Why artist Hank Willis Thomas smashed up ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’s’ General Lee

The Los Angeles Times
Carolina A. Miranda for The Los Angeles Times

There’s been an accident.

That’s what may enter your mind when you step through the front gate at Kayne Griffin Corcoran in Los Angeles and see a car lodged nose first in the gallery’s garden. Beyond that, indoors, lie pieces of a motorcycle that appears to have disintegrated mid-cruise.

This, however, is no accident.

The car is a Dodge Charger. Bright orange. Emblazoned with a Confederate battle flag on the roof and the words “General Lee” just over the windows — a facsimile of the 1969 souped-up ride that roared through seven seasons of CBS’ “The Dukes of Hazzard” during the early 1980s. The dismembered motorcycle is a chopper, just like the famous “Captain America” driven by Peter Fonda in the 1969 counterculture flick “Easy Rider.” A star-spangled helmet lies face-down nearby.

These cinematic collisions at the Mid-Wilshire gallery Kayne Griffin Corcoran are part of artist Hank Willis Thomas’ first solo gallery show in Los Angeles in more than a decade.

For Thomas, 43, these vehicular icons are more than just pop culture lore. As a kid growing up in New York, “The Dukes of Hazzard” was his favorite show; the General Lee a coveted toy.  “I had the car and I had the Bo and Luke action figures,” he says as he surveys the towering Charger. “Me and my friends — African Americans — we’d play ‘Dukes of Hazzard.’ ... My grandmother watched it with me. My mother watched it with me. There was never any mention or suggestion that there was a problem with the context or the Confederate flag.” This anecdote tells a profound story — about how a symbol associated with the battle to maintain a slave-holding state, one deployed during the height of Jim Crow as a tool of intimidation, could be re-insinuated into the culture, often denuded of its original intent. And how Hollywood, in some cases, was happy to do the denuding.  “The Dukes of Hazzard” was a comedy about a pair of good ol’ boys engaging a comically inept sheriff and his droopy-eyed dog in spectacular car chases ...

...in a vehicle named for a Confederate general.


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