Sing About Your Own Time

I'm Not There (2007)

illustration by Tom Ralston

It’s 1959. Protests about racial equality, starvation, and houselessness fill the streets. Woody, played by the arch and charming Marcus Carl Franklin, has spent months jumping from boxcar to boxcar espousing the union cause. Now, he sprints through dreamlike marigold fields, wearing tattered, muddy boots, dingy and dusty pants, and a sweat-worn shirt and newsboy cap. His battered guitar case has the phrase “This machine kills fascists” (an ode to Woody Guthrie) scrawled across its cover. This version of Bob Dylan has been passing himself off as “Woody Guthrie” by singing working-class songs related to union causes. Using Guthrie’s legacy as subterfuge allows Woody to act out the adventures of his real-life hero.    

In Todd Haynes’ idiosyncratic Dylan biopic, I’m Not There, six different actorsBen Whishaw, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Franklinportray the folk legend under various aliases through divergent phases of his career and persona. While the film features several inspired leaps, few other than Blanchett are as audacious as reimagining Dylan as a young African American kid. 

Dylan bought into the artistic temptation for rock artists to create new identities—an alter ego guided by desire and influence to act behind—and no artist (apart from maybe Bowie) has altered their identity more than him. Woody, Franklin’s interpretation of the folk singer’s early years, gets to the heart of the singer’s temptation to reshape and remold his truths behind a fictional mask. Franklin’s iteration reframes the history of rock music through its real Black roots. It makes sense of the masks worn by rock musicians while revealing the ways that Woody, an 11-year-old Black kid, maneuvers white spaces, and tracks the singer’s rise from devout Woody Guthrie acolyte to Civil Rights figure. 

Woody hops from the marigold fields into an open boxcar, the walls covered in broad paint strokes recalling a Romantic style—the era that most influenced Dylan. It’s a scene whose knowing artifice awakens the viewer to Franklin’s clever smirk and cocky body language, and his easy ability to spin a mile-long yarn to the camera. It awakens musical ghosts of Dylan’s past and present in rich, multivariate ways.  

To the two elderly “hobos” occupying the car, Woody offers a brief biography: he hails from the small town of Riddle, Missouri. “A compost heap is more like it,” Woody says. The dialogue borrows heavily from Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd; Haynes shrewdly leaves it ambiguous if Woody has the chutzpah to rip the movie to create his backstory, or if the brazenness springs from the director himself. Woody claims to have passed through Gallup, Phillipsburg, and Sioux Falls, along the way losing his one true love, drinking and gambling heavily, and being discovered by a Chinese man “working at a dime store who says he loves my sound.” Woody’s self-made biography establishes him as a fake, imbuing the film with whimsical delight matched by a precarious shadow of lies. 

Hidden in every fib, however, is a speck of truth. Woody tells the hobos of his collaborations with Carl Perkins, Bobby Vee, and Arvella Gray, a blind protest singer from Chicago. A flashback sees him sitting at home listening to Lead Belly. For all Dylan’s alterations to his identity, he rarely obscures his influences. He wears them proudly. Especially his Black inspirations. White people, of course, spent decades erasing Black folks’ fingerprints from popular music by snatching songwriting rights or covering songs without attribution for mainstream radio. Most biopics would probably feature a scene wherein a Black artist grants permission to a white one because the latter comes from the dust, too; Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story famously lampooned this phenomenon. By casting Franklin as Dylan, Haynes is as open as the singer, making clear the lineage of the music without resorting to exploitative means.   

At the dinner table where catfish and hushpuppies are served, Woody’s host, a Black mother, pleads: “Live your own time, child. Sing about your own time.” It’s a line that stops him dead in his tracks, and, in Haynes’ screenplay, positions Dylan and his songs from their nostalgic reading of the past to their spellbinding storytelling of the present. Only a few minutes earlier, Woody performed a rendition of “Tombstone Blues” on the Black mother’s porch with a couple of sharecroppers (one played by Richie Havens), and now he’s reduced to a kid embarrassed by his own tall tales. 

The family’s unimpressed matriarch further dresses down Woody’s big talk: “I think it’s 1959, and this boy’s singing songs about the boxcar?…What a boxcar gonna mean to him?” Franklin’s downcast, frozen face marks the fear that comes from being yourself, a fear that’s pushed many rock stars to fashion personas. In Woody’s case, confronting himself also means acknowledging the Civil Rights struggle—not remaining raceless, so to speak, a paradigm of an idealized musical past. Woody runs from that past, ultimately finding himself at the doorstep of the Peacocks, a white family who puts Woody at ease by believing his yarns.

Woody’s mimicry of Guthrie, to some extent, spiritually recalls William Douglas Street in Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s equally subversive biopic, Chameleon Street. In that film, Street bounces from profession to profession, in the process conning employers by posing as a highly-skilled authority figure in their respective field. In one instance, as a doctor, he performs surgeries by reading medical textbooks on the fly. Street, a Black man, loves the challenge of moving through spaces often reserved for white folks, and partly manages to do so by being Black. “This measure of race, visuality, and phenomenological presence alludes to blackness as invisibility, a state of being seen, then fragmented, delimited, and dismissed rather than merely a matter of being the unseen or not seeing,” explains Michael Boyce Gillespie in Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film. Woody similarly maneuvers being a hobo with a freewheelin’ abandonment in multiple settings, from train cars to the Sirkian suburban home of Mrs. Peacock (Susan Glover), a well-to-do white woman who takes him in. The scenes with Mrs. Peacock allow for a subtle juxtaposition: the Black matriarch saw through Woody’s passing, while this white motherly figure falls for his fibbing. 

A common thread to passing is how it very often fools people who aren’t of that race, creating an unconscious awareness for who’s seen and how they’re seen. Much like Street, Woody passes both professionally and temporally. And he wields the power of passing to self-create. “In other words, his passings are concurrently acts of fugitivity and radical narrativity that defy diagnostic renderings of blackness,” Gillespie wrote of Street. It’s telling how only the Black family fully recognizes Woody’s passing, and shakes him to self-awareness. A passing narrative certainly wasn’t wholly foreseen by Haynes when he turned to colorblind casting for Franklin. But the multivariate masks—the ones most rock singers employ to create onstage versions of themselves, and the one used by Woody to navigate white spaces, even while he espouses his African American blues influences—create a fascinating friction regarding identity, as complicated as Dylan’s own career. How does a Jewish kid from Minnesota—often singing about the plight of Black people in songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Oxford Town,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Hurricane,” and so forth—become a critical voice in the Civil Rights movement and on race?   

Outside of Woody, Haynes is partially aware of this friction: the scene where Woody visits a dying Guthrie transitions to a montage of police brutality against Black protestors, Medgar Evers speaking, and the March on Washington. Another scene sees fictional versions of real Black Panther members Huey Newton and Bobby Seale mining “Ballad of a Thin Man,” a song in the movie lampooning journalist Keenan Jones (Bruce Greenwood) for messages concerning society. It’s further telling how Greenwood plays two unmaskers in the film: Jones, who publishes the folk singer’s humble Minnesota origins, thereby tarnishing his radical self-made mythology; and Garrett, a townsperson in Woody’s hometown of Riddle, who’s now condemning the land to make way for a highway, thereby forcibly removing Billy (another version of Dylan played by Richard Gere, as a winking reference to the singer’s role in the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) out of hiding. Riddle, a town frozen in time, is the only place where two versions of Dylan meet—the hermit Billy, and Woody dressed as Charlie Chaplin—which further enlivens the varying masks at play. 

The ending to I’m Not There can be read, in the words of Gillespie, as an “unruly mapping of blackness as a dynamic system.” It acts as a remediation of Black influences in Dylan’s music and Woody’s mobility between spaces—or, in Paul Gilroy’s estimations of Black modernism, as emblematic of “movement, relocation, displacement, and restlessness.” Billy leaves Riddle, running through the same marigold fields traversed by Woody toward an open boxcar. Inside, he finds Woody’s battered, now dust-brittle guitar case. And as the train rumbles away, with Billy strumming Woody’s guitar, staring out at the wider world, the ghosts of Woody and his blues influences live on in the music that this older, unmasked version of Dylan is bound to create in his own time.