It only lasts for a minute, but a brief scene in First Man, Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle’s biopic of Neil Armstrong starring Ryan Gosling, features one of the most radical songs in U.S. history. It shows singer Leon Bridges playing the late revolutionary poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron as he recites the lyrics to “Whitey on the Moon,” a song from 1970 that was a searing indictment of the space program and U.S. values.
And for a movie that portrays one of the most iconic moments of the 20th century—the moon landing of 1969—which has been saturated in patriotism and portrayed as a U.S. victory against the Soviets at the height of the Cold War, it’s a brave choice by Chazelle.
That’s because “Whitey on the Moon” has always been a radical song and will likely offend some hypersensitive “patriots” in the Trump era. (The movie’s lack of a scene showing Armstrong planting the American flag on the surface of the moon recently became a mini-outrage meme for Breitbart readers.)
Though only 92 seconds long, “Whitey on the Moon” packs a punch. Over a spare drumbeat, Scott-Heron’s voice seethes with rage and sarcasm:
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)
Though not as well known as Scott-Heron’s classic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” in some ways it’s even more powerful in its blunt commentary on economic inequality and the massive disconnect between the lives of Americans in poorer neighborhoods and the bureaucrats spending millions on a space program.
The scene would seem to be out of place, given the movie’s slow methodical pace and relentless focus on Armstrong’s life in the space program. But it works perfectly, coming on the heels of the depiction of the tragic death of three astronauts in a fire during a prelaunch Apollo 1 rehearsal test in 1967. Prefaced by vintage footage of author Kurt Vonnegut questioning the purpose of the space program, it cuts to a protest featuring Bridges’ Scott-Heron standing on a hill across the bay from a NASA facility gripping a microphone and intoning the lyrics.
Scott-Heron, who had just left college to write poetry and make music in 1969, wrote the lyrics during the summer of the moon landing. The headlines were full of anticipation for the event, though some critics voiced their concerns. Scott-Heron was inspired by a comment from Black Panther leader and author Eldridge Cleaver, who described the moon landing as a “flying circus” meant to distract Americans from problems at home. As Scott-Heron later described it, “Just something to hold down the pressure and revolt in America.”
The song still works, raising important questions about the country’s priorities during a time of urban unrest and war in Vietnam. The song appeared on Scott-Heron’s critically acclaimed debut album, which was largely played in coffeehouses and on college campuses and African-American radio, the lyrics too incendiary for mainstream airwaves.
But half a century later, it wasn’t too radical for Chazelle, who was inspired to use the song after Gosling sent it to him.
“At first, I planned to re-create a prelaunch protest using archival photographs as reference, re-creating the signs, and using a speech that would articulate some of the opposition to the space race,” he tells Fast Company via email. “But during prep, Ryan sent me the Gil Scott-Heron track, and the two of us realized this could be an even more powerful and singular way of distilling and communicating those arguments.”
Chazelle adds, “It was really important for me to show the debate surrounding the space program at the time, show audiences that there was not complete support behind the program, and try to do justice to the passionate and certainly understandable arguments against it. It raised real questions about national priority at a time when cities were reeling, Vietnam protests were sweeping across the country, and poverty was being talked about more and more.”
To play Scott-Heron, Chazelle chose Bridges, who says he was familiar with the musician’s lyrics through songs that have been sampled in recent years by Drake and Kanye West. But he put “Whitey on the Moon” on repeat listening and tried to “re-create his magic,” he says, via email.
Related: How a real Apollo astronaut helped First Man shoot the moon
Bridges says that he thinks the song should be taught in schools.
“‘Whitey on the Moon’ highlights the unthinkable price that was paid for a white man to walk on the moon so, so far away, while there was some heavy issues at home,” he says. “When you listen to the lyrics, Gil is talking about quality of life, poverty, healthcare, and racism. He’s basically saying, there are folks without medicine or clean water and yet we have a man on the moon. Like, there were obviously funds, but they were not going to us. I can imagine how people of color felt watching that news feed, and here was Gil, giving those feelings a voice.”
For more on Gill Scott-Heron, check out Marcus Baram’s 2014 biography, Pieces of a Man.
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