The Complicated — And Troubling — Role of Race and Class in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Gatsby’


Now that The Great Gatsby has opened to favorable audience reviews and not-so-ecstatic critical response, there seems little left to be said about Baz Luhrmann’s garish 3D romance. As expected, Luhrmann’s picture is a mostly faithful adaptation of the book, if not a completely obvious one. And sure, for every shot of Leonardo DiCaprio practically tripping over his wing-tipped feet to reach for the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock, there are thousands of frames filled with fireworks, confetti, champagne, and even the typewritten words of F. Scott Fitzgerald (by way of the ludicrous framing device suggesting that Nick Carraway wrote The Great Gatsby as a memoir to cure his “morbid alcoholism”) flying into the faces of the bespectacled audience. (It’s surprising that the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg weren’t behind Dolby-branded 3D glasses.) You don’t see a Baz Luhrmann film for the subtlety, but one aspect of The Great Gatsby that is surprisingly nuanced is the complicated role that race plays in both Lurhmann’s and Fitzgerald’s cynical treatment of the American class struggle.

Plenty of reviews described Luhrmann’s film as a “hip-hop” adaptation of Gatsby, a buzzword tossed around solely for the anachronistic pop music soundtrack supervised by Jay-Z. There is Beyoncé and André 3000’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” which strips away the Dap-Tones’ sound and replaces it with the warbling sounds of pop-radio-friendly EDM. There’s the buzzed-about Jazz Age rendition of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” as well as offerings from Black Eyed Peas alumni Fergie and Other than a few selections from Jay-Z himself — including a new song (“100$ Bill”), a few older cuts (“Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and the Kanye West-Frank Ocean collaboration, “No Church in the Wild”) and a snippet of Alicia Keys’ hook from “Empire State of Mind” — there’s little actual hip hop, although the sentiment is still heavy. (What a mistake not to have Gatsby blasting “99 Problems” as he’s pulled over for speeding en route to New York, although I suppose Gatbsy’s only problem was the woman who drove his quixotic, and ultimately tragic, desire for wealth.)

Jay-Z is a particularly inspired choice as the executive producer of the soundtrack, for two reasons. First, the obvious one: Jay-Z’s name brings in the kids, and young people are Luhrmann’s target audience. Without the pop music association, the film would be reduced to a stuffy, if still visually stunning, romantic period piece adapted from a classic work of literature. (Leonardo DiCaprio, at 38, is also no longer the teen heartthrob he was during his Titanic and Romeo + Juliet days.) The other reason is the repeated marketing narrative defending Luhrmann’s choice to continue his trend of working pop music into his period pieces: the hip-hop sensibility is the “new money” of our time. Jay-Z has claimed that he relates to the character of Jay Gatsby, who rises out of poverty through bootlegging; his “100$ Bill” includes his usual references to his drug-hustling past, while ending on his now multi-millionaire status.

The issue, of course, is one that is evident in the most basic reading of The Great Gatsby: people seize upon the fun aspects of Gatsby — the parties, the clothes, the jewels — without acknowledging the destructive qualities of such materialism. (It seems apt, of course, that this newest adaptation of Gatsby cost over $100 million.) It’s a little unsettling for Jay-Z to find simpatico with a fictional character whose dubious background and irresponsible spending resulted in his own tragic ending.

There’s also the complicated Meyer Wolfsheim, a character long criticized as evident of Fitzgerald’s own antisemitism. Plainly inspired by the Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein (Gatsby reveals to Nick that his business partner was the man who fixed the 1919 World Series, which Rothstein did in real life), Wolfsheim is a minor stock character that exemplifies the rising Jewish threat to the traditional American ideal of wealth in the first quarter of the 20th century (a notion introduced early in Fitzgerald’s novel — and Luhrmann’s film — when Tom Buchanan, by all counts the story’s antagonist, goes into a white supremacist rant).

In an effort to fix the racially fueled economic issues, Luhrmann cast Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan in the role. While his Jewishness is still plainly defined (Tom refers to Wolfsheim as a kike close to the film’s climax), Bachchan’s casting only creates further problems. In this post-9/11 world, the brown-skinned South Asian man is as terrifying to reactionary movie-going Middle Americans as a Jewish banker was to the wealthy elite of the 1920s. While Luhrmann didn’t whitewash the film and remove the character completely, there’s an added layer to Wolfsheim’s appearance that only complicates his depiction as a minor villain.

Luhrmann’s film opens with vintage footage of ‘20s-era bankers roaming prosperous New York streets, but by the end it only inspires confusion about the director’s take on class issues in Gatsby. While Fitzgerald’s opinions on the class struggles are fairly clear in the source material (to a detrimentally broad extent, as New York magazine’s recent re-reading of Gatsby argues), Baz Luhrmann, as he is wont to do, has avoided the uncomfortable questions that Gatsby raises in favor of the lush set pieces and the lavish party scenes. Were a subtler (and maybe more American) auteur to tackle a more modern adaption of the book, perhaps it would incorporate a Kennedy motif; after all, the trials of the Kennedy family are the most realistic representations of the Gatsby storyline. While Luhrmann’s film is beautiful, extravagant, and (compared to his previous movies) sophisticated, it pays far too little attention to the risky questions it inherits from Fitzgerald — and even inadvertently inserts into the story — about race and class.