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Colson Whitehead’s Ode To 1970s New York

The historical novel, once considered the height of kitsch—Henry James described it as “condemned … to a fatal cheapness”—has staged a remarkable comeback over the course of the last several decades. In his forthcoming study Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon, the literary scholar Alexander Manshel argues that the historical novel has steadily emerged as the single most prestigious genre of contemporary literature in the twenty-first century. He observes that nearly three-quarters of all novels short-listed for major American prizes since 2000 have been historical fiction, and that historical novels account for 70 percent of those most frequently assigned in universities. Recent, lavishly acclaimed historical novels by Yiyun Li, Olga Tokarczuk, Hernan Diaz, Hilary Mantel, and Elena Ferrante bear out the thesis. “Literary fiction has never been more historical—nor historical fiction more literary—than it has been over the last forty years,” Manshel concludes.

One of the major figures in the ascent of historical fiction to its current place of eminence in twenty-first-century literary culture has been Colson Whitehead. Though he’s written across a broad range of genres, from bildungsroman to zombie novel, Whitehead is above all a writer of historical fiction. From the beginning of his long, varied career, he’s been drawn to elaborately detailed period settings, albeit often distorted or ambiguous ones, like the indeterminate mid-century New York of his first novel, The Intuitionist, or ones inflected with anachronistic or fantastic elements, as in the bizarro antebellum South of The Underground Railroad. Of Whitehead’s nine novels to date, only one—2006’s surreal satire Apex Hides the Hurt—has been fully set in anything like the present.

Crook Manifesto

by Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, 336 pp., $29.00

Crook Manifesto, Whitehead’s latest, is a historical novel in a more playful vein than previous works like The Underground Railroad or The Nickel Boys, which dealt with slavery and institutionalized child abuse, respectively. Spanning the years 1971 to 1976, it’s the second volume in the “Harlem trilogy,” a suite of hard-boiled detective stories populated by all manner of toughs, hoods, and operators. (The first volume, Harlem Shuffle, began in 1959 and ended in 1964; a third, currently underway, will presumably bring us into the 1980s and perhaps beyond.) From “the character of light on 125th Street” in the summertime to the graffiti that “exploded on the train cars in balloon letters and sharp-angled glyphs,” Crook Manifesto is filled with precisely observed visual impressions of New York City—evocative writing suffused with nostalgia for the gritty New York of the ’70s (which is also the New York of Whitehead’s childhood: He was born in Manhattan in 1969).

And yet something about Crook Manifesto, expertly executed as it is, suggests a certain ennui at the heart of the historical novelist’s enterprise. Whitehead’s characters are buffeted by history—never for more than a paragraph does the book let you forget that it’s set in the ’70s—but they seem exhausted and a little bored by it: It impinges on their consciousness as an annoyance, an irritant. “History,” James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus famously put it, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” I don’t think Whitehead’s characters would go that far. But it may be a nuisance they’re trying to avoid.

Who is Ray Carney, anyway? First introduced in Harlem Shuffle, Ray is the son of a small-time gangster named Big Mike Carney, and though he’s ambivalent about his criminal patrimony, he has himself put in time as a fence, handling stolen goods for a variety of disreputable customers. Now the owner of a successful furniture business on 125th Street, Ray has moved up in the world: A fully paid-up member of the Black bourgeoisie, he lives with his wife and kids on Strivers’ Row, the most dignified address in Harlem. He has ostensibly “joined the good and decent folk, pulling the drapes tight when shots rang out down the street and tsking at the turf battles and bloody rumbles in the morning paper.” But he still keeps tabs on the underworld, and it doesn’t take much for him to slip back into his old crooked milieu.

Ray is a little man living on the margins of big events, for the most part preoccupied with his private dramas but occasionally looking up to realize that the world around him is in convulsions. He’s a paragon of what the literary theorist Georg Lukács, in his 1937 study The Historical Novel, called “the mediocre hero.” Thinking of the protagonists of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, who were beset by great events but were never world-historical actors themselves, Lukács proposed that the hero of a classical historical novel “generally possesses a certain, though never outstanding, degree of practical intelligence, a certain moral fortitude and decency which even rises to a capacity for self-sacrifice, but which never grows into a sweeping human passion, is never the enraptured devotion to a great cause.” This is Ray Carney all over. He’s not a bad guy, nor is he a particularly great one. He’s neither a progressive nor a conservative. He’s not insensitive to the historical dramas that unfold around him, but neither is he a major player in them. He’s not always sure which side he’s on, or even what the sides are.

To the extent that Ray has a theory of history, it’s one of decline—at least where New York is concerned. He’s one of several characters in Crook Manifesto who describe the city as going to hell. It could seem that way in the ’70s, of course, when a city that for several generations had epitomized American prosperity, ingenuity, and prestige was rapidly becoming synonymous with decay. Crime rose precipitously throughout the decade; between 1965 and 1975, the murder rate more than doubled. The white middle class absconded to the suburbs in droves, seriously depleting a once munificent tax base. Draconian cuts in services and infrastructure followed, as New York rapidly ran out of money, culminating in the default crisis of 1975, which found the city $13 billion in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. Tourists arriving at airports were handed terrifying pamphlets produced by police and firefighter unions, warning that they were about to enter “Fear City.” Whitehead’s novel registers all of this urban dysfunction, using it to establish a Dickensian mood of ambient malaise. “Things were definitely in decline all over, across zip codes,” Carney thinks:

Strike threats and work stoppages, the yellow stain of pollution above and dangerous fractures in the infrastructure below. It was creeping on everyone, like a gloom blowing over the East River and into the vast grid, the apprehension that things were not as they had been and it would be a long time before they were right again.

Crook Manifesto, like Harlem Shuffle before it, is structured as a triptych: It’s not a single narrative but three linked novellas, with overlapping themes and characters but largely discrete plotlines. In the first section, “Ringolevio,” set in 1971, Ray attempts to score Jackson 5 tickets for his teenage daughter, a quest that leads him to reconnect with his old acquaintance Detective Munson, a dirty cop who can usually lay his hands on in-demand merchandise. Munson, unbeknownst to Ray, is on the run from the Knapp Commission, a real-life investigatory panel created by Mayor John Lindsay to ferret out police corruption in the wake of Frank Serpico’s whistleblowing, and he quickly embroils Carney not only in his own personal drama but also in intrigues involving rival groups of Black militants whom the cops are attempting to quash.

Though the plot zips along and Whitehead’s witty, agile prose keeps pace, Crook Manifesto is, at heart, a middle-aged man’s book. Whitehead avails himself of several different points of view throughout, but the book’s primary protagonists are Ray and his friend and associate Pepper (also introduced in Harlem Shuffle), an aging enforcer who once worked with Ray’s father. Whitehead, who is now in his mid-fifties, settles comfortably into the perspectives of these bemused, world-weary older dudes, and one of the novel’s driving forces is the friction between their hard-bitten cynicism and the utopian verve of Black culture in the ’70s. Ray and Pepper both regard with skepticism the various innovations in fashion, music, art, and politics driven by “a younger crowd that—in their brash clothes and militant anthems and anarchic fearlessness—rebuked a previous generation’s mannered rebellions.” Ray, for instance, is irked by the radical politics his daughter is absorbing on the streets of Harlem: “Half her conversation these days came from 125th Street flyers: ‘It all goes back to the miseducation of the Negro, Daddy.’ Black Power guys and their pamphlets were worse than Jehovah’s Witnesses.” An internecine conflict between the Black Panthers and the Marxist-Leninist splinter group Black Liberation Army crops up at the edges of Crook Manifesto’s first section, but for Ray it’s largely a distraction from matters of more immediate concern (scoring those elusive Jackson 5 tickets). He’s inherited his criminal father’s skepticism about social justice, which he regards as a probable scam: “Big Mike Carney pegged the civil rights movement—‘these so-called righteous brothers’—as fellow hustlers.… Work rackets for a living and you see them everywhere, the possibilities, the little crack where an enterprising soul might sneak in a crowbar.”

Pepper, for his part, is even more leery of the younger generation, “with their eye-melting clothing and tiresome, uplifting slogans.” (He’s particularly disgruntled by the expression “consciousness raising”: “What do you do with it once you get it up there?” he wonders.) Part of Pepper’s job involves understanding people and how they’re likely to behave in any given situation—and in this sense, the criminal mind is close to that of the novelist: “Everybody’s research when you’re crooked, another variable in a setup down the line.” Pepper’s beef with all these newly raised consciousnesses is less that they’re an affront to his values—it’s unclear whether he has any to speak of—than that they interfere with the split-second psychological calculus that’s so crucial to his work. “The new shit was always upon you and you had to adjust, such was life, but the new shit came so fast these days, and it was so wily and unlikely, that he had a hard time keeping up,” Pepper admits to himself at one point. (Come to think of it, that sounds a bit like the lament of a middle-aged novelist as well.)

“The new shit” asserts itself most forcefully in the book’s second section, “Nefertiti T.N.T.,” which is set in 1973 and concerns a film production that is using Carney’s furniture store on 125th Street as a shooting location. The film’s director is a young artist named Zippo, who has transitioned from taking “compromising photographs” for blackmail purposes (though “Zippo considered them just the opposite: uncompromising”) to becoming a Warhol-style art star who “dress[es] like a Negro Salvador Dalí.” Zippo is now attempting to break into the commercial film industry by cashing in on the nascent Blaxploitation trend, inspired by a revelatory viewing of Blacula. When the movie’s leading lady, Lucinda Cole, mysteriously goes missing, the director dispatches Pepper to locate her.

In one of Crook Manifesto’s key scenes, Pepper, on the Hunt for Lucinda, watches a stand-up act by the comedian Roscoe Pope, a Richard Pryor–type provocateur. Pope, who has been cast opposite Lucinda in Nefertiti T.N.T. And currently has a hit record on the charts called Memo from Dr. Goodpussy, does bits about fellatio, lynching, Black superheroes, and slavery for an appreciative, and racially mixed, audience. Pepper understands that he, a product of the Jim Crow era, is bearing witness to “a generation that took for granted that a black man could talk like that and not get his ass shot.” Witnessing Roscoe’s outrageousness, Pepper feels a mixture of repulsion and respect: “This was a new-type Negro before him, and a room full of people tuned into his wild style.” It’s a poignant moment: It’s too late for Pepper to take advantage of these “new-type” freedoms, which he half-suspects will be revoked soon anyway, but he marvels at the spectacle of liberation nonetheless.

Though most of Crook Manifesto’s narrative is picaresque, proceeding from one colorful incident to the next without much sense of overarching design, its final section, set in the Bicentennial year of 1976, does gesture toward larger, more sinister stakes. In “The Finishers,” Ray and Pepper investigate a ring of arsonists who are torching real estate properties for the insurance money, and uncover an intricate conspiracy involving City Hall, the RAND Corporation, and a cabal of corrupt Black community leaders who belong to a (fictional) Harlem society called the Dumas Club.

“There are always secret rackets underway that you know nothing about, even as they run your life,” Ray reflects, upon learning more about the fires that are consuming large portions of the South Bronx and other low-income, majority Black areas of New York. “One racket brought mayhem, like the scams and rip-offs steering the city into decline, and another invisible racket held everything up so things didn’t completely go to hell.” In riffs like this, Whitehead marries the brutally unsentimental perspective of Richard Stark’s Parker novels to the paranoid arias of Thomas Pynchon. In the end, though, Stark’s ground-level starkness wins out over Pynchon’s galaxy-brain complexity: “Simpler than conspiracy was Carney’s take: In general, people were terrible.”

By the end of Crook Manifesto, one comes to feel that the element of crime fiction that ultimately attracts its author is not action or violence—though plenty of bodies get knocked around in the course of the novel, and a few fare worse than that—but cynicism. Whitehead has perfected the jaded, seen-it-all narrative voice invented by Dashiell Hammett and other hard-boiled crime writers in the 1920s and ’30s and honed to a nihilistic knife’s edge by Stark in (perhaps not coincidentally) the 1970s. This sardonic mode, which Whitehead inhabits so comfortably, allows him both to track historical change in minute detail and to suggest that, on some level, he’s as unimpressed as his characters are by what he documents. Again and again, the novel suggests that the new shit is always upon you, but nothing really changes—that the same eternal cycles of greed and graft underlie every putative innovation or advance. Everything, in the final analysis, is a racket—even history.

Daily Edition

In recent weeks, as a firestorm of chatter — and questions — surrounding Angel Studios’ Sound of Freedom spread, Hollywood scrambled to understand how tiny indie movie seemingly emerged from nowhere to become the sleeper hit of the summer box office.

One major legacy movie studio was so interested in the topic that it commissioned a survey of social media discourse and audience reaction. “Overall, the online consumer response to Sound of Freedom has been less about the movie itself and more rooted in conspiracy theories and ongoing political/culture wars within the United States and the globe at large,” says the summary, which a source shared with The Hollywood Reporter but who did not want their studio to be identified.

Among other conclusions: Right-leaning audiences dismiss criticisms of the movie from the left and mainstream press as the thoughts of “pedophiles, satanists and other malicious parties,” while left-leaning audiences found the movie’s messaging tactics to be aligned with “QAnon, racism, white supremacy, Christo-fascist, anti-Semitic and an overall deceitful work.”

But a recent survey by well-known pollster Sam Rasmussen’s RMG Research doesn’t find the two sides of the aisle that far apart on the subject of Sound of Freedom. The poll found that nearly half of American voters, or 49 percent, are aware of the movie (24 percent have read about, 18 percent know someone who has seen it and 7 percent have seen themselves. And 62 percent of those surveyed have a favorable opinion of the pic, regardless of their political affiliation.

Sound of Freedom — which has earned a huge $164 million domestically through Aug. 6 — quietly opened in cinemas July 4, beating Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny for the day. While it has done especially well in the Midwest and South, it has also done big business in California and other parts of the West (the Northeast has under-indexed). To date, it has topped the domestic grosses of summer big-budget features such as The Flash ($108 million), Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part 1 ($151 million) and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts ($157 million).

The film stars The Passion of the Christ’s Jim Caviezel as the real-life Tim Ballard, who worked as an agent for the Department of Homeland Security before embarking on his own quest to bring child traffickers to justice. The film’s blockbuster performance has no doubt been boosted by Angel’s mastermind plan to change the way movies are distributed through its innovative “Pay It Forward” model, whereby people are urged to buy and then donate Sound of Freedom tickets for others to use. Those “others” can grab a code off the Pay It Forward website and then redeem it using major online ticketing services or an individual theater.

But how money is used from unredeemed tickets is at the company’s discretion, according to this standard disclaimer on the website: “Upon submitting my Pay It Forward contribution, I acknowledge and agree that Angel Studios will make reasonable efforts to use Pay It Forward ticket sales for the audience growth of the intended film or series. However, Angel Studios becomes the owner of all funds upon receipt and may use them at its sole discretion to further the Angel Studios’ mission of amplifying light through impactful stories.”

Sound of Freedom director Alejandro Monteverde and producer/star Eduardo Verástegui, who have known each other for years and are both from Mexico, spent an arduous eight years bringing the indie movie to the big screen, including cobbling together the financing for the $14.5 million film. Fox International made a distribution deal with the filmmakers in 2018, before the Disney merger closed in 2019. Disney ended up shelving the film’s theatrical release but allowed the filmmakers to buy back the rights.

Unable to find a home at another legacy studio or streamer, the Sound of Freedom team ultimately agreed in late March 2023 to go with Angel Studios, a Utah-based company that specializes in crowdfunding. Many Angel original series are faith-based, including the megahit The Chosen series.

Jared Geesey, Angel Studios senior vp global distribution, believes Sound of Freedom will ultimately cross the $200 million mark in North America. And the movie hasn’t yet begun rolling out overseas. It is set to open across Latin America next month, where much of the film was shot (in the U.S., Latinos made up 37 percent of the audience in the movie’s second weekend). Angel has also announced opening dates for the U.K., Australia and South Africa, and is in the process of firming up plans for other territories (Angel is self-distributing everywhere but Australia and Africa, where it will work with a local distribution partner).

According to Angel’s website, more than 14.5 million tickets have been purchased in North America. Geesey declined to say how many fall in the donated category except to suggest it isn’t an overwhelming number. “The vast majority of tickets are being bought by human, everyday people in a normal purchase flow,” Geesey tells THR. “We do not break out Pay It Forward tickets versus regular tickets because they’re the same thing. A ticket is a ticket, whether you paid for it or someone else paid for it.”

According to Geesey, only redeemed tickets are counted when Angel reports grosses to Comscore, the industry record-keeper of box office grosses.

Many in Hollywood continue to be skeptical. “There should be more transparency,” says a studio distribution executive source. In addition to the issue of grosses, it’s hard to know how many people are actually watching the movie if we don’t know the number of tickets redeemed.” Earlier in the movie’s run, social media was rife with posts about near-empty auditoriums for supposedly sold-out shows, prompting numerous outlets to report on the issue. Such reports have since abated. Another studio executive tells THR that one major theater circuit confirmed this did happen earlier on in some instances, but not on a blanket scale.

Distributors and theater owners are more than intrigued by the potential of a Pay It Forward model, considering the precarious nature of the box office recovery. Indie distributor Magnolia Pictures is already copying Angel’s playbook, and urging those interested in the indie documentary Kokomo City to donate tickets. The doc, about four Black transgender sex workers, opened at the IFC Center in New York City over July 28-30 weekend before expanding to several other cities last weekend, including San Francisco. For now, donated tickets can only be redeemed at the IFC Center and San Francisco’s Roxie Theater (the offer is expected to remain in place for the film’s full run).

“People are very grateful for all the momentum that Pay It Forward has created,” says Geesey.

It’s certainly not the first time in history that a distributor or studio has asked people or companies to donate blocks of tickets for an individual, issue-driven movie, but it’s never been done on a wholesale basis. Angel also used the Pay It Forward ticket model earlier this year releasing its first film theatrically, the faith-based His Only Son. The movie did far more business than expected, grossing $12 million at the North American box office. As with Sound of Freedom, Angel has not said how many tickets were donated. Before its theatrical run, His Only Son raised more than $1.2 million from 1,863 people in a separate crowdfunding offering to cover for costs associated with marketing and releasing the film, according to Angel.

The Harmon brothers, part of a well-known Mormon family and founders of the Utah-based Angel empire, have a long and complicated relationship with Hollywood. Their previous company, the streaming service VidAngel, was sued by Disney, 20th Century Fox, Lucasfilm and Warner Bros. In 2016 for alleged copyright infringement after VidAngel developed filtering technology that allowed movies to be sanitized for its faith-based and conservative-leaning audiences. In 2019, a jury ordered VidAngel to pay $62 million in damages; a settlement was reached the following year, with VidAngel agreeing to pay the studios $10 million over 10 years. Angel Studios emerged from VidAngel bankruptcy proceedings and launched in March 2021.

The Harmons responded to the 2016 lawsuit by moving into crowdfunding to make original content. That included the first season of The Chosen, which raised more than $10.3 million by 2018, then the largest crowdfunded project in history. The three Chosen seasons boast an audience of more than 110 million people, including views outside of The Chosen and Angel apps (which are separate). And, as of September 2022, the franchise has generated $195.3 in revenue for the company (that includes licensing fees and a special theatrical engagement). The Chosen’s 2018 crowdfunding record was surpassed this year by the animated biblical pic David, which has raised $50 million to date through Angel Studios (it is still in the preproduction phase). Angel is promising that David will be the most viewed animated film in history and, as it often does, quotes the Bible in its crowdfunding pitch for the film. “Completing a major global theatrical release can feel insurmountable, but we face this giant with confidence that we ‘can do all things through Christ’ (Philippians 4:13).”

Angel may be in the midst of having to pay off its $10 million debt to studios, but it still doesn’t hesitate to snark at Hollywood for being out of touch with what consumers really want in terms of entertainment (a mantra it has used time and time again through the years). “Investors invested over $10 million to produce The Chosen, which became a smash hit, being viewed over 100 million times and generating over $30 million dollars in revenue in 2020,” says Angel’s website. “In contrast, Hollywood produces most of Seth Rogen’s movies because Seth thought it would be fun and we know how most of those turn out.” Angel doesn’t provide a reason for taking aim at Rogen, who has a slew of box office wins, whether family credits including The Super Mario Bros. Movie, The Lion King and the Kung Fu Panda series or raunchy, R-rated fare (the Neighbors films, Knocked Up). 

Actress and producer Ashley Bratcher, who is part of Hollywood’s faith-based filmmaker community and starred in the pro-life film Unplanned, says she had an unhappy experience with Angel Studios over the crowdfunding campaign for Pharma, a project from her production banner Simple Jane Films. The film is about Frances Kelsey, an employee of the Federal Drug Administration in the 1960s who risked her career to stop morning-sickness drug thalidomide from being approved. “Our team decided to leave Angel after we asked a lot of questions that they didn’t answer. There were mounting tensions as to who was handling the financing aspect and where the money was going,” she tells THR.

In June of this year, lawyers for Frankie’s Story — the name of Pharma’s production entity — presented Angel Studios with a notice to terminate their distribution agreement for Pharma based on fraudulent inducement, according to redacted documents reviewed by THR. The document alleges that Angel executives stated they would not support the live launch of the crowdfunding offering unless the Pharma team changed the terms of offering in a way the Pharma team believed would have “significantly benefited the Angel Acceleration Fund.”

A spokesman for Angel Studios tells THR that Pharma did not meet certain thresholds. “Pharma launched a crowdfund and raised approximately $400K, which was below their $5 million funding goal and also did not meet the Angel Acceleration Fund’s investment approval criteria. The AAF is a separate but affiliated organization that provides the potential of additional funding for Angel Studios projects outside of crowdfunding. AAF controls their investment choices independently,” the spokesperson said. “Given the above, Angel Studios has offered to release Pharma from their distribution agreement to enable them to pursue other options for creating their film. We wish the entire Pharma team and project the best of success.”

While Sound of Freedom’s production had already been financed when it arrived at Angel, Angel did use another crowdfunding model — similar to His Only Son — to raise money for “P&A” (prints and advertising). That inadvertently has led to bad headlines for the studio after a person thanked in the credits as a backer — a perk provided to anyone investing $500 or more — was arrested in Missouri and charged with child kidnapping. The charges were brought last month, but it wasn’t until Aug. 3 that stories began highlighting Missouri man Fabian Marta’s contribution and his alleged connection to Tim Ballard, who is the subject of the film.

On Aug. 4, Angel Studios released a statement without specifically referring to Marta’s arrest. “Just as anyone can invest in the stock market, everyone who meets the legal criteria can invest in Angel Studios projects. One of the perks of investing was the ability to be listed in the credits,” Neal Harmon, CEO of Angel Studios, said in the statement. He also noted that 6,678 people invested an average of $501 in the marketing fund, which totaled $6 million.

Angel, along with filmmakers, also dispute that Sound of Freedom is a QAnon movie, although it has been widely discussed on QAnon message boards. And in late 2021, Caviezel spoke at a QAnon convention in Las Vegas, where he invoked the QAnon slogan, “The storm is upon us.”

“Anyone who has seen Sound of Freedom knows that it has nothing to do with conspiracy theories,” says Geesey. Mira Sorvino — another star in the film — disavowed “QAnon & any hate speech” in a July 12 tweet. She also urge people to get involved in stopping trafficking, a “worldwide and local atrocity.”  

Even weeks after Sound of Freedom arrived in theaters, it is still succeeding in finding new audience members to partake.

At a recent showing of the movie at AMC Century City 15 in Los Angeles, a majority of guests stayed in their seats when the movie finished and the credits began rolling. Caviezel soon appeared in a taped three-minute video explaining Pay It Forward, and personally encouraged people to purchase tickets for others. “We don’t have big studio money to market this movie, but we have you and the baton has now been passed to you,” the message says. Later, the actor says, “Now, I know it’s weird because we’re in a theater, but feel free to pull out your phones and scan this QR code. We don’t want finances to be the reason someone doesn’t see this movie.”

At least a dozen patrons used their phones out to capture the code.

— Chris Gardner contributed to this report.

Aug. 8, 2:55 p.M.: This story was updated with revised language regarding The Chosen and Angel apps.

What Should You Do With An Oil Fortune?

Let’s say you were born into a legacy that is, you have come to believe, ruining the world. What can you do? You could be paralyzed with guilt. You could run away from your legacy, turn inward, cultivate your garden. If you have a lot of money, you could give it away a bit at a time—enough to assuage your conscience, and your annual tax burden, but not enough to hamper your life style—and only to causes (libraries, museums, one or both political parties) that would not make anyone close to you too uncomfortable. Or you could just give it all away—to a blind trust, to the first person you pass on the sidewalk—which would be admirable: a grand gesture of renunciation in exchange for moral purity. But, if you believe that the world is being ruined by structural causes, you will have done little to challenge those structures.

When Leah Hunt-Hendrix was an undergraduate at Duke, in the early two-thousands, she wasn’t sure what to do with her privilege. She had grown up in an apartment on Fifth Avenue, and spent most summers in Dallas with her wealthy churchgoing grandmother. One afternoon, she wandered into a lecture by Stanley Hauerwas, a divinity-school professor whom Time had just named America’s “best” theologian. Hauerwas, as it happened, was also from Dallas; the son of a bricklayer, he could speak in the academic argot of a virtue ethicist or the salty style of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. He rejected the “ahistorical approach of liberal theory,” the assumption that each individual is an autonomous economic unit with a view from nowhere. Instead, as Hunt-Hendrix later put it, “we are born into traditions, and it becomes our task to keep making sense of the world through those traditions, improving them as we go.” Inequality was arguably the defining fact of contemporary American life, which struck Hunt-Hendrix as urgently, intolerably wrong. Hauerwas encouraged his students to reckon with the forces that had shaped their lives, even ones that were set in motion long before they were born.

One summer, Hunt-Hendrix studied with Hauerwas one-on-one, reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The following summer, she went back to Dallas. On campus that fall, Hauerwas saw her sitting on a bench and stopped to ask about her break. “She sort of sheepishly mumbled something about interning at the family business,” he recalled. “At that moment, it hit me, and I blurted it out, ‘Well, shit, you’re a Hunt! ’ ”

At a place like Duke, where about twenty per cent of the students come from the one per cent, it’s not remarkable to encounter a rich kid. Only in extraordinary cases (Rockefeller, Murdoch) is a surname, on its own, an instant giveaway. Hunt is a common name, but to a Dallasite of Hauerwas’s generation it was unmistakable. “I can’t believe it took me this long to put it together,” he told her that day on campus. “My daddy must have laid bricks for your granddaddy.”

H. L. Hunt, Leah’s maternal grandfather, was a Dallas oilman. In the nineteen-thirties, he built wells all over the East Texas oil field, which turned out to be one of the most prodigious reservoirs of oil in the United States. In 1948, Fortune estimated that he was the wealthiest person in America; in 1967, Esquire quoted a source saying, “There’s absolutely no question about the Hunts being the richest family in the country.” Hunt backed Barry Goldwater, the archconservative senator from Arizona, and George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama. (When term limits prohibited Wallace from seeking reëlection, Hunt encouraged him to run his wife, Lurleen, in his place.) He supported the power-mad senator Joseph McCarthy, the rabidly anti-Communist John Birch Society, and reportedly even the Nation of Islam, which promoted racial separatism. William F. Buckley, Jr., once wrote that Hunt’s “yahoo bigotry” had almost managed to “give capitalism a bad name.”

If Leah Hunt-Hendrix had accepted the notion that she was merely an atomized individual, unencumbered by history, then all of this might have seemed like little more than a coincidence. Her grandfather had died before she was born. Why should she do penance for his sins? And yet, no matter how many times she repeated this argument to herself, she remained unconvinced. She even looked a bit like her grandfather: fair skin, apple cheeks, round face. When Hunt began amassing his fortune, it was not widely understood that the overuse of fossil fuels could ruin the planet. But this was known by 1987, when Hunt Oil finished building a pipeline through the desert of North Yemen; and in 2007, when Hunt Oil signed a prospecting deal with the regional government of Kurdistan (a deal that the Bush Administration disavowed in public but blessed in private); and in 2017, when Rex Tillerson, who had worked closely with Hunt Oil in the Middle East, became Donald Trump’s Secretary of State. Hunt Oil is still family-owned, and still among the largest private oil-and-gas companies in the U.S. It’s now one of several family companies that are part of Hunt Consolidated, including Hunt Energy, Hunt Refining, Hunt Realty, and Hunt Power. The Hunt Consolidated headquarters, in downtown Dallas, is a fourteen-story tower made of steel and glass; the air-conditioning bills must be enormous, yet, somehow, the building is LEED-certified.

Behind every great fortune is a great crime, according to an adage attributed to Balzac—but, unlike the money, the crimes are not fungible. Some took place many generations ago, whereas others are ongoing; some afflict a marginal few, others the whole world. Hunt-Hendrix joined a Christian-fellowship group on campus and volunteered as a community organizer in downtown Durham. She wanted to devote her life to rectifying society’s imbalance of wealth and power, but none of the familiar options—endow a professorship? Work at a soup kitchen?—seemed to get to the root of the problem. “Most of us spend our lives only embracing or only renouncing where we come from,” Hauerwas told me. “Leah wanted to do the grownup thing, the exceedingly difficult thing—to look all of it square in the face, and then to find a way to make herself actually useful.”

After graduating, Hunt-Hendrix entered an interdisciplinary doctorate program at Princeton called Religion, Ethics, and Politics. (“In my mind, those are three ways of saying the same thing,” she said.) Two of her main advisers were Cornel West—one of the best-known public intellectuals in the country, always ready to support a labor strike or a socialist candidate—and Jeffrey Stout, who was about to publish “Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America.” (The book posited that the U.S. Seemed to function “as a plutocracy,” and that the way out was to help organizers build power “from the bottom up.”) She took a leave from grad school in 2009 and spent a year teaching English in a small Egyptian city, then another year studying Arabic in Damascus. In Tunisia, she later wrote, she met organizers who “talked about the role of oil companies”—the major public ones, in this case—executing land grabs and “violence against activists who were part of the resistance to fossil fuel extraction.” On a trip to the West Bank, she heard residents’ stories of abject suffering and, moved by compassion and guilt, asked what she could do to help. But many people told her: We don’t want your help, we want your solidarity.

When she came back to Princeton, she proposed a dissertation on the intellectual history of solidarity. (“Vast, interdisciplinary topic,” West told me. “We knew she’d pull it off, but she exceeded our expectations.”) She could spend her life giving money to those in need, she concluded, but charity would only change things at the margins; to help uproot structural inequality, she would have to invest in social movements.

Hunt-Hendrix is now forty and splits her time between New York and Washington, D.C., where she has become a nexus of the New New Left, in frequent contact with street organizers and also several members of Congress. A few times, I saw someone recognize Hunt-Hendrix in passing—Representative Ro Khanna, leaving a progressive centimillionaire’s holiday party in Greenwich Village; a Teamsters organizer at a rally of UPS workers in Canarsie—and ask her, “What is it you do again?” Each time, she struggled to give a concise answer. Basically, she is a philanthropist, though she is reluctant to use the word, given her skepticism toward much of what passes for philanthropy. She donates money to leftist social movements, and she leverages her connections to persuade other rich people to do the same. She gave early funding to Black Lives Matter activists, and to the long-shot primary campaigns of members of the Squad. Since 2017, through her organization Way to Win, she has helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for left-populist politicians—not quite Bloomberg or Koch money, but significantly more than is usually associated with the far left.

“I guess mostly I’m grumpy because I have six goddam roommates.”

Cartoon by Charlie Hankin

“She has better politics than anyone else who’s that rich, and she’s better at fund-raising than anyone else with her politics,” Max Berger, who worked on Elizabeth Warren’s Presidential campaign in 2020, told me. “Whatever you want to call my faction—the Bernie wing, the Warren wing, democratic-socialist, social democrat—we would have way less power if Leah didn’t exist.” If the faction had enough power to enact its full agenda, many of the richest people in the country would likely lose money and influence; a centerpiece of the agenda is the Green New Deal, which, if implemented in maximalist form, could help put fossil-fuel companies, including Hunt Oil, out of business. “Leah was clearly preoccupied with how a person of extreme privilege can live responsibly in the world,” Stout told me. “That seemed to be, for her, an existential question.”

Legend has it that H. L. Hunt won the lease to his first oil field in a poker game. According to the book “Texas Rich,” the legend is just that: Hunt actually got some of his most prized properties by keeping the wildcatter Dad Joiner in a hotel room for days and wearing him down until he signed away the land, a deal that Joiner apparently regretted for the rest of his life. “In terms of extraordinary, independent wealth,” J. Paul Getty said in 1957, “there is only one man—H. L. Hunt.”

In the press, Hunt cultivated a reputation as a respectable conservative who wore rumpled gabardine suits and carried a sack lunch to work. With the benefit of a fuller historical record, it’s clear that, even by the standards of his time, Hunt was unusually racist and reactionary. He sometimes implied that to give up a significant portion of one’s income, through taxation or philanthropy, was to let the Communists win. He funded a nationally syndicated conservative radio show, “Life Line,” and an endless series of far-right-propaganda pamphlets and books, many of which he wrote himself. “Alpaca,” a self-published novel in the vein of Ayn Rand, sketched his vision of a political utopia; it included a system called “graduated suffrage,” in which rich people would get more votes. Once, after a “Life Line” anchor spoke out against “hate groups” on the air, Hunt privately admonished him never to espouse “opposition to a white-supremacy group.”

Hunt’s life was so soap-operatic that J. R. Ewing, of the TV show “Dallas,” is assumed to be based on him. According to posthumous reporting, he was both a grandstanding moralist and a semi-secret polygamist who fathered fifteen children, some of whom he acknowledged only when he was forced to. Leah and her branch of the Hunts refer to themselves as the Second Family, which is slightly misleading given that, while living with his First Family and before starting his Second, Hunt married another woman on the sly and had four children with her. (The woman later testified in court that he’d tried to coax her into converting to Mormonism, so that his multiple marriages could be legal; when this didn’t work, she alleged, he offered her nearly a million dollars to sign a statement swearing that they’d never been married.) Near the end of his life, he sold what he marketed as health food—whole-grain bread, peanut butter, canned chicken—and extolled an exercise technique that he called “creeping,” otherwise known as crawling around on the floor.

By 2020, according to Forbes, the Hunts had slipped from the richest American family to the eighteenth-richest, worth more than fifteen billion dollars. Leah’s uncle Ray Hunt, the only Second Family son, started running Hunt Oil after his father died, in 1974, and today he is worth between five and six billion dollars. (H.L. Also left several oil companies to his First Family heirs, whose descendants now run Petro-Hunt, which is based in Dallas as well.) “My brother was groomed to take over the family oil business,” Leah’s mother, Helen LaKelly Hunt, once wrote. “My sisters and I were taught to be precious Southern belles.”

Helen has an older sister, June, who hosts a popular evangelical radio show, and a younger sister, Swanee, who was Ambassador to Austria under President Bill Clinton. For years, the sisters lived on monthly allowances, but eventually they negotiated to get dividends from Hunt Oil. Since then, they and their descendants have been invited to annual meetings at the corporate headquarters; they are allowed to ask questions, but they have no formal power within the company. Helen rebelled against expectations when she was a young adult, in the late sixties, by moving to New York; she later grew close to Abigail Disney and Gloria Steinem, and funnelled much of her share of the family fortune into the second-wave feminist movement. Most of the Dallas Hunts remain George W. Bush-style Republicans, yet they are proud to think of their family as the kind that can hash things out over Thanksgiving dinner, without raised voices.

In April, I went with Leah to visit her parents. They now live in Dallas full time, in a not particularly lavish condo decorated with Pueblo pottery, mementos of their children’s accomplishments, and a KFC bucket repurposed as a flowerpot. (Leah has four half siblings and one full sibling—Haela Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix, the lead singer of the critically lauded metal band Liturgy, who lives in Brooklyn.) Her parents are well-known marriage counselors with several best-selling books (“Getting the Love You Want,” “Keeping the Love You Find”); her father, Harville Hendrix, has made more than a dozen appearances on “Oprah.”

“A few years ago, we asked our staff for a list of the ten American cities with the highest divorce rates,” Harville said. “We went down the list, going, ‘We don’t know anyone in Las Vegas, don’t know anyone in Jacksonville—’ ”

Helen gently interrupted him: “Well, we do have family in Kansas City.” Clark Hunt, of the First Family, is chairman and part-owner of the Kansas City Chiefs. “But in the end we decided on Dallas,” Helen said, smiling.

“Yes, we thought Dallas would be best,” Harville said, smiling.

They are constantly doing this sort of thing—surfacing some minor disagreement and then settling it, amicably and a bit ritualistically. When things get tense, they resort to what they call “mirroring”: one partner talks and the other listens, speaking up only to ask clarifying questions. (“So it sounds like you’re frustrated that I ran that yellow light. Am I getting that right?”) One of their core tenets has been that almost no married couple should ever get divorced. “We believe that relationships are the cornerstone of society, and a lot of people’s relationships are not doing so well these days,” Helen said, wincing empathically. In Dallas, they hoped to start a proof-of-concept revival, restoring one city’s civic health from the cornerstone up. “We thought, If we can lower the divorce rate in just one place, then maybe that will lower the rates of alcoholism and crime and all sorts of things,” Harville said. “Sounds a bit grandiose, maybe.”

“Everyone in this family, in one way or another, wants to change the world,” Helen said.

We spent several hours in Helen and Harville’s car, a dinged-up silver Lexus, on a driving tour of the city. “That’s one of Caroline’s hotels,” Helen said. (Caroline Rose Hunt, of the First Family, founded the Rosewood hotel chain.) And later: “That’s the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.” (Margaret, Caroline’s sister, founded the Dallas Cotillion; three of their brothers tried to corner the global silver market in the seventies, resulting in a commodities crash.) We parked next to the colonnaded white mansion where Helen grew up; in front of it, written in wrought iron, were the words “Mount Vernon.” (The house is a replica of George Washington’s plantation home, in Virginia, and is about the same size.) “Popsie used to take us around town and make us sing these little anti-Communist ditties he wrote,” Helen said. She started to sing one from memory—“Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” but with lyrics warning about what would happen “if the Reds take over.”

One day of the visit was Palm Sunday, and Leah and her parents went to church. “My parents used to be very close with the pastor,” Helen said. “I believe they had a building named after my mother.” The pastor her parents had known was W. A. Criswell, who for years was a virulent anti-Communist and segregationist. His church, First Baptist Dallas, is now a megachurch, and its head pastor is Robert Jeffress, a Fox News contributor who has been called Trump’s Apostle. Leah, looking a bit ashen, read his Wikipedia bio on her phone.

Inside, there were three thousand seats, and nearly all of them were filled; the pulpit featured a three-hundred-person choir and a baptismal tank full of bright-blue water. “They’re doing an amazing job of marketing,” Harville said. “Notice how they keep mentioning his book?” Leah was more attuned to the hallmarks of movement-building: an upcoming singles’ night, a pancake breakfast, infant care—amenities that were increasingly rare in the public commons. (Leah agrees with the sociologist Émile Durkheim, who believed, as she noted in her dissertation, that “the importance of a religion is not its proximity to an absolute truth, but its ability to hold a community together.”) “Why can’t the left pull off anything like this?” she whispered. “Maybe that’s what we should have been building all along.”

In the fall of 2011, activists took over Zuccotti Park, in lower Manhattan, forming an encampment that came to be known as Occupy Wall Street. Hunt-Hendrix, who was renting a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and working on her dissertation, started spending a lot of time there. “New solidarities were formed,” she wrote in her dissertation. “People of vastly different backgrounds found themselves in meetings, ate meals together, debated politics.”

She tried to listen more than she talked. This was meant to convey humility, but it was also a way to avoid having to divulge too much about herself. “If a table needed to be wiped down, she was wiping down the table,” Nelini Stamp, an Occupy Wall Street participant, told me. Still, word got around. “Someone pulled me aside and pointed and went, ‘You know that’s oil money right there,’ ” Stamp recalled. “I went, ‘Leah? No way, that’s the homie.’ ” Another Occupier told me, “I remember hanging out with Leah when she was coming back from a party, and she mentioned, ‘Oh, Chelsea Clinton was there.’ I thought, Huh, O.K. Not the kind of parties I get invited to!” Hunt-Hendrix also became friends with Brooke Lehman, another Occupy participant who was born rich. (“Lehman, as in the brothers?” fellow-activists would ask her, and the answer was yes—one of hundreds of descendants, but still.) As more organizers realized that some of their comrades had ties to dynastic fortunes, they mused about what the movement could achieve with access to that money and power.

Hunt-Hendrix, Lehman, and a half-dozen other participants, most of them wealthy, started to meet up informally, over home-cooked meals at Leah’s apartment. Some referred to themselves as “one-per-centers for the ninety-nine per cent,” or, semi-ironically, as “class traitors.” Most of them, including Hunt-Hendrix, were members of Resource Generation, which was a group for young progressives who had money but felt ambivalent about it. Lehman used family money to buy a dairy farm in upstate New York and turn it into a retreat center for organizers. Farhad Ebrahimi, whose father is a software billionaire, had a sixty-five-million-dollar bank account that he controlled outright; he committed to donating all of it to leftist activists, within the next decade. Most of Hunt-Hendrix’s family money, by contrast, came at the discretion of her parents.

She was “outed,” as she put it, in March of 2012, when Salon ran an article about her under the headline “Occupy’s Heiress.” She corresponded with her uncle Ray—a former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’s board of directors—who wrote her a letter asking about her participation in the movement. There were bad apples in every profession, including finance, but why tear it all down? She wrote several long, earnest responses (“It’s not about bad people, but about a system that has gone awry”), each time beginning and ending on a note of familial conciliation (“Thank you for holding our differences with such gentleness”).

Occupy was criticized for not having a central demand, but after a few months it splintered into several local campaigns around the country seeking specific policy concessions: end fracking, raise the minimum wage. Most of these nascent groups were in no position to apply for seed funding from philanthropic foundations like MacArthur or Ford—many didn’t even have official names, much less 501(c)(3) status, and some employed civil-disobedience tactics that big foundations might not condone. Instead, the organizers could call Hunt-Hendrix to ask for what they needed. In 2013, this ad-hoc funding method became a community of donors, helmed by Hunt-Hendrix, called Solidaire Network. It began as a rapid-response e-mail list that went out to a few dozen donors, then to a few hundred. One e-mail raised six thousand dollars for a bail fund for Black Lives Matter activists in Minneapolis; another e-mail requested twenty-five thousand dollars for “land acquisition in an oil pipeline fight.” Even when the actions hit close to home, Hunt-Hendrix didn’t intervene. In 2014, a protest called Flood Wall Street targeted “oil, gas and coal companies that pursue increasingly extreme projects for bringing fossil fuels out of the ground”; Hunt-Hendrix was one of the organizers.

When her friends and their friends couldn’t keep up with the demand for donations, she set out to recruit more wealthy progressives who could. Liz Simons and Caitlin Heising, the daughter and granddaughter of the hedge-fund billionaire Jim Simons, became Solidaire members; so did Regan Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, who also got her mother, Susan, to join. At a conference at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in D.C.—held by the Democracy Alliance, a network of V.I.P. Progressive donors, including George Soros and Tom Steyer—Hunt-Hendrix worked the room, trying to persuade people to support more grassroots activism. While courting a finance person, she compared scrappy nonprofits to undervalued stocks; with a venture capitalist, she talked about early adoption and hockey-stick growth. “There is a part of me that deeply detests élite spaces, but there is another part that feels quite at home among powerful people,” she said.

“A bouquet that leaves me with the task of trimming the stems, cutting off the leaves, finding a vase, and cleaning up? You shouldn’t have!”

Cartoon by Mads Horwath

Her parents were then living on Riverside Drive, in a Beaux-Arts town house with nine bedrooms, eight fireplaces, and a Tiffany-glass skylight. They hosted a series of invitation-only “salons,” where grassroots organizers mingled with Solidaire members while caterers served wine. It was hard to miss the resemblance to the scene that Tom Wolfe captured in his essay “Radical Chic,” in which uniformed maids at Leonard Bernstein’s Upper East Side apartment offered Roquefort-cheese balls to members of the Black Panther Party. One Solidaire salon featured Occupy activists, Arab Spring organizers from Egypt and Tunisia, and a special performance by Peter Buffett (New Age recording artist, son of Warren); it also promised “a discussion of how we can dip into history as it swirls around us,” followed by “generous helpings of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream scooped by Jerry himself!” For a few months, Black Lives Matter organizers stayed in some of the upstairs bedrooms, covering the walls with butcher paper as they brainstormed future protests.

Historically, a lot of radical-chic activism hasn’t amounted to much more than virtue signalling. Some post-Occupy initiatives that Solidaire funded led nowhere, but others kept gaining momentum. A campaign to increase the minimum wage became the Fight for $15, which was ultimately successful in New York City, Los Angeles, and multiple states. The Black Lives Matter movement culminated, in the summer of 2020, in the largest civil-rights uprising in American history. A youth climate-justice campaign spurred a congressional bloc calling for a Green New Deal. Solidaire now distributes tens of millions of dollars a year to activist groups. (Hunt-Hendrix has stepped down as executive director, but she’s still a member.)

In 2015, Hunt-Hendrix pledged ten thousand dollars to the Debt Collective, a group co-founded by a socialist writer, filmmaker, and organizer named Astra Taylor. The group demanded, among other things, the abolition of all student debt in the U.S., an idea that was then considered ludicrous. But when Bernie Sanders ran for President in 2020 he included the idea in his campaign platform; Joe Biden then promised to cancel some student debt,

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