Thursday, September 27, 2012

The ‘Bull Dog Mack,’ the Brother in Black, and the Fallacy of Fox News: Reconsidering the Film Convoy

Some of the trends I remember from films during my childhood in the 1970s included movies about epidemics related to animals and insects, movies about possessed children, and movies about cars. Of all of the “car films,” Convoy, which starred Kris Kristofferson as the “Rubber Duck,” is one of my all-time favorites from that period. The black Mack gas truck of the “Rubber Duck,” with its headlights that resemble eyes, seems to be personified on some levels. In my favorite version of the theme song entitled "Convoy" by C.W. McCall, it is referred to as a "Bulldog Mack with a can on back and a Jaguar hauling ass." Driving this iconic truck through the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas in the West, the “Rubber Duck,” a quintessential alpha male figure, courageously leads a diverse and eclectic convoy of truckers, until his fateful standoff with the diabolic sheriff “Dirty Lyle.” The most provocative scene occurs when the Rubber Duck, upon hearing that "Spider Mike"- a black trucker in the convoy-has been beaten brutally and jailed, literally drives this big rig through the walls of the jail to rescue him. The shocking scene sets the stage for the penultimate standoff with the sheriff, who sets up a blockade on the U.S.-Mexico border that includes the National Guard with the goal of capturing and ambushing the Rubber Duck.

We first see the Rubber Duck’s love interest, a woman named Melissa portrayed by the actress Ali McGraw, driving on the road behind him in a black Jaguar and snapping photographs of him as the film begins in Arizona. As the Rubber Duck nears the roadblock and senses the danger, he tells her, in order to save and protect her, to “get out” of the truck, and throws out her bag. With determination, he drives on to meet the blockade as she makes a dramatic run down the road after his truck. He drives straight into the fire of the machine guns that target the truck as he nears the bridge, and that ultimately focus on the gas tanks to ensure his annihilation. Seeing the Rubber Duck’s truck ambushed in this film was as heartbreaking to me as a child as the death of the dog Old Yeller. Yet, he is redeemed when we learn that he survived after all (i.e. “Have you ever seen a duck that couldn’t swim"). I do not think that one of my favorite television series by the end of the seventies, B.J. and the Bear (the Bear was a little monkey), would have been as conceivable without this film.

Looking back at Convoy from my adult standpoint, I have appreciated its powerful message all the more, including its critique of state-sanctioned violence and visionary examination of white male working class subjectivity. I’ve realized the genius of the Rubber Duck in finishing the drive to the bridge from the floor of his truck cab amidst the heavy gunfire, and in ensuring that the gas tank is disconnected from his truck just as he reaches the middle of it, so that he can drive off and survive the explosion. This film is truly revolutionary, and I don’t say that now just because I am a longtime fan. As a character, the Rubber Duck’s commitment to social justice, and resistance to abusive law enforcement and police brutality as embodied in “Dirty Lyle,” lies in the continuum with Black Panther Party philosophy, making its release in the immediate years after the black power/Civil Rights Movement all the more significant. Dirty Lyle, even in his naming, fits the definition of the "pigs" invoked in the theme song for this film, which interestingly and provocatively recasts aspects of Black liberation movement rhetoric designed to critique abusive forms of law enforcement. This film also has important implications for discourses on immigration given that it is set in the U.S. Southwest and highlights this confrontation with state authority on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. I appreciate this film for envisioning possibilities for solidarity across racial lines between white working class men, African Americans and other people of color. The Rubber Duck’s heroic if extreme choice to crash his truck through a small-town jail to rescue Spider Mike, who has been horribly beaten by the police and needs urgent medical attention, even speaks volumes about black men and forms of abuse and violence that some have experienced, along with compulsive imprisonment within the corporatized prison industrial complex that has only escalated in the years since this film first appeared. I think it is very significant that characters such as the “Black Widow” and “Spider Mike” make up the Rubber Duck’s diverse convoy, and that the Rubber Duck risks and sacrifices his own life to rescue a black man such as “Spider Mike” from jail. For crashing the rig through the jail impacts all of the action that follows in the film. In this film, the Rubber Duck emerges as a model of an antiracist white man and serves as his brother’s keeper.

Similarly, I would say that the Smokey and the Bandit sequence of “car films” starring Burt Reynolds and Jackie Gleason has a distinct populist impulse and also radically dramatizes the confrontation of working class white men with forms of bullying by police authority and vigilante violence that have been very familiar in some black communities. The film uses comedy to make some of the critiques of this hegemonic system that films such as In the Heat of the Night made more dramatically at the outset of the post-civil rights era. The “Bandit,” like the “Rubber Duck,” emerges as a quintessential white masculine “outlaw” figure who resists and evades forms of brutal state authority and surveillance. It is also noteworthy that in the former, Sheriff Buford T. Justice goes so far as to threaten to "barbecue" (and therefore lynch) an Asian truck driver who went through a road blockade and knocked off his car door, and to hang the Bandit from the highest tree, moments that register the history of such practices on the Southern landscape. I want to underscore that Convoy is an important and even indispensable film to think about in pondering representations of the black liberation movement in popular culture during the 1970s.

I was deeply honored and inspired to see Kris Kristofferson speak at the march on the Martin Luther King holiday in downtown Atlanta as a college student in the Atlanta University Center in 1992; I valued seeing the hero of one of my favorite childhood films in person, and speaking about such important social issues, which sounded like what the Rubber Duck would do. I realize and respect that his politics have evolved in some ways over the years. That is beside the point, and really, to be expected. One thing that I find utterly mystifying, however, is the ease with which Fox News appropriated the powerful theme song of this film several years ago to describe the goal of taking their message, including the Tea Party discourse, “across the U.S.A.” It is a move that recalls the Right-Wing appropriation of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born in the U.S.A.” in 1984, which the scholar James Kavanaugh examines in an essay on “Ideology”: “At stake here was how the vast appeal of an attractive cultural icon, and the wildly popular and pleasing cultural texts (rock songs) he produced, could be appropriated to support specific political and socioeconomic programs.”

The 1975 song “Convoy” by McCall has definitely had a range of interesting remakes, but this appropriation by Fox News seemed so inappropriate, and even ridiculous, given the thematic content of the film centered on protecting the rights of working class and grassroots communities and its deep investment in interrogating forms of state authority, as opposed to reconsolidating and reinforcing it within a discourse that is at the same time, staunchly anti-government. When I first heard it sampled on the network, I remember thinking, “When was the last time Glenn Beck drove a big rig through a jail house to rescue a black man from police brutality?” I value the message of this film especially when thinking of longstanding forms of class warfare that have relied on racism to divide poor whites from the black masses since the antebellum era, along with contemporary ideologies that have worked to align white working class voters with the white elite and that have routinely appropriated populist agendas. Whatever its merits may be, there are critiques aplenty of Fox News and my goal is certainly not to make yet another one here; while I do not support some of its journalistic practices, I believe in freedom of the press, and Fox News is part of that, for better and for worse.
Rather, my concern is with the readiness with which the message of this one film got turned around by Fox, which provides a sobering reminder of how easily these mind-bending ideological reversals and appropriations can happen within the public sphere of politics, along with the shortness of cultural memory in some cases.

The original message of the film Convoy does not ever need to be lost. Thank goodness the film’s real story says otherwise and dramatizes the great things that can happen when we remember the ties that unite us, rather than the lines that divide us, and indeed, dare to become our brother and sister’s keeper. For all of these reasons, and after all of these years, the Rubber Duck is and remains a true hero in my estimation.

*The full length version of the film Convoy, videos of the ending and of the theme song are all available on YouTube

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