Saturday, March 7, 2009

Racial Masculinity in Lakeview Terrace


This is a quick post about "Lakeview Terrace," starring Samuel L. Jackson. I recently rented the movie, since the preview depicted an interesting premise: black cop harasses his interracial newlywed neighbors. After viewing it, however, it has proven to be a racial masculinity contest between the black man (Jackson, as Abel) and the white man (Wilson, as Chris); the black woman, played by Kerry Washington as Lisa, serves mainly as the basis for harassment, the cause of struggle to claim masculinity from the other man.

We learn early on that Abel is a corrupt cop, using unnecessary force to unarm a man in a domestic abuse case, breaking his ribs with his own gun when the man threatens to kill himself. When the new couple moves in, it is immediately evident that he does not approve of the couple's relationship, and begins some subtle (and some not-so-subtle) things to get his point across. When he first introduces himself to Chris, for instance, Abel pretends to rob him. Later on the two of them take a walk together, whereupon Abel states that he doesn't approve of the relationship.

The harassment escalates: lights shining through windows, verbal abuse, slashed car tires. Finally, Abel hires some dude to break in and destroy the house (which leads to the hospitalization of the wife).

What struck me most while I was viewing the movie was this pervading racial-based masculinity. Abel is constantly emasculating Chris, and Chris is constantly determined to reclaim that masculinity by confronting Abel. Lisa even points out--when she was ready to go to Abel and tell him to quiet down his party so the couple could sleep--that Chris only wants to do the macho stuff when he pushes past her, insisting that he be the one to go next door.

Even Chris' wife is perceived to be more masculine than Chris, as Abel points out to his friends that Chris is married to a black woman, and the other black men laugh and warn him to "watch himself."

It isn't that Abel is challenging the interracial relationship--it's that the man is white, and he feels he must emasculate Chris because of it. And Chris responds to this.

Abel later tells Chris about how his wife died, thus explaining why Abel is so disapproving of the couple's situation: Abel's wife died in a car accident with her white boss, and what's been haunting Abel for years is why was she in the car with her white boss in the middle of the day instead of at her office, thus hinting at his wife emasculating him with a white man. Race is immediately involved--and likewise, masculinity. As if to fix this injustice, Abel seeks to destroy the relationship between Chris and Lisa, at one point sending Lisa video of Chris getting a lap dance (omitting that Abel's buddies were holding Chris down).

The movie also portrays Abel as hypermasculine, as a cop and a neighbor, and Chris or the criminals he beats, are how he maintains this hypermasculinity. The final showdown between the two of them (after Chris realizes that Abel was the one who hired the man who attacked his wife) involves Chris aiming a gun at Abel (Abel's is momentarily concealed, as the cops have shown up), and Lisa is screaming at Chris to put the gun down (I admit I was frustrated in each scene where Lisa screamed at Chris, and Chris ignored her to maintain or regain some semblance of masculinity). Chris then tricks Abel into revealing his gun by bringing up Abel's wife, reminding him of her (assumed) infidelity. Then Abel shoots Chris (asserting masculinity with a known phallic symbol), and the cops kill Abel.

This whole movie is backdropped by wildfires getting nearer and nearer to the house, and by the end of the movie the neighborhood is evacuated due to the fires. I can't help but read this as an obvious symbol for destruction, mirroring this masculine struggle between the two men and foreshadowing the death of one. Sadly, I guessed correctly that if one man died in this struggle it would be the black man.

I am interested in any thoughts on this movie, particularly from those who have also seen it. Please don't summarize what happened in the movie unless you also offer an interpretation of it.


macon d said...

Interesting thoughts. I rented it recently too, and found it really clunky, and ultimately pretty pointless. Yeah, the fires are an overly obvious symbol, and the effort to turn the tables on racism is klutzy too--"instead of a racist white cop next door to harass the uptight newlywed couple, let's make him black!" Samuel Jackson was actually good in the role, as far as it goes--he was consistently piercing and hateful, and I got tensed up whenever he was onscreen. Which may have been LaBute's point, to GET at white guys like me, white folks somewhere on the left (the signifiers of white liberalism are pretty thick, with the Prius and the Utne Reader magazine--he's a white guy who would like the stuff-liking satirized by Stuff White People Like).

That the racial tables are turned could have been interesting, if the black bad guy's anger were more interesting. But, if his story at the bar is to be believed, he's just mad at white guys because some drunk guy smashed into his wife and killed her (and if that story isn't true, then we're supposed to think he's just crazy). There IS black anger in America that whites should know more about, especially the legitimate CAUSES for it. But here, the black anger is individualized, ultimately bolstering white beliefs that any blacks in real life could not be legitimately aimed at white people, or white racism. THAT, the movie seems to suggest, is pretty much over. Hell, the movie might even suggest to many white viewers that the only significant racism out there anymore these days is directed against whites, by black individuals with an unwarranted axe to grind.

One other thing--there seemed to be an intent to toss white liberalism's sacred cows and smug sense of self-satisfaction back at such people, to really challenge them, but then, in making the black cop such a monster, the whole thing becomes, well, TOO black and white--the initial, promise of skewering liberal pieties falls gets dropped as we end up instead fully sympathizing with the representatives of liberalism. Or, that is, we're supposed to do that.

So, for me, maybe it wasn't as bad as "Crash," but still another waste of Hollywood money and talent.

Anonymous said...

I actually saw this movie in the theater, my friend dragged me and paid for it so that's my defense. Anyway, I'm just sick of the these IR movies where something has to go terribly wrong in the relationship. Can't we just have a movie where with an IR couple and they are having normal marital problems like money or how about no problems at all.

My friend and I began recounting all of the IR movies/TV program made in the USA (British films seems to have a better range for their IR couples) and the woman/man is either on drugs or going to jail or is breaking up a home. Something is morally wrong with their character or just has a huge character flaw.

Similarly I rented "The Family That Preys." I was really disturbed by Tyler Perry's "sense of justice" in the end. Sanaa Latham's character cheats on her husband with a married man and in the end; her husband hits her, in front of everyone in a diner, with no repercussion; takes her 300K from the bank to start his own business; Sanaa's character gets left by the white man whose child she has; ends up in an apartment with her son because her husband stole her money and then gets told by her white boyfriends wife, along with her mother, that he would never marry her and his business partners would never do business with him if she showed up on his arm; and finally incurs all the distain of her black female coworkers and is basically told she is a slut and is pulling down womanhood by her actions.

Meanwhile, the white wife grows balls, threatens to take her husbands' money in a divorce so they are together in the end, unhappily but together; Sanaa's ex-husband has a thriving business and the friendship of his brother-in-law, Sanaa's sister's (Tariji P. Henson) husband; Sanaa's sister and mother are millionaires and are presumably not sharing the wealth since Sanaa is in that one bedroom apartment. Did I mention she got fired in the end?

So she's alone penniless, without family or love. Nice. All because she thought the man she was sleeping with and had a child by would married and love her. Silly her, dripping with sarcasm.

I guess the moral of the story was if you are involved in a situation like the one stated above, and you are a black woman, you will come out the worse. That's what I got from it anyway.

FilthyGrandeur said...

Moviegirl and Macon D, you both make excellent points. the interracial relationship becomes a sort of token in this movie (and in many others) and somehow that becomes the focus of the relationship. i've been in IRs before and not once did we discuss the "okay, i'm white, you're black, what do we do?" aspects. in fact, only people outside our relationship, mainly strangers or scant acquaintances would ask if it's tough being together. in fact, my brother is dating a black woman (and if all goes well, is highly likely to marry her). his relationship is not about the interracialness, and even her family never really mentions it. not all IRs are about "hey, we're two different skin-tones!"

macon d, you make a good point about the black anger being individualized, but often (fairly or unfairly) it only takes one incident for racism to blossom (my grandmother was robbed by a black woman once in her 70+ years of life, therefore all black people steal). in the case of this movie, however, Jackson's character only seems to hate white men. i would be interested if this movie would have been the same if the man was black and the woman was white...

here are some interesting articles about tyler perry's movies. i used to be a fan, but after realizing this pattern i can't bring myself to watch them anymore:
and this one is particularly interesting:

Anonymous said...

Thanks I'll check those out. There is also a subtle theme that it's ok to hit woman. I mean I guess violence is acceptable from him since Madea gets her power from beating on all the younger people and males in her life.