Every Generation Has Its Leni Riefenstahl

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Photo: NBCU Photo Bank.

There’s a website, one new to me, called Madame Noire, and its founder is an Oklahoma-based CEO and creative named Tanvier Peart. On her LinkedIn profile, Peart calls Madame Noire a “passionate, cutting-edge web publication geared towards African American women” providing “news, discussion and cosmopolitan advice.” The site itself offers this:

MadameNoire is a sophisticated lifestyle publication that gives African-American women the latest in fashion trends, black entertainment news, parenting tips and beauty secrets that are specifically for black women.

Photo: NBCU Photo Bank.
Photo: NBCU Photo Bank.

In confession, I’m not an African-American woman. But amid the latest Bill Cosby revelations — in which the comic and entertainment legend, who turns 77 Sunday, acknowledged in a 2005 deposition that he slipped quaaludes to women and then, we presume, raped them — what Black women are thinking seems all over the cultural map. Whoopi Goldberg, to take the most notable example, barked at the media this week to “Back off me!” as she openly struggles to reconcile her loyalty to Cosby with the fact of the mountain of accusations against him. And as Hollywood (and white) director Judd Apatow makes a public spectacle out of refusing to make it easy for Goldberg to acknowledge what everyone seems to know is true, Peart published what I think is a great analysis as to Cosby’s art and legacy.

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Under the headline “I Don’t Agree With Bill Cosby, But Must ‘The Cosby Show’ Suffer?,” she wrote:

Has the time come to separate art from the artist? It depends on the artist and who you speak with.

Folks were ready to crucify Chris Brown with Jesus after he beat up Rihanna, though oddly enough, Floyd Mayweather, who’s had at least seven assaults leading to citations or arrest (served time for domestic battery) still gets new bandwagon members on his Money Team.

Should we hold every celebrity and public figure accountable for their actions, and not support their business endeavors? Is there a difference between celebrities who’ve been convicted of a crime, and those who admit questionable actions but not the actual offense?

Peart works to answer those two final questions, noting that while we may wish to compartmentalize Cosby’s art from Cosby’s abhorrence, that, for some, is easier said than done. You need not be an American African woman to appreciate that the Cosby story, its luridness aside, poses a moral quandary. Has the time come to separate art from the artist? Can we?

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The tragedy of Cosby is less and less about Cosby. We’re shellacked in disillusion, asking whether there are ever any truly great people anymore, other than, like, Mother Teresa, who in 2016 might be canonized in the Catholic Church. Well, some people said earlier this year accused Mother Teresa, in fact, of being a megalomaniacal bitch. So much for that theory.

We’ve been here before. Roosevelt’s women, Kennedy’s women, Nixon’s paranoia and Clinton’s bimbos. Hollywood? Now that’s comedy. Writing this, it took me zero time to recall that generations lionized Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and then Christina Crawford wrote Mommie Dearest in 1978 and B.D. Hyman wrote My Mother’s Keeper in 1985 and suddenly we find out that those Hollywood saints were clearly not saints at all, but allegedly abusive, physically and otherwise, and stinking drunk harridans. Then, Saturday night at home, you catch Mildred Pierce or All About Eve: do the performances of those women now suck? Do you switch over to a 1am repeat of the squeaky-clean Property Brothers as reassurance of good in the world? I’m not saying that a parent allegedly beating a child in a drunken stupor is quite the same thing as a powerful entertainment mogul drugging women for the sole purpose of raping her…hey, wait a minute:

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Has the time come to separate art from the artist? It depends on the artist and who you speak with.

Pablo Picasso was no paragon of sexual decency: if it moved, he boinked it. Charlie Chaplin liked his women so young that when you used the words “age of consent” near him, apparently he only heard the “of.” A June 21, 2015 headline in the Jerusalem Post read: “Paintings by Hitler Fetch $450,000 at German Auction.”

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Picky, picky. Richard Wagner? If you had to name 10 classical composers of the last 300 years for whom the appellation “genius” must be applied, Wagner would surely make the list. But on Shabbos services on Friday nights, I don’t think Wagner was quite leaping to the bima for an aliyah. He was more than not Jewish, he was — to paraphrase a line from a play I worked on in 1992 — a feculent anti-Semitic maggot. (Opera fans: have fun at Beyreuth!)

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Leni Riefenstahl? The year was 2003, and I was directing a short play as part of a festival in the swimming pool of a Holiday Inn on West 57th Street in Manhattan. An actress in the play became a good friend, and heading home on the subway one night, she educated me about this phenomenally talented modern dancer, film director and photographer who became the preeminent documentarian of the Third Reich. Spend 10 minutes watching either Triumph of the Will or Olympia, and I defy you not to acknowledge the brilliance of Riefenstahl’s filmmaking. Some of the 20th century’s sickest propaganda wrapped in great art.

You may be reading this and full of revulsion, ready to reply “No, I won’t acknowledge it,” and “No, she wasn’t a great artist,” and “I can’t get past when Leni Riefenstahl did, to hell with her art.” I get it. When Peart asks “Has the time come to separate art from the artist?,” there’s an implicit understanding that to do so signifies a willingness, and an ability, to compartmentalize. My actress-friend was honest about Riefenstahl, feeling gobsmacked by her talent and guilty for admiring it. (As a matter of historical fact, Riefenstahl never joined the Nazi Party, was subjected to four denazification proceedings but never convicted of war crimes, was branded a sympathizer, and successfully fought 50 libel cases. All of which doesn’t mean she gets a pass, but merely that the record is still the record.)

Later, my friend and I developed a play around her gobsmack-guilt complex, and as the production process moved forward, I realized that as a Jew the moral dilemma was inescapable. I watched those propaganda films, read Riefenstahl’s autobiography, noted her innovation in sports photography and cinematography, studied her early-career work as a modern dancer and her late-career work as a controversial (yet again) documentary filmmaker, and then found her 40-year relationship with a man 40 years her junior fascinating. Could I believe that Riefenstahl knew not the master she served? Come on. But I had to ask myself:

Has the time come to separate art from the artist?

And I said yes. I said yes knowing that not everyone could say yes. But yes, I elected to admire Riefenstahl’s talent as a matter of gift while acknowledging that she was feckless and duplicitous and narcissistic, that she glorified the politics that exterminated six million Jews.

Peart writes about The Cosby Show being taken off the air by various networks now, and how that squares, if it does square, with what the show represented then and now to the nation:

The Cosby Show is without a doubt one of the biggest television programs in American history. To date, it’s one of few to top Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons. The story of a middle-class African American family wasn’t exactly common to see on TV. The show helped to tear down barriers and let America, and the world, know Black folks can be doctors, lawyers and raise level-headed children. On the air for eight seasons, The Cosby Show won multiple Golden Globes and six of its 29 Emmy nominations.

Whether Cosby drugged and raped four women or 40 or 400, none of that will change what Peart describes up above. You can’t change history. All that changed is that we know the show’s creator was a reprehensible and predatory monster. All those women cannot be lying. And Cosby presumably did not perjure himself.

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When I was a boy, my parents used to warn me of the “turtleheads” when I’d go to sleep. That was from a classic Cosby routine from the late 1960s. So funny, and wholesome, too. Such great and timeless humor, you know? Such a fine example of the originality of the man. I’m just grateful that I wasn’t a woman in those days, or ever since then, or ever, standing within 10 feet of that disgusting creep.