I watched Searching for Sugar Man on a plane, which means I cried through parts of it. That doesn’t say much about the film. Movies on airplanes make me weep. Since it won the Oscar for best documentary, a lot of people have been writing about how Searching for Sugar Man doesn’t deserve the prize for any number of reasons:
That other contenders like How to Survive a Plague were better journalism and had actual impacts.
That it falsely equates Rodriguez’s music with a growing anti-apartheid consciousness.
That it’s a glorified “VH1 Behind the Music” that leaves out many convenient facts.
But if you recognize the Oscars as a prize decided by a group of baby boomer white dudes in California then it makes sense that Sugar Man won, because, like every music doc ever, Searching For Sugar Man is a dad documentary.
It’s a story about middle class white men and their quest for self actualization masquerading as a story about a Mexican-American folk singer named Rodriguez.
The film begins with a former South African soldier, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman pondering an outlandish story about Rodriguez’s public suicide. This is followed by South African journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom “investigating” Rodriguez, trying hard to figure out where in the world is this place called “Dearborn.” And while I realize this is happening before the era of Google Maps, at one point Strydom consults a globe.
If the documentary was actually about Rodriguez, it would start and finish with his story: Detroit, mental illness and addiction, his daughters, his music and the trouble with art and commercialization. Despite the long, beautiful shots of Rodriguez walking through his deteriorating Motor City neighborhood, viewers come away from the movie understanding little about the man the movie is ostensibly about.
It’s the same white-American baby boomer mythologizing that Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones keep cashing in on, that made Hendrix, Marley and Janis Joplin martyrs and that would have us believing that racism and sexism were defeated by flower power.
But Sugar Man’s brand of classic-rock nostalgia, despite being Swedish in conception, has a uniquely white South African terroir. Instead of nonsense about ending the Vietnam War, it’s about how they, white South African liberals, ended apartheid while being the only people in the world to appreciate good music.
No doubt, Rodriguez’s South African fans are a big part of his story, but in Searching for Sugar Man, Rodriguez the man feels more like an awkward prop in a story of white redemption rather than the star of his own movie.