Did you hear about the kerfuffle around Macklemore's win at the Grammys? Lots of folks, including, apparently, Macklemore himself, felt that one of the other nominees, Kendrick Lamar, deserved the awards (especially in the Rap category) and that the awards were more about race and white privilege than merit.
I'm a little hesitant to opine here, because 1. I'm not familiar with Kendrick Lamar* so I can't say if he was more deserving or not and 2. I loathe the Grammys. The year the Academy awarded Best New Artist to Milli Vanilli was the year I realized there was no Grammy Santa Claus. Whatever a Grammy recognizes, I think it has more to do with the inscrutable quirks of Grammy voters than some measurement of artistic genius.
That said, I'm interested in this particular dynamic, what happens when a talented white person comes face to face with his own privilege while competing against people of color. That recognition of privilege is at the dramatic heart of Saturday Night Fever, one of my favorite movies. The movie is about a lot of things- class mobility, masculinity, race- and you should go and watch it tonight if you've never seen it. John Travolta and his white suit have become a clownish cliche by now, but if you actually want to understand why a performance becomes iconic, you have to watch Travolta as the ambitious Tony Manero.
Tony and his dance partner Stephanie have been practicing for the big dance competition. Here, Tony and Stephanie perform their routine to the BeeGees 'More Than a Woman'. The dance is a little corny and a little stiff- it lacks the electricity of some of the other dancing in the movie. It also reflects the dynamic of Tony and Stephanie, which is also kind of awkward and stiff.
Now, here's the routines of the two other couples, one black and one Puerto Rican. Unfortunately, the only clip I could find of this scene is from a version of the movie dubbed into Spanish. What's important is that Tony is watching them and recognizes that they're better than he is. He knows that he should not win.
But of course he and Stephanie DO win. Tony realizes that the whole thing is rigged to favor people like him. He tries to give the award to the Puerto Rican couple. But that's not how things work in his world. You can't just give back privilege.
It's the beginning of his journey away from Brooklyn, away from that racial economy, and toward a new understanding of life.
Anyway, seriously, see it. And then watch it again. (It takes at least two viewings to understand everything that happens.) You'll thank me.
*Truth is, I actually love Macklemore and have notoriously bad taste in hip-hop. I mean, I love Mickey Avalon. So, you know...