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 rolled toward us in haughty rivalry. ‘Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,’ I thought; ‘anything at all….’ Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.”
Aside from Nick’s obvious condescension, this passage says something important. Self-made Jay Gatsby is only able to launch himself onto the pinnacle of prestige through a subversion of America’s most significant power structure, that of black and white. Gatsby’s aspiration fails to make sense without the “three modish negroes” in the limousine next to his car: they provide a mirror image for his ambitions, and for Gatsby himself.
Race is also critical to Gatsby’s greatest presumption of all—his passion for Daisy Buchanan, now played by a bejewelled Carey Mulligan. In the novel’s famous climax at the Plaza Hotel, Tom Buchanan confronts Gatsby: “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife,” he says. “Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.”
While these lines appear in Luhrmann’s script, they don’t convey their crucial role in the novel, which is to imply that Gatsby’s desire for Daisy is so preposterous that it can only be understood as a form of miscegenation. One has to wonder: could Gatsby even love Daisy—or, indeed, be Gatsby—without the notion of race the novel so bizarrely employs?
Luhrmann does ensure that his viewers share in Nick Carraway’s subtle mockery of Tom Buchanan, who frequently quotes “‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard”—most likely an amalgam of Madison Grant, the prominent anthropologist who authored The Passing of the Great Race (1916), and Lothrop Stoddard, the eugenicist historian now infamous for The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920). But this merely serves to repeat Fitzgerald’s theme as opposed to inhabiting and exploring it in the way that only film, as a visual medium, can do. If Wolfsheim is Indian, could Gatsby be played by a black actor? Could Daisy? These are questions that Luhrmann has shied away from answering.
Instead, he has given us a Gatsby that is funky and extravagant but ultimately conventional, Jay-Z music aside. At its core, Gatsby is more than costume and spectacle, and it still needs a reinterpretation that attempts to tease out the enduring mysteries in the “best American novel ever written,” of which race is among the most important. Future adaptations would do well to peer deeper beneath its shimmering surface.