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Pride and Glory – Obama, ‘5/11’, and ethnic stereotypes in movies

good cop - good cop

good cop - good cop

Pride And Glory – Gavin O’Connor

Barack Obama’s election to the Presidency is likely to influence American society in profound but as yet unpredictable ways. It will be fascinating to see how Hollywood embraces the new New World. Which director in which film with whose screenplay will be the first to portray deep racial hostility suffered by an African-American authority figure – policeman perhaps – at the hands of reactionary whites or perhaps more pertinently, an Hispanic social group because there is a black President?

As Pride and Glory demonstrates, there has been a subtle shift in urban, crime-based dramas in recent years. For a long, long time, drug-dealing, impoverished, criminal social groups in cop and other gritty urban dramas, were almost exclusively African American. As again Pride and Glory shows, Hollywood is never over-fussed about actual social reality so the distinctive, rapping, street-wise, street-talking cool of African American downtown social and criminal groups on film, played happily alongside the inexorable progress in the real world of individual African Americans into the highest echelons in US society. Culminating in ‘5/11’ – Barack Obama’s election.

Perhaps therefore, commercial prescience led Gavin O’Connor to ‘future-cast’ P&G where the as ever clichéd protagonists on one side are the Tierneys: (presumably Irish descent) – dad, Chief – Francis Tierney Sr (John Voigt), son, Captain Francis Jr (Noah Emmerich), son – Detective Ray (Ed Norton) and son-in-law, Jimmy Egan (Colin Farrell). When four of Francis Jr’s officers are slaughtered, including Jimmy’s one-time partner, the name in the frame is ‘Angel’ Tezo, an Hispanic who escapes into a largely Hispanic/Latino drug-dealing criminal social group. An NYPD crime drama with hardly an African American in sight? The times, they sure are a-changing. It’s hard to take the whole thing too seriously without a super-cool Denzel Washington leading a Hollywood stereotyped rapping, bitch-slappin’, cool-talkin’ gang of African American criminals. If one of the consequences of an Obama Presidency is that Denzel has to go back to acting characters instead of indulgent stereotypes then that will be no bad thing.

Even the terms ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’ are going to cause us some problems. They were introduced in the 1970’s to refer to people who were born in any of the Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas or those who could trace their ancestry to Spain or former Spanish territories. This Hispanic/Latino is therefore a purely ethnic, not racial categorisation. Never known for their discrimination (sic), Hollywood now has a broadly defined and perhaps vaguely recognisable, ethnic stereotype to use as the underprivileged, criminal community ‘bad guys’. Drop in a reference to Columbia, El Salvador and drugs and the dishonourable tradition of ethnic stereotyping that leads from Native American, through Irish, Italian, African American now to ‘Hispanic’ ‘Latino’, can continue without a hitch. Ethnically – “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” And the demographically largest, fastest growing designated ‘ethnic’ group in the US may have a battle against Hollywood ethnic stereotyping that African Americans have accommodated rather than defeated. Distinctions between Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central and South American potentially lost in Hollywood’s need for commercial simplicity. As ever The West Wing was ahead of the pitch when they cast Jimmy Smitts’ Latino Matt Santos as the first non-white President of the United States.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am delighted and thrilled at Obama’s victory but on a night of justifiable jubilation for people of all races, especially African Americans, one’s heart remembers Native Americans, whose survivors of genocide were traded as slaves in America even before the slave ships arrived from Africa; and given the cultural power of Hollywood one wonders what unreal reality they will create for Hispanic/Latino communities as they have for Native and then African Americans before them.

In P&G the ethnic issue is in fact peripheral but the more general point is acute: there is much about P&G that is excellent but its ‘reality’ only exists on planet Hollywood – where all cops are irredeemably corrupt or evil, or unblemished pure and saintly. (I had to resist the uses of linguistic ‘colour’ metaphors there – see how murky it all gets?).

When the MacCain/Palin campaign banged on about ‘family values’ I did wonder what kind of family values they had in mind – the Corleone’s or here, the Tierney’s perhaps? If P&G has a serious theme it is to warn how family first, last and always can lead as much to corruption and evil as it can to good. Reluctantly pressed by his father into the investigation of the suspicious slaughter that opens P&G, Ray predictably, for this is not a film of surprises or twists, begins to find dirt – notably clinging to Farrell’s OTT Jimmy acting like a refugee from Training Day (Antoine Fuqua – 2002). You can easily map out the predictable plot sequence for yourself.

Like most of the clichéd routine Hollywood cop ‘thrillers’ P&G has to rely on brutality and stupidity first to drive the narrative and then to conclude it. However good the playing and here it is mostly good with the still menace of Norton; the practiced perplexity of Voigt; and though OTT, at least the visceral ‘danger’ of Farrell; just isn’t anywhere near enough to begin to locate this drama in a real New York, a real non-Hollywood world.

The screenplay by Director O’Connor and brother Gregory (sons of a New York cop) who co-wrote is workmanlike but can’t root this story in a sense of the real as say Ben Affleck’s Chicago home-set Gone Baby Gone did. However Mark Isham’s original music, Declan Quin’s cinematography and most especially Eric Lindeman’s sound editing create a powerful claustrophobic intimacy that deserved to grace a stronger film. The use of sound, especially for dialogue in this film is absolutely distinctive, and very effective. Much of the delivery is quiet and underplayed conveying both a real sense of authenticity and therefore secretiveness and complicity that serves the narrative better than it deserves. Often a scene ends with a sound-fade rather than an image-fade. It is striking that though at times almost at whisper level, Lindeman still manages to make the dialogue distinct. It is unusual to find a film that uses sound so effectively for dramatic effect. It is one respect in which P&G is remarkable and very impressive cinematically.

On the more general theme suggested by the conjunction of the release of P&G and the thrilling and extraordinary real event of the imminent Obama Presidency, it will be fascinating to see how African Americans both in the real world, and the way they are portrayed in the imaginary world of Hollywood, adapt to an event so historic that it perhaps changes for ever the often over-played by Hollywood default assumption of the ‘victimhood’ of African Americans. By that I don’t mean of course that African Americans have not travelled a long and painful road of seeking justice, freedom and civil rights so wonderfully expressed on 5/11′ or that racism magically disappeared on November 5th 2008. But if African history now and over the past 50 years; the irredeemable injustice past and present suffered by Native Americans; and the long, hard struggle of African Americans; does not tell us that injustice is an instinct of human beings, irrespective of colour or race, then the Obama election will be less historic than we might hope. All Americans, irrespective of colour or ethnicity, should find justice and equality under the democratic principles of the US Constitution so wonderfully re-energised on ‘5/11’.

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