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The Body Electoral: Warren Beatty's candidate raps his way through 'Bulworth.'

Beatty disses pols in 'Bulworth'

By Michelle Goldberg

DESPITE WARREN BEATTY'S cringe-inducing rapping and naked white-Negro fantasizing, Bulworth is the most righteous Hollywood product in recent memory. Besides being a sight-gag-heavy screwball comedy, Bulworth is also a pointed satire about sellout boomer Democrats and inner-city decimation. Beatty plays California Senator Jay Bulworth, a Clinton-style Democrat who's traded his '60s idealism for cynical centricism. As the film opens, Bulworth is sobbing in his office while his insipid campaign commercial calling for an end to affirmative action plays on the VCR and the camera pans framed pictures of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy. Disgusted with his craven, compromised career, Bulworth takes out a hit on himself. But facing death, he's liberated to speak his liberal mind, and after a night in an L.A. hip-hop club, he finds himself rejuvenated by rap culture and in love with Nina (Halle Berry), a fly-girl whose mother was a Black Panther.

Thus we have the spectacle of Beatty in huge b-boy shorts, a ski cap and wrap-around sunglasses, rhyming about racism and corruption as a strait-laced TV interviewer looks on in uptight horror. What's most shocking, though, is how damn funny it all is. Early in the film, Beatty shouts at one campaign stop, "Lemme hear that dirty word--socialism!" Maybe it's just that in post-Reagan America the very word "socialism" has a transgressive power, but the audience, myself included, roared.

Beatty is one of very few people left in Hollywood who actually makes political movies about politics as well as about politicians. He is, after all, the man who dared to make Reds, an epic about lost-generation American Communists. What's trickier than his economic politics, though, is Beatty's handling of race. Like Norman Mailer's, Beatty's attitude toward poor blacks is one of both fascination and condescension. On the one hand, black culture saves Bulworth's soul. On the other, in this little fable, Bulworth is able to pacify a posse of aspiring gangstas by buying them all ice-cream cones and an inner-city drug lord decides to give up crime and rebuild his community after hearing Bulworth work the drug dealer's political views into a speech. Worst of all, Amiri Baraka plays a tired Hollywood cliché: a homeless black sage.

But while all the great-white-hope dreaming rankles, it's still enormously satisfying to watch Bulworth use his clout to make a racist policeman apologize to one of the homeboys. In fact, it's so rare for Hollywood to seriously tackle race at all that it's a relief to see Beatty unrestrained by PC squeamishness. At one point, Bulworth sums up his philosophy this way: "Everybody just gotta keep fucking everybody else till we're all the same color." And it's hard to argue with that.

Bulworth (R; 107 min.), directed and written by Warren Beatty, photographed by Vittorio Storaro and starring Warren Beatty.

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From the May 21-27, 1998 issue of Metro.

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