The Limits of Celebrity

[3 November 2008]

By Mark Reynolds

They came from the North Side of Chicago, and the South Side, and the West Side.  And from some of our local hotels, too.

They all found their way to the home of Darnell Donerson in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, in the heart of the South Side ‘hood, where she and her son, Jason Hudson, were murdered this October.  The crime was unthinkable, the tragedy unspeakable.  Here was a woman who had lived her life in the neighborhood, a family that, by all accounts, never meant any harm to anybody.  To magnify the loss, a seven-year-old boy, Julian King, who had been staying at the house, went missing after the shootings.  The worst fears were realized on the morning of the 28th, when his body was found across town in a car that matched the one seen at Donerson’s house.  He had been shot twice.

And so the spontaneous ghetto death shrine, an all-too-common urban phenomenon composed of enlarged photographs taped to posterboards, balloons, flowers and teddy bears, took shape outside Donerson’s home.  But this was no ordinary inner-city crime, and thus no ordinary outpouring of grief.  The murder victims were the mother, brother and nephew of Jennifer Hudson, the Academy Award-winning actress and singer; the murder scene was her childhood home.  Hudson was one of Chicago’s most beloved native children; the pride Chicagoans felt when she won the 2007 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Dreamgirls was palpable.  Her achievement was all the more inspiring for the road she traveled: growing up deep in the heart of the ‘hood, blessed by the angels with a majestic singing voice, booted unceremoniously from American Idol but overcoming that dis to achieve stardom in her first movie role.

Hudson was on something of a roll. Her debut CD entered the charts at #2 last month.  Her follow-up to Dreamgirls, Sex and the City: The Movie, had just come out on DVD.  She is engaged to be married.  She should have been enjoying life, and probably was.  Now, she had to be the one to make those awful trips to the county morgue to identify the slain bodies of the people closest to her, the very foundations of her rise to stardom.

As developments in the case unfolded, they at times overshadowed even the presidential campaign of a certain other favorite Chicagoan in the local news.  And as the days stretched on, after the discovery of the young boy’s body, as details about the family came forth, the shrine grew larger, then larger still, and sadder.  Media reports included accounts from not only people who knew Donerson and her family, and other local folk weary from the violence that has gripped Chicago’s black neighborhoods, but also from people whose only connection to the incident was their appreciation of Hudson’s talent. Even fans of hers who just happened to be in town for the weekend came by the house to pray, offer support, and otherwise take in the scene.

Far be it from me to disparage anyone’s sincere expression of sympathy in cases where there’s no personal connection; as I’ll relate shortly, I’ve been there.  But this was not the first murder to make the headlines here in recent months, and I feel safe in saying that tourists didn’t squeeze in a pilgrimage to photograph the shrines of those tragedies to show the folks back home.  There were probably few detours from the beaten path to see the shrine for the salt-of-the-earth teenager shot on a bus protecting his girlfriend when gunfire broke out.  Nor for the two men who lost their lives when a house party was shot up.  Nor for the young woman killed a few weeks back, in a case in which the lead suspect’s mother made a public appeal for him to turn himself in (said suspect did so and was profanely unapologetic about it, proclaiming his innocence in the presence of far more reporters and preachers than defense attorneys).

For the Englewoods and North Phillys of this great land, jobs disappeared a long time ago, and the most immediate warzones are populated by Bloods and Crips, Latin Kings and Gangster Disciples, not Al-Qaeda wannabes.

While these and all the other tragedies left their gruesome marks on the survivors, and the community at-large, the difference is that none of them happened to an A-list movie star, record-setting athlete, or anyone with any measure of modern celebrity.  Those murders weren’t covered in the Los Angeles Times or on Entertainment Tonight. Such is the nature of fame, especially in this era of ubiquitous coverage of celebrity doings. Awareness of our stars’ comings and goings, from their newborn babies to their panty-less nights on the town, is so pervasive within our media-driven culture that we feel as though we know them intimately.  Thus, we often take their tragedies far more personally than those that happen to others with whom, in reality, we have the exact same degree of actual personal interaction, which is to say—none.

Ironically, all that media exposure obscures the very real lives celebrities actually lead. Jennifer Hudson may be a gifted entertainer with a legion of devoted fans.  But a trophy case full of awards and gold records couldn’t prevent family tragedy.  Apparently, there were issues with her sister’s relationship to the man named as a person of interest in the murders, something none of those who enjoy her movies or music would ever have suspected from afar.  Few of us may be able to sing like she can, or get to share a movie screen with Beyoncé or Sarah Jessica Parker.  But being visited by dysfunction taken to a violent, tragic extreme, alas, happens all the time in the world today.  Hudson isn’t the first person with a family member experiencing relationship issues, and won’t be the last.  In that respect, she really is, to quote the mantra of one of the more popular celebrity-obsessed magazines, Just Like Us.

And just as celebrity didn’t insulate Hudson from family tragedy, news coverage of the rising incidence of urban murder hasn’t seemed to abate it.  One might think that by now, after seeing countless anguished cries and candlelight vigils and promises to step up police patrols, something would have changed somewhere, somehow, by now.  But the reality is that our ‘hoods have been besieged by so much violence, shrines to ghetto murders have become something close to commonplace, pretty much unremarked upon, almost accepted as a way of life (and death).  I remember a march through North Philadelphia in 2004 to protest the caught-in-gang-crossfire death of a 10-year-old boy, how a city came together to mourn and say “Enough!”  If any incident was going to galvanize a community towards action, this seemed to be it.  But after the march and the speeches passed, after the pictures and the balloons and the teddy bears came down (what happens to the gifts left at ghetto death shrines?), the murders continued to happen.

I had just come to town a month before the boy in Philadelphia was killed, with no roots to the community beyond the job I’d just started, yet I felt compelled to attend the funeral and the march, so I can understand the impulse of those out-of-towners who visited the Hudson family home.  You see something on the news, and it strikes a particular nerve.  Maybe it’s the circumstances of the case, maybe it’s the way events play out in the aftermath of the act. Or maybe it’s just that it happened to someone who can flat-out sing the hell out of a song. 

However it happens, that attention might not accrue to an incident without a celebrity angle or some other fashion of media-generated notoriety. No attention, no connection; thus, those other incidents don’t affect us quite the same way.  But even when a tragic death takes over the popular headlines, our sympathy lasts only until the funeral, then wanes until the next ghetto death or celebrity brush-with-tragedy comes along. 

And that, sad to say, is the general nature of our personal investment in these cases: incredibly live and heartfelt for that stretch of time when it’s in the news, then gone once the tragedy fades, so quickly, into the past.

Make no mistake: these killings were heinous crimes.  And the killing of any celebrity’s family is going to make the news.  But just because it was a celebrity’s family that was gunned down doesn’t make the deed necessarily more heinous than a multiple murder that happens to a family with no connection to the limelight.  For every Julian King found dead in a car, dozens of other young lives are violently terminated before they truly begin.  How many of us are mourning them?

The added attention to this case won’t matter much to this whole sick epidemic of urban violence.  Sensational murders have been sprayed across the headlines all over the country, but all that media attention hasn’t made much of a difference.  Fed-up citizens haven’t been able to stem the tide.  Even in a city like Chicago, which has seen senseless death on top of senseless death lately, I have no reason to expect that any of the increased notoriety this particular case is receiving will translate to anything being done to address the broader issue of escalating inner-city murder rates.

The pall of violence hanging over American cities wasn’t talked about much in the presidential campaign.  Granted, the plummeting economy and the war in Iraq were larger issues, affecting many more people in many more ways.  But for the Englewoods and North Phillys of this great land, jobs disappeared a long time ago, and the most immediate warzones are populated by Bloods and Crips, Latin Kings and Gangster Disciples, not Al-Qaeda wannabes.  One wonders how, and even if, the incoming administration will try to get its arms around an issue that perplexes community activists, challenges urban leaders, and devastates everyday people – including, on occasion, an Oscar-winning worldwide superstar.

In the meantime, another ghetto death shrine is taking root somewhere in the American ‘hood.  And if for any reason the story grabs even a fleeting foothold in our overloaded attention spans, people will come from nowhere and everywhere to pay their respects.

I wrote in detail about the aforementioned 2004 North Philly murder as part of a longer essay about my impressions of Philadelphia.  Read the excerpt here:  Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of “Cool”-ness.

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