In 1967, as Black city dwellers rebelled against the oppression and deprivation of the ghetto in a series of urban uprisings, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas released their famous song “Dancing in the Street” through Detroit’s Motown label. The group claimed it was just a party song, not a political statement, and definitely not an open call to rebellion. Regardless of how sincere that claim may have been, the social context of urban rebellion, the Black freedom struggle, 60s youth culture, and the Vietnam war imbued the song with a political meaning. The context of the moment had everything to do with how the song was received.
Now, in our own times, there are rumblings again of such upheaval, organized and unorganized, especially for the last two years. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow has sharpened the discussions around racism in this country. It has been complemented by a series of struggles around racism–especially the murder of Trayvon Martin, the lynching of Troy Davis. The unrelenting assault on communities of color by the police leads to resistance, whether it is the demonstrations organized by Ramarley Graham’s parents in New York after their unarmed son was murdered in his own home, or the anger at the police slaughter of Jamaal Moore, also unarmed, which led to a confrontation on Chicago’s South Side last week.
Then, of course, in fall 2011, there was Occupy Wall Street, which did for income inequality what The New Jim Crow did for racism. It gave a new generation–a generation with no prospects for the future in our current system–the language to talk about something many understood viscerally, an avenue for collectively expressing anger, and more importantly, an open door to revolutionary politics.
Now, Les Miserables opens in movie theaters–a much more accessible venue than the live theaters where it has been popular with audiences (but, incidentally, not always critics, which initially received the piece negatively) since its English language premiere in 1985, and has been performed in more than 15 languages since. I haven’t seen it yet, but I tend to like anything that has revolutionaries setting up barricades in it. But all the renewed publicity around the musical has led me to revisit the music, which I haven’t considered since I was won to revolutionary politics in 2006. I had always had a visceral reaction to the story–and not, as one Jezebel writer claimed, because I was a heart-broken Eponine. I was far more drawn to the character of Enjolras, and I felt a connection with the city dwellers.
With a more acute political lens, however, I was astonished as I listened to one recording at how closely the story speaks to our political moment.
Imagine first the plight of Jean Valjean in Act I. He has served 19 years in prison for stealing bread, and upon release, discovers that he has been branded by his past as a convict, even though he has never done anything truly wrong. His wages are halved as a result of his convict status. He is denied housing and food, even after he begs, “I can pay in advance. I can sleep in a barn. Do you see how dark it is? I’m not some kind of dog!” Though his run in with the Bishop is usually read as the effect of an act of kindness, there is more going on in Valjean’s “transformation”: namely, that it isn’t really a transformation at all. After all, Valjean had been a good person, trying to survive. The unjust laws further strip him of his status as a human being. As soon as he has the means to sustain himself, he is not a thief, but becomes Hugo’s ideal of morality and benevolence. Valjean goes through no real moral transformation, but a material one.
The parallels to our own prison system seem obvious, although Les Miserables lacks the racial aspect. But the story chips away at the idea that laws are moral and just, and it also takes aim at the idea that human nature is fixed. The striking similarity of the justice system in Les Miserables to our own will likely raise questions about the nature of “justice” in the United States among some movie-goers, and we should draw the connection. “You know nothing of my life,” Valjean says to the policeman Javert. “All I did was steal some bread. You know nothing of my world. You would sooner see me dead.” Just like Valjean, who had done nothing wrong except be poor and hungry, so many people affected by the new Jim Crow have done nothing wrong except be poor and Black.
Then comes the portion of the play set in Paris one the eve of the 1832 uprising, which despite its failure, seems far less distant and fictionalized after living through 2011, the year of revolt, which toppled two dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, where Occupy Wall Street set up camp in the streets and parks of the United States, only to be met with the brutal forces of state repression. Despite the darkness of their situation (“Something’s got to happen now, or something’s going to give,” cry the resident’s of Paris’s streets), there is a sense of hope, and possibility. The workers in Valjean’s factory sing, “At the end of the day there’s another day dawning…and the waves crash on the sand, like a storm that will break any second. There’s a hunger in the land. There’s a reckoning to be reckoned, and there’s going to be hell to pay.” We even see how sexism and bourgeois morality undermine the unity of the workers, as another female worker turns the others against Fantine for having a child out of wedlock, leaving her at the mercy of the piggish, misogynistic foreman.
We get a sense of the system’s failing from the young Gavroche: “We live on crumb of humble piety. Tough on the teeth, but what the hell.” To the conditions of their lives on the streets of Paris, the people respond, “When’s it gonna end? When we gonna live?” Despite the political weaknesses of the Friends of the ABC’s program, the story openly states that the current system has failed, and that the solution is not reform, but revolution. The impending death of Lamarque pushes them to action. “With all the anger in the land, how long before the judgment day?” asks Enjolras. “Before we cut the fat ones down to size? Before the barricades arise?”
Les Miserables, the musical, was likely never intended as a call to revolution. It was written in the 1980s, and in many ways is tailored as an appeal to bourgeois moral outrage. More of a “look what could happen if things aren’t made a bit better” than a “this is a way to make things better.”
But 2012 is not 1985. Between Les Miserables this year, and The Hunger Games last year, popular culture reflects the changing times. True, Les Miserables is older, but the investment in a movie reflects a belief that it will make money, which requires more people to see it that those who could afford theater tickets to see the show live. It has reached a new level of mainstream in popular culture. And I find it hard to believe that the workers in Michigan who stood up to police batons and horses, the Chicago retail workers who blocked Michigan avenue last week to demand a minimum wage, the people who have been organizing against the racist injustice system will only take from this story a message of moral outrage.