By saying NASCAR isn’t black, I mean it isn’t African American. And NASCAR is not at all black: Not in the cockpits of the stockcars; not on the pit crews; rarely, if at all, among the multitudes filling the 160,000-seat speedway stands. It’s considered an all-American sport, inclusive and meritocratic, but to see it on TV or in person, it does have a certain flavor.
Not all of America loves NASCAR. It’s mostly those who live in the “red” swath of middle America, an area that includes the South and the Southwest and that helped elect George Bush last November. These are the ones who punched Dubya’s chad, the ones who did so purportedly as a vote for “values.” So significant is this group that television networks are increasingly gearing their programming toward it.
Last fall, ESPN presented a biopic on the life of the late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt. The movie, 3, casts Earnhardt (Barry Pepper) as the idealized “American Everyman.” He grows up in blue-collar poverty, with racing as his single-minded passion (father-inspired). Neither love (women, inexplicably, are drawn to him like country singers to whining lyrics) nor children (he fathers a passel, abandoning some with brooding regret but no apparent damage done to any of the parties involved) can keep him out of the cockpit and away from his destiny with all-American herodom. Throughout he remains blissfully unaware (and, remarkably, utterly untouched) by the historical moment.
This is, after all, the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s South. Yet, though the movie is set largely in North Carolina during an era when Southern society was in violent turmoil, black characters are missing altogether from 3. In fact, African Americans, as a group, are referenced just once in the movie, in an anecdote about delivering moonshine to the “black” neighborhood (not the “colored,” “negro,” or, probably more accurately to the speech of poor whites of that period, “nigger” side of town). African Americans, both then as well as now, make up a significant component of the culture and landscape of the South. Even so, the scriptwriters wrote blacks out of the narrative. The NASCAR audience, they seem to be saying, would not mind the absence. (Ironically, the network’s TV ad closed with the tag-line: “One man, one sport, one nation.”)
Where this idealized “Dale Earnhardt” is Everyman, today’s American Sportsman has become, in Sly Stone parlance, Everyday People. That is to say, he’s black. Specifically, urban black: hiphop; flamboyantly flashy; naturally gifted but lazy. The American Sportsman/black athlete personifies the opposite of the values that the NASCAR fans seem to hold dear. As opposed to the NASCAR driver presented in 3, a white man who leathers his hands working with tools and relying on his daring to earn victories, the American Sportsman/black athlete squanders his God-given talent and is loud-talking and brash. He is a millionaire whiner who complains about how inadequate is his pay (Latrell Sprewell), or who brawls with paying fans (Ron Artest). He is lascivious, perhaps even a rapist (Kobe Bryant). And there’s reason to think he’s a cheat (Barry Bonds). The 2004 US Olympic basketball team—which, despite boastful predictions, won only Bronze—represents the worst of the American Sportsman and, like that shamed team, has brought disgrace on the country before the entire world.
The treatment of race (or lack thereof) in 3 calls to mind the similarly troubling representation of black and white in another 2004 movie, Friday Night Lights, based on H.G. Bissinger’s 1990 book of the same name. Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, spent the fall of 1988 in Odessa, Texas, following the local football team. Early in the season, the star player was injured and a series of unexpected losses ensued. The book chronicles the maniacal obsession and egregious racism of 1980s Texas high school football, where poverty predominated, black kids were commonly referred to as “niggers,” and the team’s success and the town’s identity were noxiously intertwined. I had looked forward to seeing the movie, in part because I’d played football in my Texas hometown, but mostly because I’d read the book a decade before and remembered that Bissinger’s account had basically gotten it right.
The movie, on the other hand, gets the story wrong—offensively so. The film version does touch on the racism that Bissinger exposed in his book when, in one scene, a bubbly woman booster refers to the star player as a “dumb nigger.” Likewise, it shows the overwhelming pressure and scrutiny that small-town Odessa places on its high school football team. But that’s not what the movie is about. It’s about “values:” it’s about how this group of boys, through grit and determination, overcomes overwhelming adversity to go all the way to the state finals.
Unlike 3, Friday Night Lights does not ignore race. On the contrary, in a sleight of hand that would make Rush Limbaugh titter, the movie reverses the racism: The African American sportsman is the evil villain who, though physically superior, unscrupulously uses whatever means to dominate underdog Odessa. In the championship game, Odessa is pitted against Dallas’s Carter H.S., and in the movie version the all-black and urban team is cast as flamboyant and boastful. (The players even wear garish red and blue uniforms that call to mind minstrel show clowns.) At a pre-game meeting, the Carter coaches, who are shown wearing ostentatious business suits (as opposed to the Odessa coach’s simple windbreaker and cap), insist that a black referee be included in the crew, for fear of racism towards their team. During the game, it is that lone black ref who cheats, in favor of Carter.
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.
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.