Despite decades of cynical deconstruction, when it comes to its depiction in film, Los Angeles is persistently evoked as a downright glamorous place. It’s a myth so persistent, it’s practically become a Jungian archetype. Although Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard came out in 1950 – pretty much driving the final nail into the coffin of Hollywood’s pretty, pretty corpse – the city of L.A. still carries with it a distant echo of magic that it, perhaps, never possessed. Even though the city has discarded countless ambitious ingenues, manged the hopes of myriad ambitious filmmakers, and, for many years, systematically oppressed people of color, the glitz still shines from beneath.
Revealing the “real” Los Angeles on film, then, is an endless, Sisyphean task. Generation after generation seeks to lift the wool off of the world’s eyes, and we, the innocent audience members, are frequently treated to what the great, grand City of Angels really looks like. Not every L.A. story is the tale of a pretty, thin white girl coming to town, finding success, and marrying Tom Everett Scott after rejecting Ryan Gosling. There are also the stories of the impoverished. The disenfranchised. The working class. The overlooked. The African-Americans and Latinx population that have been too long marginalized. For every Make-You-A-Star routine in the rotation, there are 10,000 working stiffs struggling to make ends meet in a world that sees them as little more than the sum of clichés.
Of course, L.A. is everything you see in the movies at once. It is glamorous and treacherous in equal measure. It is oppressive and opportunistic, yet aggressively beautiful. The sun sets right next to us. It’s easy to think that Los Angeles is both a weird Heaven founded on angels, and a Stygian Hell, also founded by an angel.
Throughout the month of February, the New Beverly will be presenting special Monday matinee showings of L.A.-set films made by African-American filmmakers. The films in the program were all made over the course of the late 1980s to mid 1990s, and all focus intently on the black experience in Los Angeles.
On Monday, February 4th, we will be presenting F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off from 1996. Although ostensibly a heist caper – Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Jada Pinkett, and Kimberly Elise, beset by financial woes, unite to rob banks – Set It Off plays more like an intense character piece, highlighting the protagonists’ desperation and iconoclastic behavior just as much as their unflappable badass qualities. As the poster itself declares, “It’s about crime. It’s about payback. It’s about survival.” In the late 1990s, a mere three years after Rodney King was beaten by a gaggle of white cops, a spate of films about the black experience began to hit American theaters, making explicit for white audiences that, yes, this is common, and, yes, the black community lives in fear of oppressive racial profiling. Profiling, sadly, that persists to this day.
The women in Set It Off are all in dire straits. In the film, they are largely defined by their tenacity, their ability to persist in the face of a system that has forced them into crime. F. Gary Gray doesn’t shy away from the action, of course, and the film moves at a decent clip, but it’s the mild panic that defines it as a motion picture. Set It Off is about crime, yes, but survival is the true test of L.A.
On the lighter side, on Monday, February 11th, we will be presenting Robert Townsend’s 1987 comedy film Hollywood Shuffle, written by Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans. Hollywood Shuffle reveals the trials experienced by many black performers who enter the showbiz machine: That stereotyping is pretty much the ruling principle of the day, and that black actors are rarely cast as heroic or complex leads in studio feature films unless they are butlers, slaves, or gangsters. Townsend plays the lead character, a put-upon middle-class Everyman who throws himself into the Hollywood grinder to experience, almost with a bemused detachment, how horrible – and horribly racist – things still are, even as late as 1987.
Hollywood Shuffle is broad and silly, taking clever potshots at a clearly corrupted system. Yes, black actors have been given the short end of the stick for many decades in Hollywood; just look at the history of black stereotypes in film. If you need a starter on such history, try the compilations featured in Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled. Or the 1997 documentary Small Steps, Big Strides. Townsend, on a budget that is usually reserved for a Hollywood blockbuster’s catering alone, managed to impishly poke fun at Big Hollywood’s blind spots.
The Los Angeles in Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress, based on the novel by Walter Mosley, is maybe the most nostalgic of our series, coming to the NewBev on February 18th. Photographed by Tak Fujimoto and starring Denzel Washington, Devil in a Blue Dress is nothing less than a proper Philip Marlowe-esque film noir, replete with all the accoutrements of the genre. There is a missing femme fatale, an undercover cop, and a put-upon private detective – Easy Rawlins by name – who explores the more fragrant corners of this here berg.
Devil in a Blue Dress presents a 1950s Los Angeles with its clear racial divide wholly intact. The black world and the white world do not blend, and when then do, there is nothing but hate and animosity. In a telling scene partway through Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy (Washington) is accosted on the Santa Monica pier by a team of white frat boys. Although, true to his namesake, Easy is comfortable in most situations, he is out certainly of his element when directly confronted with racial hatred.
The dangers of black-and-white confrontation is personified in… well, I’d better not give away the plot. But I can recommend that you see what may be one of the best films of 1995, featuring gorgeous photography, a great character, a great lead actor, and an amazing breakout performance by Don Cheadle, playing Easy’s ultra-violent friend Mouse.
On February 25th, we’ll conclude our series with Bill Duke’s 1992 thriller Deep Cover, starring Laurence Fishburne. Director Duke, best known for his intimidating on-screen work in films like Commando, Predator, Menace II Society, and many others, delved into the nihilism at the heart of this glorious city with his sophomore directorial effort. In Deep Cover, Fishburne plays an undercover cop who infiltrates the L.A. drug scene, only to be seduced by the danger of the lifestyle.
Deep Cover presents one extreme logical conclusion of L.A.’s promise: Yes, you can live well, feel good all the time, and be extremely wealthy. But most of the avenues to said goals are certainly not legal. How could they be? Crime, Deep Cover argues, is the only avenue to getting what you want here. Fishburne displays a great deal of conscience which, in the world of film noir, is the ultimate detriment to success. It’s his conscience that highlights the tragedy – the failing – of Los Angeles’ glitz problem.
L.A. may be the City of Angels, but for the city’s black citizens, the angles break their promises. But when success – or mere survival – do eventually come for the protagonists in the four films in our series, they can only be seen as ultimate triumphs. The promise of glamour may never manifest, but small movement forward is nothing to be dismissed. When Easy Rawlins finally buys his house, we can’t help but think that the world is changing for the better. The four filmmakers in our series certainly pushed new aesthetic boundaries, bringing new voices to the cinematic firmament. However slight it may seem sometimes, there is upward movement.
Come see L.A. change through the eyes of these four filmmakers. You may witness a small evolution in progress.