama stands for the principle that a black youth can grow up to be whatever they want to be, if they work hard and do everything right. Kanye West stands for the principal that a black person can be successful without having to conceal their nature, even where their nature is ugly. It’s Joe Lewis vs. Jackie Robinson. Morehouse college vs. Def Jam.
G is not about the conflict of old money versus new money. Instead, it’s about the conflict of two different kinds of success- the resentment between success on society’s terms and success on your own terms. Old money vs. new money doesn’t mean anything to the modern American because of the fungibility of wealth and the myth of the lottery. Lawful rich vs. Chaotic rich- that’s an accessible sociological conflict.
Within that conflict, it becomes a battle of when to follow your heart versus when to shut up and do what’s socially appropriate. And what makes this film work is that every character alternates between transgressing and conforming, both to the elite community of the Hamptons and to the African-American community.
For ease of reference, I am going to refer to the character by the names in the original novel. I understand that renaming Tom Buchanan as Chip Hightower serves a purpose (actually pretty heavy on the names symbolism- a rare mistake for an otherwise smart script).
Jay Gatsby (Richard T. Jones)- Judging by the script, this is clearly Jay-Z as Jay Gatsby (possibly the reason that Mr. Carter produced the 2013 film). An ice cold rap impresario, hosting a Decameron in the Hamptons, ‘Summer G’ has the combination of mystery, reserve, and cool authority. It’s a different, more powerful Gatsby- one who allows understatement to invest him with power and authority. The other interpretations of Gatsby are all climbers, socialites. Richard Jones establishes his character first as an iceberg- a remote yet dominating presence. He then gradually thaws the character. It makes the revelations of Gatsby’s pretenses far more powerful. Richard Jones pulls off what Robert Redford was trying to do with the role.
Daisy Buchanan (Chenoa Maxwell)- What I like about Maxwell’s performance is that she gives depth and principal to a character that is elsewhere portrayed as merely neurotic. She actually feels committed to her marriage, and guilty over the affair. Unlike Carey Mulligan, she doesn’t just succumb to fear and insecurity. Unlike Farrow, Maxwell’s Daisy isn’t just giving to the affair out of desperation and jealousy. This Daisy Buchanan is a more mature social climber, one who makes calculations but also regrets and reneges upon them. I also got a sense that Maxwell was trying to be evocative of Halle Berry- or maybe I am just conflating a hairstyle with an acting style. This is Daisy Buchanan as a mature modern woman.
Tom Buchanan (Blair Underwood)- Great job. The brilliance of Underwood’s performance is that he gives us a Tom Buchanan who genuinely loves Daisy, albeit in a faithless way, and a Buchanan who is formidable in his own right. He is craven yet affable, determined yet deplorable. Of particular brilliance is how he sets the gears of white privilege grinding against Gatsby- first with the Hamptons Homeowners Association, then with the police. This is the first Gatsby movie where it actually feels like a love triangle- where I truly brought the idea that Daisy is genuinely divided in her affections between two men. Underwood’s Tom is violent but not a raging villain; feckless but not a man-child. Underwood understands how to establish a character that is objectively evil but likable- and that makes the villainy much better than with a boor or a brute.
Nick Carraway (Andre Royo)- This character is more of a hustler than other Carraways. He’s a journalist, not a broker, and the film doesn’t try to establish some convoluted means of giving him a house. Instead, he’s living at his cousin’s house. Overall, I liked Royo’s performance- he was more needy, yet more sincere. His interactions with Daisy actually felt like those of family members, with each having a degree of candor.
Cherot really mixes up the dynamics of the lesser characters. There’s no Jordan Baker. Is Laz Alonso supposed to be playing the George Wilson analogue? He turns a sufficiently tortured performance. Damian Young is Gatsby’s butler, albeit turned into a Rick Rubin manager/ minder type figure. Cherot does a wonderful turn by actually depicting the intrigues and schemes of the various attendees of Gatsby’s parties.
Director (Christopher Scott Cherot)
A competent though not brilliant job, though I love what he’s done with the screenplay. The script is great- he sticks to the core story without getting wound up in things like the green light or the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg. Those are just trappings devices.
This is the only matter where the film falls. The film doesn’t take place in mansions, but rather in large upper middle class houses.
The soundtrack is highly effective. No super famous songs, but I think the bulk of the budget went into securing clearances for the soundtrack. Which is important if you’re doing a movie about the lives of hip-hop artists.
Other Thoughts– One thing I like is the way the film plays with Gatsby’s reputation. Everybody just assumes he’s a gangster, because how else can a black guy get a mansion in the Hamptons?
Another great touch is the touchstone line of the film- does hip-hop have a heart? With his question, Cherot again achieves a modernization of the core conflicts of the original. Can you truly keep your heart if you’re a gangster?
The film does skimp on exploring race relations in favor of exploring conflicts between upwardly mobile people of the same race. But that’s no huge loss. There could have been more done to parallel between the original Gatsby’s (OG) materialism and Summer G’s materialism as bling- but that might have distracted from Jones’ confident portrayal of the character. Likewise, more could have been done with the ambiguity of Gatsby’s past and the exposition thereof. The backstory takes a backseat to the passions of the moment in this Gatsby.
This is the best cinematic Gatsby that I’ve seen so far (only two left to go). It’s got the best, most mature romance, the most plausible and accessible dialogues, good tension, a Shakespearean sense of inevitable tragedy. Cherot has captured all the essentials of the novel while transcending the devices and trappings of the original story.
Fair Value of G: $14.00. This is the film you show to kids to teach them about the Great Gatsby.
Until the next serving,
With obvious pretension (you did read the article, yeah?),
G. W. Devon Pack