Thursday, August 3, 2023

Film History #6 (Race Relations)

Film, whether it’s a light comedy or a serious documentary, always stands for something, or many things. Since the start of classic Hollywood or even the silent era when we see the pseudo-documentary short reel showing workers leaving a factory, we are privy to so much information. How the people dress and walk and look all informs an idea or opinion about what is happening in our mind. The mere act of watching reveals social, political, cultural, and economic issues in the crude short film.

Sometimes this is obvious like when the “N” word is used in The Defiant Ones and 48 Hours – clearly two films with messages to convey that are wrapped up in entertaining packages. Sometimes it’s more subtle like when one man helps another out of clay pit and the black man lets the white man stand on his back as he climbs out of the muck. More than just a metaphor, right? That’s life on screen in a fictional world made real and true for us.

Take the idea farther and they are both in the pit struggling together. In many ways, seeing the image that way makes a 1958 film relevant for our own times as well, since we are all struggling together in this world, which some would describe as a pit. That might sound dramatic, but a question remains: Are we going to help each other out of our depression and reach for something higher?

For The Defiant Ones, a film right in the mix of the Civil Rights Movement, the story quickly establishes the frustration and animosity between the two lead characters: one white and the other black.

Words like spade, honky, and the “N” get thrown around without pause. This is jarring for the time and the attitude toward the black man – however dignified he is – clearly shows contempt. In this way, the film deals directly with race relations as these fighting words between two men and those around them are used like weapons.

Like this but also much worse is 48 Hours which provides more humor but also more pain as Nolte’s character casually tosses off language that would make a caring person repulsed. Words like “boy, jive, darker people, charcoal colored, and the ‘N’ word are freely weaponized language. And what’s more, this film, which came out in 1982, feels much more akin to our own acting standards. The characters are completely grounded and believable in way that Curtis (doesn’t feel rough enough) and Poiter (feels a bit too refined) are not. They’re good and the message gets across, but watching Nolte and Murphy go back and forth makes one wince. In that way, the different messages – subtle and obvious – land like the punches both actors throw in their street fight.

What is disturbing is how entertaining this film was (still is) when it first came out back in the 80s. Nolte was already established, but it helped catapult Murphy into stardom, and also further promoted the success of a the cop buddy movie – even though I wouldn’t call these two buddies for most of the film.

(Personal confession: When I was young and saw this film, laughed at all the comedic lines and found the banter exciting. But now, the world of this film with the violence depicted by the criminals and the brutal language of the captain and the cutting cursing of Nolte just repels me. I still enjoyed the film, but not for the same reasons. In some ways, it feels more closely related to the French Connection with Hackman and Nolte two guys cut from same cloth. Or, maybe Nolte’s character is Hackman’s more evolved?)




Except for the forced resolution when Jack finds Reggie in the bar, and he apologizes for his previous actions, and soon they are firing guns together.

This feels false after so much hateful language. But this is an action comedy after all, so there has to be a way out of the pit into something higher.

For The Defiant Ones, after Cullen survives brutal language, fighting with Joker, almost getting lynch, and finally being led to his crave in a swamp, the ending of the film is not so clear. After being on the run, the law finally catches up with these two misfits, who are no longer chained, but still together leaning on each other in that final shot.

They look exhausted. And the fight they had within them at the start of this adventure has gone away. All they seem to have left is each other. It ends there. No words. No smiles. Just two men beaten by each ot her, society, the system, and yet, now together with renewed understanding. It's like the image wants to say: "I guess we're stuck with each other."

In 48 Hours, the ending feels different. There seems to be a light at the end of this story. Reggie money will be safe with Jack. Heck, Jack might even get a loan for a new car. In this way, the resolution filtered through a comic lens seems to all is well there is money involved. Again, this ending feels forced. Would Jack really be so apologetic to Reggie earlier?

At the end, both films suggest a kind of acceptance between the men, although The Defiant Ones takes longer. And it makes sense that it would have to happen in films that run less than two hours. But honestly, the best parts, the most truthful, happen at the start when conflict ensues and there is a real struggle between these characters (bonded by chains of the past and the present) before the standard resolution comes to end the story.

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