Sunday, July 12, 2009

Public Enemies: Race and male aggression

Spoiler Alert and Trigger Warning: While I do not give a full plot summary, parts of this post may reveal key plot points. Also, this is a violent and graphic movie, which I will discuss also, and may be triggering to some readers.

I would like to start this post by saying I'm glad I saw this movie (I got to pick this time, and thankfully it was not the train wreck that the last movie was--which the fiance picked). It was exciting, and I got to stare at Johnny Depp for 2+ hours.

I went into it fully aware that it was high on the masculinity scale (it's generally a safe bet that any movie with men and guns is going to be masculine, what with all the phallic imagery and aggression going on). I enjoyed it immensely, since Johnny Depp is my favorite actor, and he plays "bad" characters very well. As in Secret Window, Depp's performance in Public Enemies put me in the situation that I am torn between wanting his character to die because of the atrocities he's committed to other characters, while simultaneously rooting for him to get away and be free.

Other characters were not painted in so romantic a light as Dillinger: the cops came off as buffoons, who more than once let Dillinger walk away--even when he strolled into the Dillinger crime office and took a peek at all the neat stuff they collected on him. Those silly cops were more interested in listening to the game! The other gangsters seemed to defer to Dillinger, and Baby Face Nelson was moronically trigger-happy to the point where even Dillinger was frightened of him, and was adamant to break ties with him.

Still, I wish there had been more of the women. Sheriff Lillian Holley could have been a complex character--she was a sheriff in a male-dominated profession, and seemed to have had to face reminders of that consistently, yet she got very little attention in this movie (though she does facilitate the rescue of Billie from the asshole cop). And the prostitute Anna, who sets Dillinger up at the end, is no more complex than a woman who risks deportation, when she was certainly more than that. She was Dillinger's trusted friend, and the decision to have to choose staying in the country over him could not have been so two-dimensional. Plus I'm certain there was more to her than her over-riding identity as a whore. Billie was important to Dillinger, but I don't think we saw enough of her to really understand this connection. They met, he said she was his girl, and boom! Deep relationship happens.

I was worried for Billie's safety as well. When Dillinger goes to claim her at her job, he assaults the impatient man demanding his coat, then in a weird way becomes a knight in shining armor to Billie, rescuing her from her horrible poor-girl life. What the hell? I spent the rest of the movie in an "oh god" mode, waiting for Dillinger's anger and aggression to manifest itself on Billie's body (he never hit her, thankfully). But Billie is later assaulted by the cop who was supposed to be surveillancing her; his assault of her is his revenge for making him look like an inadequate cop. After her arrest, he "interrogates" her, and brutally attacks her when she taunts him that he can't catch Dillinger.

That being said, I did find it interesting that the cops were just as dark and vicious as the gangsters they were trying to capture (or kill, whichever happened first). The first instance we meet Bale's character, Purvis, he's hunted down and killed Pretty Boy Floyd. The cops and gangsters are all killers, but only one side has the law, and the other is uplifted into romantic idolatry.

I'm not sure what to think of Purvis. He's gunned down his share of criminals, and he allows an injured criminal to be tortured by another cop by denying medical care to the man, as well as inflicting more pain on him. Yet he comes in just before the asshole cop can hit Billie again, and carries her out like a hero. He's bent on capturing Dillinger, yet seems saddened when Dillinger's ultimately gunned down at the end.

Then there's race. Billie is French and Native American. She mentions growing up on the reservations "and nothing happens" and then she goes to Chicago. When she first tells Dillinger of her Native American heritage, she is almost spiteful of it, telling him that most people don't like it. But then that is the end of it.

And Herbert Youngblood is treated almost negligently in the film, as one of only two black men in the film. It is with Youngblood's help that Dillinger escapes prison the second time in the film, and later appears to have joined up with Dillinger. Then he disappears and I only find out he's dead when Dillinger walks into the police station and sees the pictures of his friends stamped "deceased." When the hell did that happen?? So this seemingly important character who seemed to have a connection with Dillinger (since he helped him escape and all) dies mysteriously after very little attention in the film. Well, who knows. Maybe he's got a deleted scene somewhere that they're saving for the DVD release--but either way, that we don't know what happens to him in the actual film illustrates that his (black) character was expendable.

While I was watching it, I thought of movies depicting gangsters, and how we see the white ones as valiant (Dillinger was historically viewed as Robin Hood, though he did not give any of the money he stole to the poor) and wondered does this differ from how we see non-white gangsters? Are the white bad guys romantic figures, while non-white bad guys are really bad? I think American Gangster did a decent job of portraying a black gangster romantically, but I feel like if it's a white guy doing it (or a guy passing for white), it gets more of a following. Think of Heath Ledger's psychotic Joker--how many people have posters of him hanging in their dorms? How many people have Denzel Washington's Frank Lucas posters? Are there even posters for his character?

As I write this last bit, I'm thinking of Macon D's post about piracy, where it's romanticized heroism when whites are engaged in it, but when POC engage in it, suddenly it's an evil threat. Go read it. Johnny Depp's discussed there as well.


Blue Mako said...

Macon D failed to make a distinction between real piracy and fictional in his post (something other people, and I, pointed out).

iirc, people have never been very fond of real pirates regardless of race (unless they were associated with your country, I guess, and maybe not even then).

FilthyGrandeur said...

this is true, but you'll recall within the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, the bosun is black, and there are other pirates of color on the "bad" side. not the good side (as the soldiers or as Jack's crew).

but this is only a side point: real or not, in movies where the main character is "bad," if he's white, he's somehow a more sympathetic character.

and think of the most famous pirates in history--pretty white.