Perhaps it was in recognition of the fact that despite a few attempts to shore up his bonafides with respect to the core flashpoint of film noir—the “social justice” noirs that contributed to the deadly “second wave” of the HUAC blacklist and set back socially conscious filmmaking in America for more than a decade—he’d backed away to a point where he had lost visibility on that issue as it re-manifested itself in the wake of the recent George Floyd murder. (Perhaps he felt that by refashioning himself from wordslinger to pundit, the gap in his commitment to material he routinely lionized in the first decade of the 21st century would be overlooked.)
Save for a few exceptions, Eddie has shied away from the films of 1947-51 that deal explicitly with social issues, both at TCM and in his festival. He and his cohorts declined to make a statement in 2017 (as had been suggested to them) by using open slots in the NC SF schedule to screen such films as FORCE OF EVIL, TRY AND GET ME, CROSSFIRE, THE LAWLESS, THE WELL, THE UNDERWORLD STORY, OPEN SECRET, and ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW and several others to raise awareness of the imminent threat to democracy represented by the contemporaneous rise to power of Donald Trump. (He obliquely defended that decision the following year in a snarky introduction to NC 16, where THE UNDERWORLD STORY was slipped into the film lineup with little fanfare about its surreptitious social commentary.)
In 2019, he paid a bit more than lip-service to the issue in his Fifties festival but consciously diluted any impact by keeping THE WELL (1951) and ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959) as far apart from one another (thanks to a slavish use of strict chronology). Later that year, he finally decided to bring out TRY AND GET ME and FORCE OF EVIL—but only at a satellite festival in the safest location (Boston). For 2020, in what could be one of the most pivotal elections in American history, he opted for “international noir”—and tried to use it as an oblique analogue to the rampaging issues that were cresting in pre-COVID 19 America (autocracy, impeachment, etc., etc.). Rather than show American films dealing head-on with American social problems, he chose the “subtle” route that avoided political controversy.
When his LA co-producers preferred to include an American component in this “international show,” he shied away from critiques of racism or predatory capitalism by programming TRY AND GET ME and THE PROWLER, falling back on the tried-and-true “Blacklisted director” trope but not addressing issues or situations with actual relevance to 2020 America. Those shows were part of the festival lineup postponed as a result of America’s shutdown back in mid-March.
All of this might have reached a flashpoint in his subconscious—who knows?—but after being cooped up for several months, the need to get on top of these suddenly hot-button issues clearly roiled up...and that led to a curious tweet that pushed far past his level of accepted expertise. Instead of building on his reputation for encyclopedic knowledge of noir and providing a list of relevant noirs from the 1947-51 period that dealt with the issues of race and class prejudice, he decided to lecture on semantic terms due to the fact that he was, in his own words, “a language guy.” Furthermore, he claimed that being paid to make words “evocative” somehow gave him a leg up on how linguistic terms (which are also historical in nature, not simply “grammatical”) should be used. While his heart was in the right place, he showed his ignorance of the necessarily different usages of “white supremacy” (wrongly framed: it should have been “white supremacist”) and “white racist.” And he overstepped his bounds to the point where many of the responders suggested that he recuse himself from the discussion (as one of them wrote: “Stay in your lane, Eddie!”).
It’s almost Trumpian, in fact, to proclaim one’s “expertise” and then deliver a tone-deaf, ham-fisted, angry/frustrated ultimatum. (Strange how such behavior seems to be seeping in to our lives—the truth is that things have been going that way ever since social media came into prominence with the Internet...Eddie is just its most recent casualty.)
I had contributed to an earlier Twitter thread about race issues in noir with a list of films similar to the one shown in the third paragraph above, and suggested that TCM could create a special night for them—after all, that’s what they do and they clearly lean more toward the left in the post-Osborne years (Ben Mankiewicz’ pedigree is solidly “left-tard,” as the “loyal opposition” likes to call it). But I stayed out of this recent Twitter kerfuffle, as I value the fact that Eddie, unlike some of his smaller-minded associates, has seen fit to let me comment there occasionally without being blocked. He might well change his mind after this post, but what follows here is by far the most significant portion of what needs to be said, so laying all of this background was necessary to get here.
As a person who has felt passionately about the race issue since growing up with it in the 60s, and who made a documentary about an actor (Don Murray) whose most heartfelt, controversial—and terminally obscure—works deal with this issue, I can say one thing with certainty: there are no white people who have anything remotely like the “expertise” or “lived understanding” to determine the nature of the discourse about or the disposition of the ongoing calamities of racial prejudice in America. As the late Dick Gregory (who starred with Murray in a seminal film about jazz and race, 1966’s SWEET LOVE, BITTER) noted in his commentary that appears in the documentary, white folks are “not qualified.” And we need to get out of the way of our need to take charge and control the discourse—instead, we need to finally create a level playing field for all people, without recourse to semantics or any other side issue. Don Murray made a valuable contribution to such a discussion, but it’s not one that people (particularly, white people) have wanted to participate in, and so his films have languished in abject obscurity for half a century.
Two of Don's seminal characters—in SWEET LOVE, BITTER and the problematic, barely released CALL ME BY MY RIGHTFUL NAME (1972)—are white men who think they are superior to other whites because they are uniquely enlightened about the race issue, but who are ultimately revealed as naïve and mostly clueless despite their good intentions. This is far more instructive than Eddie's bizarre attempt to lecture people on “proper usage” of terms dealing with racial issues.
Perhaps what Eddie should do in the fall—or next year at NC 19—is deal with these "social justice noirs" and present them as a unit to the public. As an inordinately popular figure, he could easily absorb the risk of being “too deep.” (They can always throw you and Edie Brickell back into the shallow water together, Eddie.) But “the moment” will probably have passed by then, and the knee-jerk urgency he felt about it all that prompted this bizarre tweet will dissipate.
Of course, he MIGHT do a series of special shows in SF and LA on this subject in the October timeframe, and at last demonstrate that his desire to help eliminate the problem extends to championing the films made during the noir era that most urgently address the issues that still plague America. But that would involve putting away the cocktail shaker for awhile—and at that point I know I am clearly asking for far too much.
But maybe, just maybe, he’ll do that. Three nights of social justice noir, where all the cards are put on the table. Where he can use his popularity to get a message across without following Sam Goldwyn’s edict to “call Western Union.” But if he doesn’t see fit to do it by November 3, it will definitely be too little, too late.