Doin' Werk: Freedom's Mixtape

Clint Eastwood Ain’t Funky

You’ll have to bear with me here, I’m freestylin’.

Maurice Bryan’s article on Leadbelly caught my attention, mostly because just last week I was wondering what funk might look like in artistic areas outside of music (film, visual art, performance art). On top of that, he dicusses Leadbelly (the film) in terms of the Western— specifically as it relates to American ideals of masculinity and manhood. Westerns happen to be a particular area of interest to me. They also happen to be areas of narrative where black people are woefully under-represented. I chose the “sherriff comes to town” video from Blazing Saddles specifically because it’s the one Western I can think of that explicitly addresses race in the American west (Unforgiven was the next best example I could think of, but it’s not clear whether Morgan Freeman’s character would have been killed had he been white).

The classic image of American masculinity we get from the Western is Clint Eastwood, squinting at the sun, face dirty and leathered, with a a stub of a cigar clenched spitefully in his teeth.

Something like this

(white) American masculinity, then, categorizes itself as rugged, individual, and masterful. In that way, I find it very anti-funky; the funk is about unity and oneness, while Western heroes frequently face challenges by themselves and position themselves against groups. This solitary nature is in fact one of the axioms of the American Western.

I can’t help but notice similarities between the classic American Western hero and Parks’ Leadbelly. Each act of violence for Leadbelly is a rebellion— a refusal to conform to the group norm. Leadbelly also achieves his freedoms (and eventually his masculinity) through mastery; just as one of Eastwood’s characters triumphs through mastery of the pistol or rifle, Leadbelly triumphs through mastery of his guitar and voice. Finally, Westerns, more so than any other American narrative style, rely on the idea of rupture to move forward. Frequently, Western heroes’ defeats in the 2nd act are extreme and destructive. These defeats are seen as necessary, however, to the character’s ability to grow and achieve.

Ultimately, while the similarities between Leadbelly and the Western hero are numerous, it is the differences that intruige me. The obvious differences relate to race— while the Western hero usually proves himself against some form of Other (native Americans, Mexicans), Leadbelly’s assertion is against his being Othered. In the same way that the sherriff in Blazing Saddles finds value in exploiting white people’s belief in minstrel stereotypes, Leadbelly also performs his role when necessary. The biggest difference between Leadbelly and the Western hero, however, is the circular nature of his experience. The Western hero is always moving— toward town, then through town, then out of town. Leadbelly, however, visits, revisits, and returns at various points throughout his journey. There is growth, no doubt, but the idea that Leadbelly’s masculinity is achieved with help from others is decidedly different from the Western hero.

Leadbelly’s rupture is his isolation, while the Western hero’s victory is his solitude.