THE EQUALIZER 2
starring Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders, Melissa Leo
written by Richard Wenk
directed by Antoine Fuqua
THE FIRST PURGE
starring Y'lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Marisa Tomei
screenplay by James DeMonaco
directed by Gerard McMurray
starring Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Michael Kenneth Williams, Lex Scott Davis
written by Alex Tse, based on the screenplay by Phillip Fenty
directed by Director X
by Walter Chaw McCall (Denzel Washington) is Batman. He has a tragic past and a tortured rationale, a sense of morality in a fallen world that aligns him with the hardboiled detectives proliferating American popular culture in the immediate aftermath of WWII. He was Dirty Harry Callahan or Paul Kersey in the late-'70s-into-'80s. No coincidence Death Wish has already gotten its own remake. No coincidence, either, a series interested in a theoretical near-future in which a day of mayhem is sanctioned by the government in order to facilitate a "purging" of intra-cultural aggression has received four instalments and an upcoming television series. The latest, The First Purge, serves as a "prequel" to the events of the first film. It's also, full confession, the first of these movies that I've seen. I thought the premise was interesting, don't get me wrong, I just didn't really have the stomach for it. I feel the same way about that new Mr. Rogers documentary, or The Cove. The world is awful. I get it. There's a limit to how often I want to be reminded of what we've lost. What's curious about The First Purge (and the Superfly reboot) is not that all its heroes (save one) are black and all its villains are white, but rather that its relationship to something like The Equalizer 2 mimics the relationship between "The Cosby Show" and "A Different World". One provides a kind of cross-cultural reassurance that minorities are interested in the restoration of the ruling culture; the other understands the ruling culture was never threatened in the first place. Sure, subcultures evolve in the shadow of the social order, but the social order itself remains implacable and immutable.
McCall, a character played by white, English Edward Woodward in a long-running (1985-89) series of the same name and recast notably with the single most distinguished African-American actor left (after Cosby and Morgan Freeman were outed as not-great men), is a former special agent of sorts who now makes it his business to dispense folksy wisdom to various youngbloods while meting out justice on behalf of the helpless. He opens The Equalizer 2 by reuniting a white woman (Tamara Hickey) with her briefly-kidnapped-by-her-eurotrash-dad little girl (Rhys Cote). The mother's the owner of a bookstore where McCall buys things like In Search of Lost Time and, we presume, the copy of Between the World and Me he forces his protégé Miles (Ashton Sanders) to read and the copy of Native Son behind which he hides a button that opens a secret panic room. I would have respected The Equalizer 2 more if it had dropped some Iceberg Slim in there instead, but best to stay inside the lines.
McCall is mainly interested this time around in figuring out who killed his friend from the first movie, Susan (Melissa Leo). In the process of his investigation, he discovers there's a mole in the intelligence special agent bureau whatever thing in which he used to be involved. This means now it's personal, this vendetta to avenge the death of a white lady. There are more joint dislocations in this movie than a Tony Jaa flick. It's fun to watch in the way that popping bubble wrap is fun to pop. It's all slick and earnest, the kind of vigilante flick everyone can get behind, but the more uncomfortable countercultural conversation is had by Washington's last film, Roman J. Israel, Esq.. The Equalizer 2 offers hope that there are good people out there looking out for you and, presumably, you them. It wants to believe there are consequences for bad actors even if those consequences need to be doled out by vigilantes. It's a movie of its time, even if it doesn't really have all that much outrage to muster about the state of the world that would require this Man on Fire lawlessness. It's a western, not unlike director Antoine Fuqua's multi-culti Magnificent Seven reboot--a good one--but it challenges nothing and, lamentably, serves to confirm a few ideas about the nature of minority heroism. McCall is maybe a super-duper magic Negro is what I'm saying.
Less safe is The First Purge, which has its cast of minorities baldly stating they're frustrated enough by the country's entrenched socio-economic inequality to consider violence. They express hopelessness there could ever be change; they know money's a trap, but when offered a pittance ($5,000) that to them is a fortune, they agree to stay on Staten Island the night the fascist, white-supremacist government wants to try out an experiment in population control. It's a deeply unsubtle satire, if satire is what it is. The premise is essentially that for a period of twelve hours, Staten Island will be closed off from the rest of the world and all crimes, including murder, are legal there. This is so the anger and frustration of the oppressed can find an outlet and those news crawls shouting "Looter" beneath black men taking bread to feed their families when the government declined to assist during the first days after Hurricane Katrina can be verified. When the outraged underclass decline to murder each other in numbers, the white government, under the party aegis of "New Founding Fathers," sends in the national guard (in Nazi, gimp, Klan, and minstrel garb, natch), just to get the blood flowing a little faster. The ostensible heroes are Nya (Lex Scott Davis), a community activist, and her former lover Dmitri (Y'Lan Noel), a drug dealer. Nya's little brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade), torn between making a living working for Dmitri and doing the socially acceptable thing of struggling to survive in a system designed to fail him, presents another youngblood/protégé like The Equalizer 2's Miles (and Sorry To Bother You's Cassius Green) to represent the hope of the younger generation...or the despair. It's telling that this cycle seems to be cautiously bullish about rousing future generations enough to engage in protest and disobedience. We'll see.
The only real touchstones I have for Blaxploitation as a genre and for the issues of civil anarchy raised by The First Purge are two conversations and the few books I read leading from them. The first was a chat with Melvin Van Peebles about what happened to Blaxploitation, and the other is a conversation with Marjane Satrapi about the days immediately following the Shah being deposed. She said:
He was gone about a month. We didn't have an army, no police, nothing. And for this month, we had the lowest rate of theft, of murder, of anything. Everyone was behaving well--it was this moment of grace where everyone believed that they had an opportunity to create something great. It was a moment where everything was possible, the moment that we all dreamed of, that we all fought for and talked about all into the night. We had one moment in time to be as good as we wanted to be, to show that we deserved this civilization.
So there's precedent to the premise pushed in The First Purge: that given the chance, people will coalesce around the idea of hope. The Obama presidency trafficked in it. Yet here we are again on the verge of war with Iran. We've learned nothing. Talking with Van Peebles, I raised the question of Denzel Washington having a rider in his contract forbidding miscegenation for his characters. Something he calls "disappointing." Here he is on the subject of Blaxploitation, the movement that he, arguably, was solely responsible for:
Yeah, it's true that I was disappointed in the direction of that genre as a movement. Think about that Shaft was the movie that saved MGM, after Sweetback did its business--they turned around this white-guy script and made it into a black-guy script. I mean listen, seriously, the only colour in Hollywood is green and they were seeing a lot of green after my movie took in all that money. But what was missing is that you'd watch Sweetback with an audience and they were just dead silent--they were stunned, man. You could hear a rat pissing on cotton. Blaxploitation took that political message and suppressed it, they made it a caricature, and where before coloured folks in pictures were either acting the fool or singing, now they were just acting out the new anti-hero stereotypes. We traded in one thing for another thing, some more of the same.
The danger of this current tipping point for neo-Blaxploitation is whether the trend will follow things like Black Panther and The Equalizer, or Get Out and even Creed before it. Comfort and broad acceptance, after all, is a dangerous end game for revolution. There's an Ani DiFranco lyric that speaks brilliantly to the young protest artist on the cusp of hitting it big: "Maybe I'll be discovered/Maybe I'll be colonized." A film like Sorry To Bother You, which takes as one of its central concerns the way a minority can be appropriated by wealthy white interests--how black culture and the myth of black physicality become commodities traded between the 1% (as it has always been and continues to be in the conversations white owners are having with football players regarding their teams wishing to protest the violence done to them in society)--offers hope that the dialogue around the same topics begun in Get Out can find purchase in a popular forum. The hell of it is, though, that these films will never make as much money as Black Panther. Nor should they.
Directed by Gerard McMurray, whose debut film Burning Sands is a sharp look at black masculinity, The First Purge presents Dmitri as an atypical gangster beset--at least until he takes up arms in the last act--by doubt and cowed by Nya's disapproval of him. He's a romantic hero in many ways, and Y'Lan Noel is a star in the making. The best parts of the film are those meant to be provocative as opposed to instructive. Watching the clearing of a Staten Island tenement by a Nazi-garbed bogey; watching a massacre of black people in their church; watching black men open fire on the Klan; watching cleverly and expertly staged fight sequences. The First Purge is less effective when it pauses to explain itself--a task given to social scientist Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), who narrates her process of discovering the black folks on the island only really want to have a block party when the police are no longer a potentially mortal impediment to their fellowship. Her interactions from a control booth with Chief of Staff Sabian (Patch Darragh) take on the dimensions of the grafted-on Raymond Burr sequences in the American release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. They serve the same function of offering context to something essentially alien and offensive to the ingrained popular conception of minorities. Therein lies the trouble for The First Purge: Its confused politics say one thing--that catharsis is a myth and that violence only begets more of it--while simultaneously showing another, i.e., its biggest hero moments are acts of cathartic bloodletting. It's at once an excoriation of the economic caste system and medieval religious hypocrisy installed to keep the status assuredly quo--and a declaration that the best way to preserve the interests of the oppressed is to take up arms against the coming government aggression, thereby filling white coffers and overflowing black churches. The picture makes the mistake of humanizing not black culture, but white culture. There's no equivalence there, and false equivalences are one of the pillars of a totalitarian state. Still, The First Purge is an effective chaos pill: well-directed and packed with triggers. When Nya beats off a rapist, calling him a "pussy-grabber," it's the type of on-the-nose moment that either makes you cringe or makes you angry. Here's hoping it doesn't make you think you've given at the office.
In Director X's Super Fly update, someone says early on that "ain't no one more gangster than the bank," recalling the attempted heist of an ATM in The First Purge more proximately than it recalls the bailout of the very institutions that engineered the last two collapses of our economic infrastructure. It's a mission statement for this reboot of Gordon Parks Jr.'s hybrid 1972 Super Fly. I say "hybrid" because although it was distributed by Warner Bros. and featured a white producer in Sigissmund Shore, who saw the bulk of the picture's sizeable profits ($5M for soundtrack sales alone), it did also feature a black screenwriter (Phillip Fenty) and director, as well as a majority non-white technical crew in the service of a picture that celebrates the victory of a black drug dealer over corrupt white police. What's fascinating about Super Fly is the range of criticism contemporary audiences levelled at it. Many, including the NAACP, objected to the way that black people were depicted in the early (first year, really) days of Blaxploitation as drug dealers and pimps, while a few offered the opinion that what these films were after was a unified statement on the failure of the American dream for African-Americans. The only way to climb the ladder was by working outside of the entrenched (read: white) system. There's a scene late in the original Super Fly where the title character breaks up with his white mistress because he realizes he was raised in a culture that taught him a white woman was the pinnacle of social achievement--but he was over all that now. SuperFly doesn't give its Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson) an equivalent scene, but it does illustrate the same fatigue towards trying to achieve in a game where the rules are written against you.
The plot remains more or less unchanged: Priest wants one last big score before retiring and moving on to better things. He goes around his supplier, Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams), to deal directly with the terrifying Adalberto Gonzalez (Esai Morales, who played this character in the first season of "Ozark" as well), whom he convinces to work with him by playing on Gonzalez's sibling rivalry and desire to impress his also-terrifying kingpin mother, Esmeralda (Renee Victor). It's all about broken-down masculinity and Priest's attempts to manage the people in his orbit, among them business rivals led by Q (Big Bank Black); his spendthrift and careless partner, Eddie (Jason Mitchell); his girlfriends, Georgia (Lex Scott Davis, again) and Cynthia (Andrea Londo); and the crooked cops (Brian F. Durkin and Jennifer Morrison) who want in on the action. The twist, and it's no spoiler if you've seen its 46-year-old predecessor, is that Priest wins. He gets to walk away. He gets to murder cops. He sees his many rivals punished and his sins absolved in hails of gunfire and rains of cash. It's a deeply uncomfortable film for the ruling class, as was the original, as is every protest worthy of consideration as protest. The argument is that the only things that register as civil disobedience are artifacts and acts that disturb civility, and so SuperFly passes the sniff test--stylishly, sometimes beautifully in its vision of a neon-saturated, music-video-incepted Atlanta and a soundtrack by producer Future that is engorged with kinky sex and violent rage. It violates community space. It glorifies the action of an individual to carve out his own space in a hostile environment. The answer to whatever happened to Blaxploitation is "The Cosby Show". The answer to whether this round of Blaxploitation has any legs is less certain, but, you know, probably not. What's heartening is that there's this second act at all. Here's hoping our next elections are the third.