How do artists talk about race in 2013?
Brad Paisley and LL Cool J tried with the release of "Accidental Racist," and failed miserably, if critical reaction is to be of any judge. In the song, Paisley defends embracing symbols of so-called "Southern pride" – Confederate flags and the like – that others might perceive as racist. "We're still pickin' up the pieces, walkin' on eggshells, fightin' over yesterday/And caught between southern pride and southern blame," he sings. LL Cool J then points out his own clothing choices and the racial tensions they may cause: "If you don't judge my do-rag/I won't judge your red flag/If you don't judge my gold chains/I'll forget the iron chains," he raps.
Critics had plenty to complain about, and Paisley and LL Cool J have since sat on many a couch to defend the song. But even if the two had good intentions, "Accidental Racist" achieved the opposite of what they were trying to accomplish.
Within days of the song's release comes a movie that looks at America's racial legacy and one of its most thrilling triumphs over it. If "Accidental Racist" is the most offensive piece of art about racism to come out this week, then "42" is certainly the least. The film will ruffle few feathers, and to be fair, the story of the first black major league baseball player is a hard one to botch.
Everything you expect is in there, and little, if anything will surprise. And while its accomplishments in moving the race debate forward are generic at best, the delicacy with which it treats the issue is admirable and something artists like Paisley and LL Cool J should note.
One criticism of "Accidental Racist" was Brad Paisley's very definition of southern heritage excludes African-American participation within it. Two films in this year's Oscar race also took on America's racist past and in comparing the two, the question of African-Americans' participation in their own emancipation struts to the forefront. Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" drew criticism for its predominantly white cast—African-Americans played only minor roles in moving the narrative forward. In "Django Unchained," black characters play central roles—one the hero on a quest for revenge, another the villain, committing crimes against his own race. Any drama depicting a victory over prejudice will have to decide who has the freedom, ability and agency within their situation.
"42" treads lightly around who to credit for integrating baseball and why. Harrison Ford plays the familiar angel-in-curmudgeon's clothing as Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, who decides to bring the first black major league ball player onto his team. From the beginning, Rickey insists his motives are financial: "Dollars aren't black and white. They're green." But once he and Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) enter the tempest he has created, Rickey often employs biblical allusions to either guide or guilt all parties involved into accepting Robinson and integration. Sure enough, by film's end, Robinson has extracted the personal back story behind Rickey's commitment to desegregating baseball.