'Bulworth' at 25: Warren Beatty's Hip-Hop Political Manifesto | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

‘Bulworth’ at 25: Warren Beatty’s Hip-Hop Political Manifesto 

The 1990s were a time when a lot of filmmakers made movies that were meant to function as manifestos on the political climate of the day, and probably the weirdest one was Bulworth, Warren Beatty‘s satirical manifesto making the case against Clinton-era centrism. 

Also, it has lots of scenes of the then-61-year-old Beatty rapping. 

As Beatty pointed out at the time, most of the recent political satires at the time (starting with Primary Colors and Wag the Dog in the six months or so before its release) were about sex scandals; all arrived right up against the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal of 1998. 

Bulworth instead was about a middle-aged centrist senator who suddenly embraces both unreconstructed left-wing politics, and also hip-hop culture. It’s also very much in the 1990s tradition of “selling out” being a huge consideration. 

Bulworth, which was released 25 years ago this week, is a very subversive and biting satire, but not everything in it works. 

The Plot

Beatty, who cowrote, directed, and starred in Bulworth, played Jay Billington Bulworth, a WASPy, establishment Democratic senator from California who, while nominally liberal and at some point probably an idealist, has never really gone against the establishment consensus for the entirety of his career in public office. 

Having settled into a Clinton-style centrism that has him railing against welfare programs, Bulworth has lapsed into self-hatred, to the point where he takes out a hit on himself. 

But in the meantime, Bulworth has an epiphany, or possibly a nervous breakdown, in which he starts saying whatever comes to mind. This involves both saying things he shouldn’t say to both Black and Jewish audiences — “My guys are not stupid,” he tells a group of Hollywood studio heads — they always put the big Jews on my schedule.” 

He also adopts political views seemingly identical to Ralph Nader’s presidential platform in 2000, calling both major parties the same, praising socialism, pointing out endemic corruption everywhere in politics, and arguing for universal health care.

There’s a touch of Trump in 2016 as well, in which Bulworth points out what he considers the corruption of the system, having wallowed in it himself for many years. And Bulworth’s tendency to blurt out strange things is reminiscent of the campaign trail behavior of a man about Beatty’s age, President Joe Biden. 

 He also adopts an interest in Black culture, in tandem with becoming smitten with a young activist (Halle Berry), which leads to him rapping, and becoming fond of the genital euphemism “the nappy dugout.” He also visits Berry’s neighborhood and gets a firsthand look at crime and horrors. 

As much as the political satire in the movie has bite, every moment of Beatty rapping is absolutely ridiculous and doesn’t work. This is especially when Bulworth becomes a huge sensation, even as his advisers (Oliver Platt and Joshua Malina) look like they’re the ones who want to kill themselves. 

Also, the elderly vagrant character who occasionally showed up to share wisdom — played by famed poet Amiri Baraka — is very much in line with the “Magical Negro” trope. 

Warren Beatty directed five movies in his career, and Bulworth was the first film he directed after Dick Tracy, eight years earlier. He wouldn’t direct again until Rules Don’t Apply, 18 years later.

Bulworth was nominated for one Oscar, for Beatty and Jeremy Pikser for the screenplay, and while it wasn’t a huge box office performer, it has been looked upon fondly as a bizarre curio of leftist resistance to Clintonism. 

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