I watched Radical Wolfe right after reading Tom Wolfe’s very first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Considering I lived through all the decades in which he wrote, I’ve had surprisingly little contact with his work. This documentary is a good introduction into a journalist and writer who was often controversial and who helped people to understand many of the most important cultural movements of the 1960s and beyond.
Radical Wolfe, directed by Richard Dewey, written by Michael Lewis, is 75 minutes, relatively short for a piece covering someone with such a long career. I actually prefer this condensed approach, though someone could easily have made a 2 or 3 hour documentary on such a character.
Although it shows Wolfe in a mostly favorable light, it doesn’t ignore the fact that he was controversial and often provoked censure, as when he published a piece in New York Magazine in 1970 called Radical Chic ( which obviously inspired the doc’s title), targeting Leonard Bernstein and other liberal intellectuals who defended the Black Panthers. This helped to set the stage for Wolfe as a provocateur who would later offend people with The Bonfire of the Vanities among other works.
Towards the end, someone observes that no one in the future could ever replicate a career like Wolfe’s. The reason for this, sadly, is that someone as outspoken and controversial as Wolfe simply wouldn’t be tolerated today. I suppose this is debatable in the social media age, but it raises some interesting questions. People far more extreme than Wolfe have platforms on Twitter and YouTube for example. However, it’s not likely that anyone very controversial or extreme would be able to attain the mainstream popularity of Wolfe.
Radical Wolfe is a good introduction to a writer who captured some essential scenes and cultures of mid-20th century America. It’s currently streaming on Netflix.