Baz Luhrmann's film has plenty of colour—but it ignores raceby James McAuley / May 16, 2013 / Leave a comment
Either in arrogance or in flippancy, F. Scott Fitzgerald understood that The Great Gatsby would become the great American novel. As he wrote to his editor Maxwell Perkins in the summer of 1924: “I think my novel is about the best American novel ever written.”
In many ways, he was right, and the continued interest in this slender novel—as well as the hype surrounding Baz Luhrmann’s new adapation—underscores its enduring relevance. Gatsby remains as pitch-perfect an evocation and evisceration of the American national mythology as any other, even some 90 years after it first appeared in print.
By now, however, Gatsby as a story of 1920s excess and unease, of jazz and speakeasies, and of flappers and fêtes has been told time and time again. Unfortunately, this is what it has remained for Luhrmann. His rendition, while characteristically colourful and as decadent as one could possibly imagine, is still Gatsby as usual, bereft of any attempt to challenge the tale from within.
Luhrmann seems to have begun one such challenge but then abandoned it before it could bear fruit. He cast the Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan as the novel’s one Jewish character, Meyer Wolfsheim, ostensibly based on the gangster Arnold Rothstein. That association brings much needed attention to the role of race in The Great Gatsby, a quietly ubiquitous theme that is ignored in almost all interpretations of the text. Wolfsheim is a minor character as it is, but Luhrmann doesn’t push this line of investigation any further, and race once again fades into the background of America’s favorite novel.
This is a great shame. After all, race could be considered the narrative thread against which Fitzgerald conceives the drama of Gatsby’s fantastical rise and pathetic fall—the subliminal life-blood of the novel.
Consider the crucial scene towards the middle of the book, when Nick, the narrator accompanies Jay Gatsby to Manhattan for lunch with Wolfsheim. (Luhrmann does include this scene in the film, but in diminished form.) “As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us,” Nick remembers, “driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs…