Phony Rappers: Bulworth from “Bulworth”

Phony Rappers: A look at fictional rappers continues.
By    October 17, 2014

Eric Thurm is not wacker than the Bulworth soundtrack. 

Bulworth is one of the weirdest fucking movies I have ever seen.

Given the concept of the movie, that’s not exactly surprising. It’s a Warren Beatty passion project, essentially given to him as a consolation prize along after the collapse of a Dick Tracy movie. And Warren Beatty is a weird, weird dude. So he made a movie about a former socialist Democratic senator from California who has a nervous breakdown after trying to indirectly commit suicide and starts rapping as a way of speaking truth to power.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Bulworth also includes: Don Cheadle with a goatee playing a drug dealer named L.D. who gives Bulworth a lecture on the failings of the American education system, Oliver Platt doing a bunch of coke as Bulworth’s aide, lots and lots of trash sunglasses, and Amiri Baraka playing a homeless guy (credited as Rastaman, I shit you not) who turns up in random scenes to yell vaguely spiritual stuff at Bulworth (apparently Baraka wrote all of this himself, and had tons of other ideas for the movie that Beatty ignored)*. So.

Spoilers abound but who cares, the movie is crazy even if you know what’s going to happen: When we’re introduced to Senator Jay Bulworth, we see a consummate politician, distraught. He barely speaks for the first few minutes of the movie; clearly deeply depressed, unwilling to even discuss the business of politics or anything that might matter to him. He’s barely slept. From the first, Bulworth doesn’t give us any indication of who Jay Bulworth “actually” is, which makes it easier to accept the bizarre contortions his goes through over the course of the film.

What is clear is this: Bulworth used to be a staunch socialist, a classic ’60s leftist who abandoned his principles and has slowly recognized after decades as a career hack politician. That’s the recognition that motivates the rest of the movie, as Bulworth hires someone indirectly to assassinate him for the insurance money, which will pay out as compensation for holding up an important piece of legislation. For the rest of the movie, Bulworth runs from these decisions, trying to save his own life while denouncing the big, bad insurance companies.

But Bulworth is definitely not a hero. Even setting aside the lifetime of compromises that led him to this position, he makes pretty flippantly racist and anti-Semitic remarks at a few early campaign stops while “telling the truth,” and something about Beatty is just kind of smarmy. Are we supposed to identify with him for keeping it “real”? That’s the same logic that lets terrible fucking people throw their hands up and claim they’re “telling it like it is” when they espouse some horrible bullshit. Throughout this early part of the movie, it’s hard to tell whether Bulworth is a satire of everyone else, or of this giant dick. (That confusion never lets up throughout the rest of the movie.) And after he heads to a club with a few girls (and Halle Berry), he becomes enamored with sensual pleasures (dude gets back into weed in a big way) and starts to rap.

Bulworth’s actual rapping is, if anything, wacker than fuck. It’s sing-song, goofy, dead-ass rhyming that sounds exactly like what an old white dude trying to freestyle in 1996 would sound like, if a little quicker off the top of his head and with lyrics that sound like they were stolen from Chuck D’s seventh grade diary.

Look at that goofy bouncing. Look at his backing singers “Big Money.” Listen to the way the dude says “Ye.” This is terrible. But that’s kind of the point. Watching Bulworth rap is like the part of White Noise everyone obliquely references where the characters can’t keep their eyes off a train wreck as its about to happen—the event is just so grotesque and disastrous and totally out of place with everything we understand to be true before, that it practically demands to mean something.

And in some respects, the rest of Bulworth does mean something (or maybe it doesn’t, I might spend a lifetime trying to understand this movie). After an increasing descent into the darker side of Los Angeles, Bulworth eventually crashes with Halle Berry’s family for a while and reemerges, politically energized and whiter than ever, before getting his ass shot at the end of the movie by the insurance company. Bulworth transforms back into a senator—was the rapping all part of his psychotic break? Who is Jay Bulworth, really? Does it even matter? Ultimately, the answer to all of these questions, at least without PhD thesis-level investigation, is: Warren Beatty is a super fucking weird guy.

But that aside, Bulworth highlights the ways in which a big politician really is like a rapper, especially a major label guy. He’s got handlers up and down the place (from a label or an insurance company or something, who can even tell the difference), has to make very specific public performative appearances to ask people for money, and gets shut away if he starts talking about serious shit that goes off-script. Disappearing from the public eye for a while has the potential to raise his profile (though this doesn’t work for everyone). Even Bulworth’s rapping is just about as trash. In this short space, the best I can do is try to convey how insane this movie is, in the hopes that you’ll seek it out for yourself and join me in trying to understand its madness.

* This is arguably the most surreal thing about this movie. Why is Amiri Baraka, of “Jazz And The White Critic” and The Dutchman fame, the former poet laureate of New Jersey, in this bizarre white dude’s movie? And why does he play a character named Rastaman who acts like a crazy stereotype and says things like, “You’ve got to be a spirit, Bulworth”? That’s a question for advanced Bulworth studies.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!