Maybe my high school reading assignments would have been easier to digest if all those stories of Anglo angst had been played over some 2 Chainz.
I kid, but it really wasn’t until I heard Jay-Z had a hand in The Great Gatsby that my interest in the film began to even slightly approach the frenzied giddiness of most other literary buffs I know.
It wasn’t because I’m his biggest fan, or because I thought he was the best man for the job. His musical collaborations have been nothing short of uneven and horrific…plus, I’m kind of a Beyoncé hater. Under average circumstances, a Jay-Z credit would likely have induced some eye rolling. But his addition to The Great Gatsby had the potential to tear down one major obstacle standing between me and a healthy relationship with an F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation: I deeply resent lily white American classics.
It shouldn’t be this way. It’s said that a cultured viewer should be able to appreciate all classic works of art, even if that material was borne from a culture outside of their own. But it’s not the folksy Southern vernacular that has earned my apathy towards Huckleberry Finn, nor a personal disinterest in the Western frontier that turned my nose up to The Grapes of Wrath; I knew most of the characters in these stories would not have just been different from Black ones, they would have been outright hostile to them. Eight times out of ten, I could give a shit about their struggle.
It wasn’t just the fictional characters who were morally deficient. The societies elevating these titles into the upper echelon of the Western canon were the same ones cosigning my ancestors’ oppression and downplaying our contributions to American art. As a prime example, you need look no further than The Great Gatsby: a novel set in New York during the Harlem Renaissance makes nary a mention of a Black artist, or Black anything (unless the racist rantings of its antagonist count), and it is widely considered the greatest piece of American literature of all time. The Great Gatsby has been adapted four separate times for the silver screen; Their Eyes Were Watching God got a TV movie. Color me bitter.
Almost ninety years later, a film director has decided they will atone for Fitzgerald’s omissions. Baz Luhrmann’s decision to court Jay-Z may have solely been aimed to attract young viewers, but it ultimately resulted in a quick infusion of brown in a text that was guilty of a flagrant and ahistorical absence of Black characters. It seems pretty cynical. Can adding a rapper to the production credits really be considered a serious effort at inclusivity? It’s as if Hollywood thought adding a twerk tune to the soundtrack would make Black people feel better about their invisibility in one of America’s most revered cultural artifacts.
Watching the movie, its redeeming value dimmed with each passing minute. The “reimagined” take on an old classic looked to be churning out more of the same. In a predictably Hollywood move, Luhrmann was adventurous enough with his source material to play “Crazy in Love” at a speakeasy, but he stopped well short of giving any actor of color a meaningful role. With screens panning to the occasional Black trumpeter blowing tunes on a city balcony, there seemed to be an effort to acknowledge Black musical contributions from both past and present—yet the jazz-infused score was almost entirely arranged and composed by two white men. At one point, in an apparent display of fuckit, Jay-Z’s “H.O.V.A.” made an inexplicable cameo that smacked more of narcissistic opportunism than a serious artistic decision. What kind of operation was he running?
And with that question, I finally had the epiphany I needed: Jay-Z made those choices. Jay-Z is the executive producer of The Great Gatsby. That is the best evidence of America’s racial evolution—not a tepid homage to past Harlem Renaissance musicians, and not the number of Black actors given a speaking part in a movie about the white elite. Too often, we grade Black progress by mainstream America’s willingness to incorporate, instead of by our ability to create. When we can finance and manage projects the way we see fit, when we can unapologetically offer the world uniquely Black contributions, and when we can share those contributions with every American household, that is always a victory.
You want to see the beginnings of “post-racial” success? See Shonda Rimes. See Melissa Harris Perry. See Ryan Coogler. We may have just as much to offer America now as has been denied us in the past. They can keep their classics—we’re writing our own.
– Ajene “AJ” Farrar
AJ has been working as an air traffic controller since 2009, after attending Old Dominion University and George Mason University as a journalism major. She currently lives in upstate New York.