In the raging twenties, the decadence of the era led wealthy white people to indulge themselves in almost every respect.Women pushed the limits of what was socially acceptable in terms of their sexuality and their fashion. Clothing was brighter, more sparkly, more textured, and more oriental. Makeup was worn brighter and hairstyles were worn dramatically short. Music was louder and more ornamental than ever. Especially in the United States, the post-war economy was booming and that explosion led lifestyles to be more decadent and luxurious than ever.
In Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, his cinematography focuses on this particular aspect of life. Every frame is riddled with detail and the whole film has a metallic overcast. From Gatsby’s incredible mansion to the overwhelming, visually rich party scene to the hip-hop and jazz melange of a soundtrack, the film is an multimedia jouissance.
When Gatsby takes Nick to the speakeasy, the wealthy whites mix with Jewish and black men and women. The white community seems to acknowledge and in some ways be enticed by the acceptance that they are submitting themselves to what they deemed lower walks of life. Wolfsheim is a gangster whose activities allow white people to drink alcohol. The black dancers provide sultry entertainment that would, in any other setting, be considered distasteful. Finally, the music, which in the film is a mix of jazz and rap, is another element borrowed from outside of the mainstream of whiteness.
One of the most interesting aspect of the indulgence exhibited in the film is that black culture seems to be included for the first time in the lives of the upper class, this time as an exciting new music and dance form: jazz. While commonplace among whites in the twenty first century, jazz was a new form of music, uniquely performed by black artists.
In the scene in Tom’s love nest/secret apartment for Myrtle, any and all of Tom and Nick’s inhibitions fly out the window as they get belligerently drunk and mix their alcohol with hallucinogenic drugs. This party is actually an orgasmic explosion of indulgence that seems like a tapestry of the seven deadly sins. Tom gives into his adulterous desires with Myrtle. Nick appears to give into lust as well. They order food in a gluttonous manner. Myrtle is envious of Daisy and Tom slaps her to preserve whatever sense of respect he has for his wife.
This scene is played out with quick shots alternated with shots of the black community surrounding the apartment. The only person of color that is privy to this debauchery is the person that comes with a tray of food. The music that appears so loudly is actually coming from a black young man on the fire escape on the opposite street from the apartment. As the scene progresses, several shots of activities going on in the community show white men with black prostitutes in addition to black families having dinner.
In all of these examples, the only time that black people are included in the indulgences of the white people is when they are there to serve or entertain. Nowadays, some people question the legitimacy of the concept of cultural appropriation and the insult many people take when white people adopt black culture as their own. I think this movie demonstrates why this is wrong: the white people are taking the best of a culture as entertainment without acknowledging the work of the people that produced it.