Q/A: Stanley Crouch

Stanley Crouch is one of America’s most eloquent and original social critics. In the last three decades, Crouch has published several books and his essays have appeared in numerous national publications including Harper’s and The New Republic. In 1993 he was awarded the MacArthur “genius grant” in recognition of his work.

Crouch has tackled cinema throughout his career—whether buzz-killing the party for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in 1989, or praising the work of the Hughes Brothers. Crouch’s latest book The Artificial White Man (out this fall from Basic Books), includes an original and insightful seventy-page essay on Quentin Tarantino.

Renny Waldron: You have written of the “Shakespearean achievement” as that which makes “us recognize the humanity of people with whom we don’t identify,” and you have praised Quentin Tarantino for achieving this element in his earlier works. What do you think of his latest efforts, Kill Bill Volumes I and II?

Stanley Crouch: Tarantino does this kind of amazing thing. In a certain way, he seems to always be writing Julius Caesar, Othello, and Richard III over and over—[in both the plays and his films] there are extremely powerful bad guys who drive the story and who you find yourself both repulsed and intrigued by, primarily because they can surprise you. For instance, if you take the Ordell character in Jackie Brown, which is one of Samuel Jackson’s greatest performances, you never knew what he was going to do or how he was going to react to something. Even though he establishes himself in a certain way in the opening of the movie, [it still] doesn’t prepare you for the murderer he turns out to be shortly thereafter, nor does it prepare you for his meeting with Jackie Brown in which she kind of intimidates him with her plan. The viewer is hit with all these surprises within his personality. I think that’s what Tarantino’s gift is—he can take these [characters] in Reservoir Dogs, in Pulp Fiction, in Jackie Brown, and Kill Bill Volumes I and II, and surprise the viewer.

RW: In your book, The All American Skin Game, you quote the actor Gregory Peck as saying: “The audience loves the bad guy because he will come up with a surprise.” Do you think this has anything to do with the success of violent films, particularly like those made by Quentin Tarantino?

SC: Well, yeah. Except that there isn’t that much surprise in the violence nowadays. Violence is successful because you don’t need translation. When you see a guy get his head bitten off, it’s the same thing in China, in Japan, in the US, and in Europe, so I think that might have something to do with it.

Thirty years ago, the writer Tom Wolfe said, and I’m paraphrasing, that film had largely usurped shorts stories and novels, but that it could never make the audience feel like they are inside the mind or nervous system of a character the way books can. What are your thoughts on that? And do you think it’s possible for films to succeed in getting inside a character’s head?

SC: In terms of what Wolfe is talking about, no. Film is really an extension of painting, and the accomplishment of any great painter is that they bring depth to the surface. Not just depth of perception but of substance. But what Tom Wolfe is talking about, no, we’ve never had that before [in film]. I think it could be done, but it still wouldn’t have the same kind of weight that a great book has.

RW: The main character in your 2000 novel, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome, is a beautiful blonde jazz singer from South Dakota who falls in love with a black tenor saxophone player. If there were to be a movie of your novel and you could pick the director and some of the actors and actresses, whom would you choose?

SC: I’ve thought about writing a screenplay [based on the novel]. I think there are a few directors who could do it. Carl Franklin, who did One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress, he could definitely do it. I think my wife suggested Spike Lee once, but I never thought about that. Tarantino—see, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome is the next level for him. It doesn’t have to be my book, but what [my] book was doing is the next level for him. In other words, he would have to take his sensibility and bring it into a much bigger and more complicated world. He tends to make the world where his characters live fairly simple.

RW: You once wrote “no one should be shocked to find that the quality of art we get in black films is as low as that in all popular cinema.” How do you see the state of so-called black films as compared to the rest of popular cinema today, and what role do you feel the independent film movement has played?

SC: The problem is that most [so-called black films] are so pathetically bad, even the ones with good intentions. They are just so poorly written, and the acting is so second-rate, that the films don’t have the chance to pull through and make people really see the humanity in the characters. These movies are successful [because of] an audience that is notorious for having horrific taste. BET [Black Entertainment Television] couldn’t be successful and popular if black audiences had good taste. But black audiences aren’t worse than anyone else, just look at the comedy shows of the 80s. Everybody is in a photo finish for who has the worst taste.

RW: In your 1990 book, Notes of a Hanging Judge, you wrote a scathing essay about Spike Lee and Do the Right Thing, criticizing Lee for his small vision and lack of subtlety. But you ended that piece on a very optimistic note. Fourteen years later, how do you view Spike Lee as a filmmaker?

SC: I think he’s still developing. See, his movies never really make money, but it’s not because they’re too good to make money, as some people would say. I just think that even when he makes a good movie he tends to do something in it that’s kind of silly, that can confuse the power of the movie. He has put himself in a category where the critical establishment views him as “the angry black filmmaker.” So the reviewers aren’t really very sympathetic to anything unless it fits into the ideology in those books he used to come out with for every film. Often times the ideas in [those books] would be simple-minded

and rhetorical, or reductionist in a way that didn’t allow his films to get the air they probably needed—the air of other people looking at them.

RW: Finally, as a critic, what would you like to see more of in film that’s not already being done?

SC: To me the most rebellious thing one can do today is to affirm the higher qualities of human nature, to actually show somebody exhibit virtue or honor or courage or loyalty. See, that’s hard to do. It would be interesting if we could get stories that actually took people through this amazingly varied country that we have, in realistic ways. I mean this country is amazing—we have so many different kinds of people, not just ethnically. People can be in the same ethnic group and be extraordinarily different, which, in terms of Caucasians, we have been told throughout history. If we could get that same freedom of vision, that depiction of everyone, I think we move forward.

About :

Renny Waldron is a twenty-three-year-old freelance writer. He currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.