The following is a discussion of the film, HUG, a 2009 Sundance Official Selection. The plot of HUG focuses on when Asa, friend and manager, realizes musician Drew is off his meds, and the cross-town drive to sign his contract becomes significantly more complicated.

I wonder how many people who saw this intriguing film thought about the diagnosis "bipolar disorder" or manic depression, even though those terms are not used in the film. What is there in the film that would lead someone to think about bipolar disorder? Would it be the protagonist Drew's vibrations running too fast or too slow? His agent, Hollis, mentioning that Drew is off his meds and instructing him to "do your part"? Drew's notion that if his sister would just give him a hug he could be on no meds or less meds or different meds? If this diagnosis did occur to a viewer, what would this thought do to his or her estimation of Drew's talent or likely success?

I have recently finished a study of mood disorders in both psychiatric and general cultural understandings (Martin 2007). There has been a shift from the 1970s, begun perhaps by an episode of Maude, from manic depression as a terrible curse, a dangerous form of insanity, to something more complex. By the late 20th century, the meanings attached to manic depression began to shift so that the manic end of the mood spectrum could be positively associated with the electrified, jubilant, hyperenergized, racially unmarked (white) person. The affinity that contemporary American culture has for highly energetic, "manic" behavior is not simple. On the one hand, in 1998 GQ chose Ted Turner as "man of the year." Because Turner launched several dramatic business successes with the help of his "manic" energy, the magazine described him as "the corporealized spirit of the age." On the other hand, just a few years later, Howard Dean's "manic" behavior wounded him fatally after the 2004 Iowa primary. Some journalists described Dean's behavior as outrageous: "Face plastered with a manic grin, Dean three times screamed out a litany of states he would win, and capped off his sound bite with a barbaric yawp." His behavior was even seen as animal-like: "Dean was as manic as a hamster on a wheel as he rambled on and let out a rebel yell." Dean's fate makes it plain that mania is as much an object of horror as desire. Whatever affinity there is between mania and American culture is not harmonious or sympathetic: fear, disgust, and revulsion are the kinds of sentiments that roil the surface when a person flies out of control and "cracks up." Extreme states like mania may fascinate and attract us, but they disquiet us as well. In the film, Hollis' discomfort with Drew's behavior makes the point.

To bring American cultural categories of race into the picture — I turn to jazz. Writing in the early 20th century, Marie Cardinal portrayed jazz as an out-of-control irrational force in her autobiography, The Words to Say It. Cardinal was a white French girl who grew up in Algeria. She described how she descended into madness upon hearing an intensely emotional trumpet song played by Louis Armstrong in Paris.

Listening to Armstrong, she says:

My heart began to accelerate, becoming more important than the music, shaking the bars of my rib cage, compressing my lungs so the air could no longer enter them. Gripped by panic at the idea of dying there in the middle of spasms, stomping feet, and the crowd howling, I ran into the street like someone possessed (Cardinal 1983).

Toni Morrison writes that she remembers smiling when reading this passage, in part because Cardinal's recollection of the music had such immediacy, and "partly because of what leaped into my mind: what on earth was Louie playing that night? What was there in his music that drove this sensitive young girl hyperventilating into the street," feeling "like someone possessed"? Morrison muses on the "way black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them" and the "consequences of jazz—its visceral, emotional, and intellectual impact on the listener," which in this case tipped Cardinal from sanity to madness, from rationality to "irrationality" (Morrison 1993).

The late 20th century shift from negative to positive associations with "mania" are most apparent in depictions of powerful CEOs or successful actors as "manic." The qualities praised seem to fit perfectly with the kind of person who would have been highly desirable in corporate America at the height of the economic boom: adaptive, continuously changing in innovative ways —a creative chameleon. Think of Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson.

Despite recent descriptions of mania as an asset, there is evidence that extreme emotions in a woman or man of color are still far less tolerable than in a white man in a position of power. As the sociologist Pam Jackson remarked to me, "A white man can act crazy like Ted Turner, but if a black man acted like that he would be arrested." There are celebrated African American comedians who are described as "manic"—Eddie Murphy, for one—but unlike white comedians, they are not found on popular lists of famous manic depressives. Not surprisingly, African American CEOs celebrated for their manic style are nonexistent. As mania became valuable intellectual and emotional property during the boom years, it also elicited fear. Two kinds of extreme emotion began to emerge, as it were, a "good" kind, harnessed by figures like Robin Williams and Ted Turner, and a "bad" kind into which Howard Dean stumbled at great cost after his disastrous "manic" outburst.

During my fieldwork in a major psychiatry department's weekly inpatient rounds, patients were presented to a small group of medical students, residents, and faculty for discussion of their diagnoses. One week, a middle aged white man, a professor who had been sexually inappropriate, burst into song in lectures, and had been relieved of his teaching duties, was described as having the "good" kind of mania, even though he embraced the diagnosis of manic depression himself. The faculty thought:

Dr. Dean: Maybe he is a normal variant. His condition is especially common among professors. This is a gray zone.

Dr. Jones: It is not clear-cut. His pattern is not at all uncommon, especially among writers and artists.

Another week, the same group described a young black man who displayed many common symptoms of a manic episode as the "bad" kind — dangerous and urgently in need of treatment —, even though he insisted "I'm a twenty-year-old college student with a 3.75 GPA and I am not crazy."

How intriguing then, that Barack Obama was able to dominate the political stage during the end of the recent stock market "mania" and hold onto it firmly after the financial collapse of 2008. Through speeches, press releases, and advertisements, Obama carefully positioned himself to avoid the appearance of an undesirable "black" emotional style. The space public opinion allows for the expression of emotional style in an African-American public figure narrow and treacherous is, especially at a time when economic markets were on the verge of being described as "depressed." This space was no doubt even narrower, bordered as it was by McCain's relatively safe "white" manic style: his "manic obsessions," his temper, his emotional and unpredictable reactions. Some even speculated that McCain's alternating states — from "hyper-turned on" to depressed and confused — were signs that he was manic-depressive. Despite this alarming possibility, McCain continued his candidacy and never met Howard Dean's fate. On the brink of the election, Obama, who risked being openly emotional on the day his grandmother died, was damned with faint praise for finally seeming "human" instead of cool and chilly. Being racially marked as not white, Obama could not trade in the currency of the hyper-energized, electrified man of power and creativity. (Neither can women, but that is a long story.)

Returning to HUG, in his manic state, can Drew maintain his status in our eyes as a creative up and coming musician who will sign a big contract, despite his behavior? He hears music no one else can hear and gives great pleasure to those who hear it. His wish to get off or modify his meds is certainly understandable, as is his wish to sync his vibes with his sister's through a hug. We clearly see how his sister's, Asa's, hug steadies and calms his excess energy. In a May 1996 interview, musician and actor Sting was quoted as saying, "Anyway, during that period with the Police, the most successful time of my life … I was manic-depressive and I just wasn't chemically balanced enough to enjoy it. I was out to lunch" (Sting 1996). Can Drew, like Sting, occupy the extraordinary and successful end of the bipolar range or will he slide down into something more disquieting and frightening? Perhaps part of what fascinates the viewer in this film is the possibility of an African-American man who is also a hyper-energized, electrified man of power and creativity.

References Cited

  • Cardinal, Marie 1983 The words to say it. Cambridge, MA: Van Vactor and Goodheart.
  • Martin, Emily 2007 Bipolar expeditions: Mania and depression in American culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.
  • Morrison, Toni 1993 Playing in the dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination. N.Y., N.Y.: Random House.
  • Sting 1996 Interview with Live! magazine, 2010. http://www.sting.com/news/interview.php?uid=1509

The film, HUG, can be viewed free of charge at hugthemovie.com.

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Copyright (c) 2012 Emily Martin

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