The story of Texas history says a lot -- about the storytellers
Pete Gallego, the influential state rep from Alpine, recalled in a committee meeting earlier this year that when he was growing up in West Texas, he was sometimes called a "good minority" -- the unspoken implication being that, to many Anglo-Texans, blacks are the "bad" minority. There may be some truth in that: The Alamo notwithstanding, relations between Anglos and Hispanics in Texas have rarely shown the sharp edges of the seemingly perpetual discord between whites and blacks. Yet recently at the Capitol, there's been a disturbance in the Force -- a rough wave in the usually calm relationship between whites and Hispanics.
This difference of opinion involves a film. Some insiders knowledgeable about the rumored dispute say there really isn't one, and what's more they don't want to create one. And while the simmering controversy may not be an Alamo-sized showdown (although the Alamo plays its own cameo role), the public record suggests a revealing, cinematic chapter in the ongoing historical argument over what it means to be a "Texan."
As early as 1996, when the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum -- now bigger than life down on Martin Luther King Boulevard (or, depending on your point of view, "19th Street") -- was still in the conception stage, the decision had already been made to produce a "signature film" to be shown in the museum's IMAX theatre. The first proposal (dated July 2000 and tentatively titled This Land Called Texas) would have required seed money from the Legislature, followed by private donations, and a production that would feature voice-overs by six well-known narrators (Dan Rather, Tish Hinojosa, Lance Armstrong, Sissy Spacek, Chuck Norris or Tommy Lee Jones, and Barry Corbin). The film would have featured shots of majestic landscapes and selected human activity -- oil production, cowboys, a Gulf Coast shrimp boat ... Lance riding his bike through the Hill Country ... river rafters in Big Bend -- basically, the conventional Texas Highways drill.
"Our Texas narrators speak with six very different voices, each presenting a different perspective on this one unifying theme," the film's original treatment proposed. "Diverse, rugged, unforgiving and beautiful, the Texas land severely tested all who tried to live here. Those who met the challenge, those who survived and stayed, have earned the right to call themselves Texans." (That honorific would have apparently included Chuck Norris -- born Carlos Ray Norris of Ryan, Okla., -- whose only connection to Texas is the long-defunct, and rather unchallenging, TV cop melodrama Walker, Texas Ranger.) This initial treatment was submitted by BRC Imagination Arts of Burbank, Calif., (the firm that provided the multimedia program for the Bullock Museum's Spirit of Texas theatre), but it was judged inadequate, and the company found itself out of the running for the contract.
Eventually the project was awarded to GSD&M, the high-profile Austin advertising agency responsible for creating the famous "Don't Mess With Texas" anti-litter campaign (now with another ad agency), as well as the museum's own "The Story of Texas" theme. A final funding formula was also calculated, in which the state would pay 15% of the total budget and the first $1 million of production costs -- the state's share amounting to nearly $2 million of a total cost approaching $6 million. (The balance has been guaranteed by the private foundation associated with the museum, and includes "gifts" of $1.5 million each from Southwest Airlines and ExxonMobil.) The director chosen was Al Reinert, the talented former Texas Monthly writer who co-wrote the screenplay of the award-winning Apollo 13. The museum's "signature film" -- slightly re-christened, as A Land Called Texas -- will be the state's first major venture into filmmaking. When House Speaker Pete Laney was asked last year to sign off on the state's role, he commented anxiously that he hoped someone was "making sure we have some control over what comes out, and it's not some, um, cause." Gov. Rick Perry was also worried: "Here's my concern. I've never done a film before."
That's a coincidence, because neither has GSD&M.
At first glance, the GSD&M production doesn't seem that different from what BRC proposed. The film will depict "what it means to be Texan," according to executive producer Jan Wieringa. (Wieringa is from California and has lived in Austin only two years, but many other figures involved with the project, she says, are longtime Texans.) There'll be Indians, log cabins, vaqueros, cotton-farming, high school football. Modern-day Texas is represented by an offshore oil rig (courtesy of ExxonMobil, natch), a big, blue (Southwest) airliner on a runway, assorted urban scenes, NASA -- and to wrap it all up, you guessed it: the Alamo. Forty-two to 45 minutes, max.
There'll be narrators, of course, possibly the state's literary figures. "The Voices connect the present with the past, in either of two ways," the new GSD&M treatment explains. "One is to use contemporary Voices ([Larry] McMurtry, [T.R.] Fehrenbach) who describe Texans today as descendants of pioneer stock, the same characters in new surroundings. The other way is to use pioneer Voices with contemporary images, showing that life hasn't changed that much, bringing us full-circle." (Chuck Norris has apparently dropped off the A-list.)
This proposal is basically what was approved by the museum's foundation. Shooting began earlier this year and is scheduled to conclude in October. However, following a Feb. 28 foundation meeting to report the progress on the film, a voice of dissent was heard.
Raul Gonzalez can hardly be described as a bomb-thrower or a radical. A conservative Democrat who served on the Texas Supreme Court for 14 years, he received judicial appointments from both Democratic and Republican governors and is on the board of the museum foundation. In a letter written following the board meeting, he noted what he called "some omissions."
Among other things, Gonzalez pointed out that "the uniqueness of the boundary between Texas and Mexico and the Texas/Mexico border should not be neglected." He suggested that the film include images of life in the Lower Rio Grande Valley as well as South Padre Island -- as a contrast to the views of arid West Texas -- and he also suggested filming a choir in an African-American church. (Direct filming of religious ceremonies was eventually rejected by the board, apparently because of the inherent difficulty of inclusiveness.) "Last but not least," the retired justice wrote, "a film about Texas would not be complete without conjunto music. Perhaps a dance hall scene with Flaco Jimenez or Freddy Fender and the Texas Tornadoes can be used in the film."
All in all these were mild suggestions (Gonzalez was not asking, for example, for scenes of Texas Rangers beating farm workers' heads in the Valley, or state prisoners swinging scythes in East Texas cane fields), and even now he remains diplomatic. "There is a fine line between raising questions about inclusivity and micro-management," he said, and insists he doesn't want to micro-manage production of the film. But Gonzalez's observations of "omissions" set off a small bomb under the state's usually unruffled cultural establishment.
In a March letter to the Museum's Bonnie Campbell considering Gonzalez's concerns, director Reinert agreed with many of his suggestions, but pointed to technical problems -- including the burden of emphasizing dramatic landscape shots in any IMAX film. "Basically we have 40 days to squeeze all of Texas into, not counting five days of helicopter work. Those 40 days are it, whether we use them to shoot film or simply to drive, from one location to the next (we must always drive because of the cumbersome IMAX gear). We're trying to structure a script and schedule that allow us to cover as much ground as possible, and show as much of Texas as we can, while keeping to our budget." Reinert continued, "Those same budget limits are the only reason we don't include all of Mr. Gonzalez's suggestions, because we like and agree with every one of them. This movie needs a strong Hispanic presence or it will not truly represent Texas. Unfortunately, we cannot afford to travel to far South Texas.
"We plan to spend more time in San Antonio, however, than any other city or town. In addition to the Fiesta parade and mariachis on the Riverwalk (not to mention the Alamo) we intend to film a young girl's quincerilla [sic] in front of the gorgeous mural on Children's Hospital. The beautiful large murals of San Antonio are a powerful statement of Hispanic identity that translates directly into cinema." (Reinert's mistake of "quincerilla" for quinceanera suggests some of the difficulties of cross-cultural translation.)
The director added, "The entire range of Texas experience is open to Hispanic interpretation. Small-town life, city life, farming, love of the land, high school football, oilfield work, insights into the character of Texas, these are all valid subjects for Tex-Mex commentary. ... We are doing our best to make a movie that middle school kids on field trips [to the museum] can watch and say, yes, that's where I live, I am a Texan and proud of it. Fifty percent of these kids will be Hispanic. We won't forget that fact."
The person who must ultimately sign off on this film is not the governor nor the lieutenant governor nor the speaker of the House. The cultural arbiter of the state of Texas -- at least concerning matters of state institutional culture -- is a woman: Dealey Decherd Herndon.
The "Decherd" refers to the Decherd family, which controls The Dallas Morning News. "Dealey" commemorates the paper's founder, George Bannerman Dealey. Herndon's brother is the chairman of the board of Belo Corp., which owns DMN, and she is a board member. In other words, a VIPP: a very important, powerful person. As executive director of the Texas State Preservation Board, Herndon ramrodded the renovation of the Capitol and the building of the Capitol extension. In 1996, when she stepped down from that office, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock praised her for both spending vast amounts of her own money on the project and using her off-duty time on the Capitol and grounds. Gov. George Bush promptly appointed Herndon the public member of the Preservation Board. More recently, she did a short gig as Gov. Perry's appointments director. She now has a private construction management consulting firm, and her most recent official incarnation is as the chairperson of the Bullock Museum foundation.
"[As] to Raul's concerns," Herndon wrote in a memo responding to Reinert's letter, she agreed with Gonzalez that "the treatment suggested [by the director] for Hispanics is off the mark. The Fiesta parade, mariachis, and music scored by two Anglo musicians are a superficial if not offensive approach. I was in attendance with a group of 20 outstanding Hispanics in the past six weeks, when a consultant suggested mariachis as the first message in an exhibit treatment. The unanimous reaction was negative -- they felt that was stereotypical and overused." Reinert had proposed a veteran IMAX composer named Sam Cardon and Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson to provide the film's music, and Herndon was not pleased. "Regarding the score, Sam Cardon and Ray Benson need to either incorporate original Spanish music or add a Hispanic musician to the team. To say that [Cardon and Benson] have played and recorded with Tejano musicians [in the past, as Reinert had explained] is not relevant.
"Finally," Herndon wrote, "Hispanic quotes (and voices I assume) are great. My only substantive comment is that the list is not particularly reflective of Hispanic culture. Texas football is historically an Anglo cultural activity, so let's not have a Hispanic quote on high school football -- it would not ring true. What does ring true is faith and family. I noticed the other night that Tony Sanchez began his acceptance speech by thanking his supporters for their prayers. Faith and family are the core values of the Hispanic population. I am increasingly conscious of the fact that Anglos cannot speak with a Hispanic voice."
Herndon's letter was powerful and to the point, particularly on Hispanic Texana. Other issues remain. Laredo and the border have been included, but a working script dated January, just before the board's review, relegates black Texans' contributions to high school football and picking cotton. (When we talk about Texas "pioneers" and "pioneer spirit," does that include slaves -- or is black bondage one of those inconvenient motifs that doesn't jibe with conventional Texas mythology?) Treatment of blacks and Hispanics in the state's cultural collection is already a sensitive subject. For many years, proposals were debated to erect statues, dedicated to the black and Hispanic experiences in Texas, on the Capitol grounds alongside existing monuments to soldiers (prominently including those of the Confederacy), firemen, schoolchildren, etc. While those proposals languished at the Legislature, insult was added to injury.
Last year, for example, the state paid $321,000 for a portrait of Jim Bowie, the shadiest member of the Alamo trinity -- a man who, before deification, had a long career as a slave trader. (By comparison, the state's official portrait of Gov. Bush cost only $10,000.) The Capitol curator's office has also compiled a list of 17 priority artists whose works the state wants to buy, and they are exclusively Anglo and mostly Anglo-centric: various 19th-century German-Texan landscape artists, and one painter of historical subjects named Henry McArdle, of whom even the loyalist Handbook of Texas is leery. McArdle first dissed Hispanics with his 1905 work Dawn at the Alamo, showing Mexican attackers as evil caricatures surrounding Anglo defenders bathed in divine light. The state already owns that McArdle painting and -- surprisingly in this day and age -- wants more.
The film project is potentially even more sensitive. Herndon says that part of the problem is that too many people are reading the IMAX film script; she tries not to. That sentiment is echoed by Rick Crawford, who succeeded Herndon as executive director of the Preservation Board. "What we've been trying to do," he told the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker at a meeting last October, "is limit the number of people that would have input on this film because as you may know we've been through a couple of film scripts before, and we had so many people involved we ended up with no script." There are a few things everyone agrees on. This will not be a history film per se; it will reflect present-day Texas, which in turn reflects Texas history. The format is IMAX, which is 70mm, cumbersome, and expensive to produce, and best suited to dramatic, large-scale scenery and landscape (e.g., mountains, canyons, and skyscrapers). The filmmakers want a coherent story line, but also a lot of "IMAX moments": breathtaking visuals.
"You can't have a film by committee," Herndon said, recalling Gonzalez's fears of micro-management. "It's a film about land, not populations," she says, which is not exactly what the former justice wanted of South Texas; he wasn't after South Texas for the orange trees, but for the people. Herndon continued, "I'm going to be very disappointed if this film comes out and it's not representative of Texas." In principle, everyone agrees with that -- but not exactly on what that means.
To minority communities, the danger is that this film will be become another big, sloppy, smug celebration of Anglo culture in Texas. When white Texans start talking about "the land," minority ears go on alert -- because in Texas, "the Land" very often becomes a code phrase for "No Indians, No Mexicans -- and definitely No Niggers." The way that screenplay unfolds is to begin with the (Anglo) pioneers, as a lead-in to the Alamo and San Jacinto. Skip that unpleasantry known to historians as the Civil War (but to unreconstructed Confederates as the "War Between the States"), skip 100 years of Ranger raids, lynchings, and occasional pogroms against Mexicans. Fast forward to the 1900s and small-town life in East Texas and throw in Spindletop; cue some idealistic, ranch-raised white boys to go off to a more popular war -- and then jump-cut to 1950s small-town life in West Texas or the Panhandle (a sentimentalized Last Picture Show kind of time), some blond girl losing her cherry in the back seat of a Chevy.
Anglos may like to harken back to the Fifties as an age of lost innocence, but in Texas, as throughout the South, it happened to be a period of Jim Crow for the rest of us. There's a note in a May commentary on the script compiled by Bullock Museum staff suggesting that some shots of the stereotypical white Texas kitsch of beehive hairdos would be a "lighthearted" addition to the film. Why not, instead, San Antonio cholos in lowriders, or Houston brothers in big, bushy Afros?
The choice of GSD&M as producers is not particularly reassuring. The "M" in GSD&M is Tim McClure, the ad agency's CCO -- "chief creative officer" -- who is also, surprise, on the foundation board of the Bullock Museum. Speaking of McClure, Herndon says, "He gets it. He gets Texas." And GSD&M was chosen, she added, because "GSD&M has the best core understanding of Texas of anyone who is in a public relations/marketing field." That qualifier is very important, because the film has to make money; the Legislature expects the museum to be self-supporting. It's the same reason so much of the museum, IMAX films included, feels more like a theme park than a historical repository. Museum Director Lynn Denton insists, however, "This is an educational institution." So will the film be a public relations/marketing exercise, a commercial venture, or is it a teaching tool? Presumably we'll know next April, when A Land Called Texas premieres.
Herndon's influence is reassuring, because she herself usually "gets it." She's a smart, hard-working, open-minded woman, who also knows enough of the Right People to get things done. But she too can misstep. "First of all," she said of the Bullock Museum, "it's a history museum, not a cultural history museum" (as, say, San Antonio's Institute of Texan Cultures). At the Bullock Museum, Herndon insists, the emphasis is "more factual, as opposed to how people feel about history." But that response echoes the same nonsense that Anglo historians too often impose on minorities: What blacks and Hispanics, Asians, and Samoans believe about their history is emotion, while whites only approach history as fact.
History always depends on who's recording it -- and very often on who's paying the bill. A case in point is the IMAX film itself.
For its $1.5 million, ExxonMobil has required weekly briefings as well as specific product placement in the film: a particular company offshore installation. Of that demand Herndon herself wrote, in the memo which responded to Gonzalez's concerns, "'The Hoover-Diana offshore rig that ExxonMobil wants to see' ... implies that Exxon/Mobil bought one-fifth of the IMAX shoot rather than a brief shot of something with Exxon/Mobil on it during a segment on oil in Texas. ... We have stretched acknowledgement at the end of the film, which was originally promised to Exxon/Mobil, into one-fifth of the IMAX shooting. I believe every critic and viewer will find that odd." The blue plane on the runway? That's Southwest Airlines' more modest IMAX moment. (Southwest also gave $1.5 million.) Does the film's proposed treatment of these companies mean they have a bigger role in the history (or "land") of Texas than anyone else, even other companies? No. It just means they're paying the filmmakers.
Not all the news is bad. T.R. Fehrenbach, the dean of Texas historians and author of the authoritative Lone Star (and a member of the Bullock Museum foundation) says he talked to Reinert and the IMAX crew before production began and, "All I can say, is that the filmmakers did their homework." Fehrenbach is viewed as the father of the imperial view of Texas, often very Anglo-centric himself, but he's also very thoughtful -- and he's a realist. He knows how changeable history is. "One day," he notes, "we may have a different view of what happened at the Alamo," based upon the judgment of a Hispanic majority in the state. That's natural, he suggests. "There was an old [saying] when I was in university, that every generation has to rewrite history in order to understand it." What that means is that every generation has to rewrite history in order to make that history its own.
Had a Committee of Committees of cultural consultants picked apart the scripts of Citizen Kane or Rules of the Game, the results would have undoubtedly been lame. Herndon is right, that too many people looking at a script is a recipe for disaster.
We Shall Overcome
But the difficulty in briefly recounting the history of Texas is not lack of diversity, but whose idea of diversity is recounted. For black Texans, the film's treatment thus far is particularly troublesome. High school football and picking cotton? (The Legislature began testimony earlier this year on establishment of a Texas State Music Museum. At those hearings, there was a lot of talk about Tex Ritter and singing cowboys. As is the case in painting, and now apparently in film, will blacks and Hispanics, to mix ethnic groups as well as metaphors, still be singing backup?)
Herndon says there are in fact minority members besides Raul Gonzalez on the Bullock Museum foundation board, but who they are and how extensive a role they play is unclear. What we do know of the museum board is that it is very white, very rich, and very well-connected. The core group is John Nau, a Houston businessman who is also chairman of the Texas Historical Commission; George Christian, the political consultant who was LBJ's press secretary; George Bayoud, who was Gov. Bill Clements' chief of staff and is now into Dallas real estate; Clay Johnson, who was Gov. Bush's personnel director and is now playing a similar role on Pennsylvania Avenue; and Dealey Herndon. Other members include Mike Levy, publisher of Texas Monthly, Jan Bullock -- Bob Bullock's widow -- and Tim McClure of GSD&M.
The museum administration, as well, is almost exclusively Anglo; the original design team for the Bullock project was also all-white, but a State Preservation Board official suggests paradoxically that the Anglo-only atmosphere may have made the team more sensitive to pursuing diversity of exhibitions. Perhaps. But one of the documented results of this lack of representation has been, from a black perspective, a major failing in the museum itself: no Yellow Rose of Texas. (Emily West was the legendary "mulatta" woman who was captured by Santa Anna's forces and is said to have been keeping the generalissimo "occupied" at San Jacinto while Sam Houston prepared to attack. There's no firm historical evidence that Emily and the Mexican leader were alone at that moment in his tent, but that's the enduring tale -- and if the museum can display Fess Parker's "Davy Crockett" coonskin cap from a Sixties television series, it might well want to address the honored-by-tradition Afro-Texan sacrifice in the Revolution. No black person would have signed off on the museum project without at least a speculative nod to the Yellow Rose.)
At the Capitol itself, things aren't much better. Built in the 1880s, the building and grounds face defiantly South (as does the University of Texas a few blocks northward). Among the most prominent statues is a glowing monument to those Texans who fought in the Confederate Army. Just ancient and venerable history? Hardly -- in a small alcove just off the rotunda, there's a plaque mounted in 1959 -- amid the Civil Rights struggle in the South -- by an advocacy group (which persists) called the Children of the Confederacy. The plaque erroneously informs visitors to the Capitol that the "War Between the States was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery." Really? That's a view not shared by the writers of history texts (at least the better ones) used in the state's schools.
For some of us, that neo-Confederate plaque is as demeaning as the thought of spending hundreds of thousands of public dollars for a portrait of a slaver and then displaying the painting outside the governor's office. Announcing the acquisition, Gov. Perry said, "Jim Bowie represents both the virtues and the vices that were common among independent-minded Texans back in the early 1880s" -- although by "vices" he apparently referred not to slave trading, but to the fact that the combative "Bowie never seemed to shy away from a skirmish." Curator Ali Turley says that the state's art collection may well be a little unbalanced, and that she wouldn't allow placement of anything like the Children of the Confederacy's declaration if it were proposed today ("That type of plaque in this day and age would not meet our criteria"), but it's already on the wall, has been there for 43 years, and is not going to be removed any time soon.
There may be some small cause for optimism. A statue commemorating the African-American experience in Texas was recently approved, as was one honoring Tejanos. For black Texans, the process toward implementation was long, but the statue has been promoted from a proposed placement on the Capitol's back lawn to the southwest grounds -- the same distance from Congress Avenue as the monument devoted to Confederate soldiers. The statue is now being designed, and the project's prime mover, state Rep. Al Edwards of Houston, says it will include multiple figures and represent elements of tyranny, slavery, emancipation, and jubilation -- with an emphasis on jubilation. "I want it in an area," Rep. Edwards says, "where [black Texans] can gather around it and have ceremonies in later years, whether we" -- the generation which fought for its placement -- "are here or not."