Why America Loves NASCAR

(Hint: Because it's not black.)

In the movie, the Odessa team, a real multi-racial coalition that includes white, black and latino, are stand-in Barry Peppers as "Dale Earnhardt," in over-muscled pubescent bodies and football helmets. The players of color, meanwhile, are merely the whiteboys, but in black-face. Like the white characters, they are portrayed as team-first overachievers, personified by their tenacity and toughness. But unlike the whites, who have complex internal lives and must deal with pressures outside the locker room, the black and latino boys are merely background color, with no apparent families or concerns outside the team. (They are even ignorant of or unconcerned with the racism that surrounds them.) The exception is Boobie Miles, the film's one featured African American character. Flashy, talented, and individualistic, Miles is the star running back whose injury early in the season is a sort of betrayal that sets the team on the losing streak that it must subsequently overcome. Explicitly, Miles is more like the Dallas Carter minstrels than his blue-collar teammates; implicitly, Miles and the Carter players stand in for an Allen Iverson, a Ron Artest.

Boobie Miles aside, the Odessa team, black, brown, and white, is meant to represent the values that red state America pines nostalgically for. The players and coaches are colorblind, hard-working Everymen, imbued with integrity and a sense of what's right—as if this ideal ever really existed. The idealized Everyman certainly didn't exist in Bissinger's book, not among the community, not among the players, and not among the coaches. In the book, it is, treacherously, a coach, not a bimbo booster, who calls Boobie Miles a "big ole dumb nigger"—a body without a brain. And it's the entire community, coaches included, that casts that boy aside like soiled underwear once, because of his injury, he is no longer able to serve them. While Miles was undoubtedly flamboyant in real life (the book also describes him this way), until the injury he was also a committed member of the team—talented, yes, but tough and hard-working—not merely a self-serving satellite, as on the screen, profiteering off its success to launch his own star. It was not his egomania, as the movie wants us to believe, that led to his post-injury excommunication and fall. It was the racist culture of 1980s West Texas that had prepared the boy only for athletic servitude and, after he could no longer do it, that then made him out to be the "dumb nigger" it had always imagined of him in the first place.

The fantasies represented in 3 and in the Hollywood version of Friday Night Lights are not new. Our "classic" sports movies have often held up a white, working-man ideal by constructing it in opposition to the counter-example of the naturally gifted, oftentimes flamboyant black athlete. (Think Apollo Creed or Clubber Lang in the first Rocky films; or consider the lily-white, all-American small town underdogs who battle back to defeat the more gifted and largely black basketball team in Hoosiers.) Sadly, this good-evil/black-white metaphor has too often stood in for the myopic way that the country has seen itself: embattled overachievers graced with moral virtue and a higher mission against a dark and savage horde.

Members of the white race
photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Members of the white race

The movie that we, as a people, are making to demonstrate who we, as a country, are in the post-9/11 world is regrettably just as shallow and fantastical as 3 and Friday Night Lights. Cast in the leading role is a man who, playing to this all-American narrative, has presented himself as the idealized Everyman, as a sort of politician "Dale Earnhardt:" tough; resolute; a uniter ("One man, one sport, one nation") whose multi-racial (if race-neutral) team is as hard-working and driven as him. For our president/hero, everything is facilely—and falsely—black and white, part of an "axis of evil" or of a "crusade" for righteousness and light, and no adversity will keep him from winning against those who "hate freedom."

Skeptical audience members, here as well as abroad, are disturbed by the movie we are being shown. Unfortunately, none of us can walk out of this theater.

David Wright is the author of Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers (Scribner, 2001); he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

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