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Reading The Commitments

It's an old story, this ethnographic tale of identification with the Other.

"Studying the Expert": That's how the laser-disc version of The Commitments titles the scene where Jimmy Rabbitte and his mates watch James Brown perform and find their calling. Julian Dibbell understands it as a "comical inversion of the hubris that led Parker once upon a time [in Mississippi Burning] to write black people out of their own history and inscribe white cops in their place" (58). Certainly, the scene plays as something of a joke: catachresis or dada minstrelsy.

"Say it loud," says Jimmy, appropriating one of James Brown's most famous epigrams. "I'm black, and I'm proud!" Incredulous, band members shake their heads and laugh in disbelief.

Are they a chorus, aware and critical of Jimmy's outlandish claim?
In this case, the film is suspicious of Jimmy's formula, which reduces "black" and "Irish" to "dispossessed" so that an equation can be made. We, the audience, are set up to expect that only failure will result from the Commitments decision to play soul.

Or are they blind, oblivious to truths uttered by the prophet standing in their midst?
In this case, the film sides with Jimmy. He's narrator, but not the film's narrative voice. His assertion combines with the band's incredulity to produce the rhetorical effect of someone making a serious suggestion cloaked in jest. We, the audience, are set up to expect that somehow, against all odds, the Commitments will play real soul.

The Commitments of Roddy Doyle's novel are awed by Jimmy's interpretive skill and by his apologetics. He reads the plight of African-Americans as analogous to the plight of his mates. They "gasp" at his insight. It's so true. But while the Commitments of Parker's film are more hesitant to affirm Jimmy's interpretive vision, the film seems clearly to validate Jimmy's metaphor as truth. The band will ultimately prove--not to Wilson Pickett but to a local crowd (and a film audience)--that it can play soul. Thus, Jimmy is vindicated.

The scene where he introduces James Brown to the future Commitments dramatizes the myth of hermeneutics. It stages the moment when meaning, heretofore obscured, is uncovered (creating the effect of awe). It also stages the moment of interpellation, when identification does the work or bidding of ideology. The Commitments project feelings of dispossession onto an icon of popular culture (who has apparently discovered how to bring marginalization center stage). They idealize soul as a solution to being treated as a "nigger." And with the exception of their singer, who will bring about the band's demise, they fall in love with James Brown. "At the heart of this film," writes Dibbell, "lies a rather endearing faith in the redeeming and ultimately progressive power of latter-day minstrelsy" (58).