Tuesday, January 6, 2009
(This entry contains spoilers...)
When I first saw Crash back in 2005, I was kind of annoyed. I liked the idea of a movie laying bare all the intricacies we try to keep hidden about race, identity and discrimination, but I found it too dogmatic, too contrived and difficult to relate to. I wanted something that didn’t feel like such a sledgehammer, something that didn't assault me with its point leaving me no choice but to throw my hands up: “I get it, I get it. Racism lives everywhere.” Because racism, and its pernicious effects, do indeed exist everywhere, but I think in order to get people to identify it in themselves, they need to do thinking on their own. Crash felt like the opposite of self-thought and self-reflection- it wanted to do too much of the thinking for the audience.
I had similar misgivings about Lakeview Terrace, a suburban paranoia thriller (think Pacific Heights) animated by the issue of race. Lakeview Terrace is the story of Abel Turner (played by Samuel L. Jackson), an aging, widowed black LAPD officer who seems out of touch with the times- his kids don't quite get him and his methods at work feel dated and out of sync. Abel has developed an allergy to his new neighbors, a newly married interracial couple. Chris (white) and Lisa (black) exhibit all the requisite eye-rolling trappings of liberalism- a Prius in the driveway, home decor lifted from the pages of Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware or Crate and Barrel, and hip hop playing on Chris's car stereo. The direct source of Abel's rancor is never really clear. We just know he doesn't like them. And so what begins as passive aggression quickly becomes harassment which gives way to deliberate hostility and Abel's eventual death.
Lakeview Terrace is supposed to be a reminder of our close proximity to racial and social disharmony. The movie wants us to keep making correlations between societal progress and persistent obstacles. This intention is fine, but it's hard to buy as you watch the movie unfold. Abel is likable, humorous, and even sympathetic at times, but his concerns and feelings about race are construed as tantrum-like. We begin to root for his failure as he becomes increasingly unreasonable and irrational in his dealings with the Chris and Lisa (slashing their tires, flooding their bedroom with florescent light, trying to frame Chris with video footage of strippers). By the time Abel hires a drug dealer to ransack their home, any allegiance we might have had with him has vanished. His actions become the manic ravings of a lunatic. There is no validity or truth to his rage, it just feels displaced and disproportionate to the “Aw shucks, I’m a nice guy” shuffle of Chris.
The end of the movie is a true tragedy. After countless instances of harassment, Chris discovers that Abel has orchestrated an attempted robbery that leaves Lisa wounded. Abel realizes that Chris is onto him and tries to kill him. Some punches are thrown, Lisa shrieks and unsuccessfully tries to stage a getaway, and Abel is eventually gunned down by the police. And so what we are left with at the end of a movie that is ostensibly promoting racial understanding is another black man shot in the face by police officers. We are left with the image of Abel Turner, a near caricature at this point, laid down by the LAPD in the street in front of the house it took him eight years to save for, leaving behind two orphaned children.
What the filmmakers intended to do, I can only hope, is argue for a way of life that doesn't feel so color-coded and race-specific. A world in which everyone is free to marry and befriend whomever they choose without having to answer for it. But in order to do that, the logic of the film seems to posit, there need to be efforts to increase discourse and dialogue. When Abel and Chris unexpectedly meet in a bar and Abel (in a moment that is supposed to explain his biases) confesses that his dead wife was probably having an affair with her white boss, we are supposed to recognize this as one of the first necessary steps towards understanding. But even that scene doesn't really hit its mark, because what the movie shies away from is the notion that Abel doesn't need a reason to dislike Chris. His very whiteness is reason enough. The movie has featured a black protagonist, all the while refusing to acknowledge a difficult and thorny truth about racism: black people have issues with white people for their very whiteness and all it connotes, just as white people are uncomfortable with the blackness of black people.
Lakeview Terrace should have taken better advantage of Lisa as a central character. She and her understanding and involvement in both black and white worlds could have been more emblematic of the film's multiracial agenda. But instead, most of her screen time revolves around trying to get pregnant.When she does try to address the racial disparity issue with Chris, it takes the form of a warning about Abel: "He's a brother." In other words, "He isn't a safe black like me."
Sigh. I wonder what drew director Neil LaBute to this project. After making Nurse Betty, Your Friends and Neighbors, The Shape of Things, In the Company of Men and countless stage plays featuring dynamic characters exploring the stains of the human condition, I am curious as to why he decided this was a good way to portray the face of race relations in the United States. Lakeview Terrace doesn't feel edgy or new or even controversial and uncomfortable. It just feels unfair and frustrating, and worst of all, seems to reinforce many of the very assumptions it was seemingly designed to dismantle.