The Privilege of Being There

How a 1979 movie understood the System better than the Internet does today

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The Privilege of <i>Being There</i>

There’s a conversation—or a shouting match—going on about white privilege that would have seemed impossible twenty years ago. It’s boiled to the surface for a reason that we didn’t foresee but probably should have: These days, when the system treats a person of color with deadly cruelty, it goes up on YouTube. It’s turned Ferguson and Baltimore into riot zones and ousted the state’s attorneys of major urban counties in Illinois and Ohio. It has quantifiably influenced the rhetoric of the race for president. As more artists and production companies take strides to be aware of thinking outside the default-white-male-protagonist box, their efforts have sent ripples through the fandoms surrounding video games and science fiction novels.

I’m a half-white male from one of the most affluent and cloistered corners of wretched Midwestern Suburbia, yet I’m also a first-generation American on one side of the family, so please trust me when I say that this is a conversation we need to be having. I understand why people who grew up in areas like the one I did—top-rated school, suffocating property taxes on McMansions, a public library with a teen section that looks like it could stand in for the Xavier School on film, and of course, white as snow—are made uncomfortable by this conversation. But it’s been coming for decades, if you’ve been bothering to pay attention. And a Peter Sellers movie was already clear on the concept back in 1979.

Being There (1979) works somewhat better as a satirical broadside than it does a film, but what a broadside. Peter Sellers plays the lead, Chance, a middle-aged man-child and the incarnation of white male privilege. It would have been so easy to make us hate or resent him, but Jerzy Kosinski’s script (adapted from his own 1970 novel) treats him with the same kid gloves the rest of the world does. When we meet him, Chance—we’re never sure he even has a last name—is a gardener cloistered inside a townhouse. The affluent master of the house dies, and the black maid who has been feeding and caring for Chance for decades leaves him alone.

He has no parents, no paperwork, no past, and happily professes to be illiterate. He is transfixed by television. When two lawyers come to kick him out, he casually reveals that he has never once set foot beyond the door of the townhouse. Faced with eviction, he finally does so to the unexpectedly funny score of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” (the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme) set to a funky ’70s backing.

The immaculate interior of the D.C. townhouse and the garden, it turns out, is less than fifty feet from the burned out husks of junked cars and a group of black men huddled around the shattered remnants of a television of their own. It’s Chance’s gas station stop in corn country or his first step away from the tour group in the Third World. It is every suburban kid’s first experience being more than 50 miles beyond the boundaries of his downtown’s tax increment financing district.

A friend who came up through the same middle school and high school as I did once expressed astonishment to me, upon going to community college, that there were so many relatively poorly educated students. I was by this time employed in a county of Illinois with a high poverty rate and one of the worst rates for health outcomes in the state. I answered in as even a tone as I could muster: “Yeah, it’s rough out there.”

Chance has nothing, you might believe—not even the basic grasp of how to interact with regular people. When faced with aggression from a small gang of black kids, he pulls out his remote control and attempts to change the channel. Having no idea that not all black women are on the planet to serve him food, he asks one if she can feed him. Yet there’s a reason that one of the next shots depicts him striding toward the faraway capitol dome. He walks the median, completely unimpeded as the traffic on either side of him rumbles by—menacing (but not to him).

Because Chance doesn’t have nothing. The film argues that he actually has everything that matters. When a limousine backs into his leg and injures him, the young socialite inside (Shirley MacLaine) brings him back to the palatial mansion where she serves as trophy wife to the ailing finance magnate Ben Rand (Melvin Douglas in an Oscar-winning role). His child-like declarations of his preference for watching TV and gardening are taken as either jokes or deep pronouncements on whatever inane topic the other folks in the room happen to be ruminating upon at the moment.

The sickly Rand takes a shine to Chance, as does his young wife. When the president visits the estate, Chance’s words inspire his next (completely insubstantial) economic speech, and soon Chance is being hounded by reporters who are utterly shut down by his stoic and disinterested answers to softball, surface level questions. The FBI and CIA start blaming one another for allegedly deleting this mysterious genius’ vital records—why else wouldn’t he have any? Foreign diplomats mistake his vacant nods as signaling a deep understanding of Russian language and literature.

In the end, without showing any ambition—or indeed, any expertise—Chance finds himself the inheritor of the late Rand’s fortune and horny wife. As Rand’s pallbearers whisper about making Chance president on their way to Rand’s pyramid-shaped, eye-topped tomb, Chance wanders the cemetery grounds. In the last, surreal shot, he walks out across the surface of a lake without sinking as the president, still eulogizing Rand, intones “Life is a state of mind.”

There’s a lot to unpack in Being There, but the fact it will bring about howls of bitter laughter in any audience today is some testament to how little we’ve improved since 1979. If you were raised entirely by TV in 2016, what would you think of people of color? Are our increasingly segregated neighborhoods, media diets and educational tracks any less isolating than spending 40 years cloistered inside a townhouse?

Then there are the deeply uncomfortable parallels with what’s going on today. Chance is well and truly illiterate, but when he matter-of-factly tells a TV news reporter “I don’t read,” it inspires her to proclaim him bold nearly 30 years before Sarah Palin—the template politician for the type of politics that causes so many people to tune out of the process—famously let slip that she actually doesn’t fucking read anything. Blowing off the press on the phone results in him being thought of as shrewd.

All of this subtle-as-a-sledgehammer commentary isn’t the most subversive part, though. For me, it’s the fact that the principal characters in the film—Chance, Rand and his wife—are sympathetic and kind at the same time they are oblivious to how charmed their lives are and what it must cost everybody outside their palatial mansion with its sealed oxygen chamber, acres of gardens and private elevator.

Because that’s ultimately what makes the conversation uncomfortable for my fellow white guys, or at least the ones who utterly refuse to talk about this: We might not be evil, but we’re benefiting all too tangibly from a society that is built to think that we are beautiful, morally upright heroes through our struggles while people who don’t look like us are thugs. We get a hand up from experienced mentors and well-connected kingmakers while women and people of color get a stern lecture from guys like Rand (or his real-life namesake) about self reliance. And when I say “we” I do mean myself as well—I’m the product of schools that never hurt for new textbooks or fancy football uniforms.

It’s not hard for me to understand why people whose every decision meets with relative success and whose every inane opinion makes headlines think they should run for office more readily than others.

The president’s eulogy of Rand is quoting Rand’s own words, words which appear over his Illuminati-inspired tomb: “Life is a state of mind.” It is exactly the sort of up-your-own-ass thing you might say if you’ve never stood in line outside the unemployment office.

Kenneth Lowe is a media relations coordinator for state government in Illinois. His work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues magazine, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.