Race to the Bottom

Black and White.

Rules of Engagement.

It was only a hundred or so years ago when W.E.B. DuBois declared, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” So perhaps it’s not too surprising — at least to judge from contemporary American films — that we haven’t made all that much cultural progress in crossing it. Give racial progress another hundred years or so, and who knows?

That cynical question is occasioned by Black and White and Rules of Engagement, two current films which dance about the questions of race and power like tourists in an unscheduled country, gingerly attempting the local cuisine. The tastes seem somewhat different: at first glance, James Toback’s Black and White is (as its title trumpets) all about Race, and William Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement is just another military courtroom drama with a backdrop of brutal combat, heroic soldiers, and traitorous civilians. But in the end both films establish the time-honored melodramatic pattern: the white folks drop in on the foreigners, borrow a few exotic props and tempestuous community emotions, make a big mess and leave — shaking their heads in puzzled astonishment, but certainly better for the experience. No wonder the locals want to charge admission.

Black and White gives the impression of addressing race questions head on, its ostensible subject the seemingly puzzling popularity of black hip-hop culture — especially hard-core gangsta-rap music — among white teenagers. But after a few moments of the director’s flamboyantly staged shock-video intro — a sleazily calculated tableau of interracial sex, guns, and voguing in the middle of Central Park — it becomes apparent that Toback’s white specimen children are in fact offspring of that very peculiar and miniscule tribe, the staggeringly wealthy denizens of Upper West Side Manhattan. Very nice folks, I’m sure, but about as representative of get-down white America as Mike Tyson (a featured player here, as himself) is representative of Ordinary Black Folks. Tyson is joined by Brooke Shields and Robert Downey Jr. (as a clueless documentary filmmaker and her aggressively gay husband), the New York Knicks’ Allan Houston and supermodel Claudia Schiffer (as a clueless college basketball player and his racial theorist graduate student girlfriend), a melange of rap musicians (most notably, the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Power” as Rich Bower, a literal gangster and would-be professional musician), and Ben Stiller as a corrupt police detective who seems to have dropped in from another B picture altogether. Within minutes of its clumsily improvised dialogue and faux-documentary technique, it becomes clear that Toback’s film is about black and white celebrities — undoubtedly a riveting subject to aficionados of fanzines and afternoon television, but of little permanent interest to those of us, of whatever color, who still have to work for a living.

Most unhappily, with a real script and an ensemble of professional actors, Toback might have been onto something: some notion of the curious mind games that take place along the cultural and racial fault lines. (One can imagine such a film, say, as the fantasy collaboration of the two most famous Knick fans, Woody Allen and Spike Lee.) Instead, the viewer collects most-embarrassing moments: Tyson sagely counseling a gang hit in absurd polysyllables, like Yoda on steroids; Houston and Schiffer attempting to negotiate the film’s preposterous moral crisis without actually looking at each other (“Just be true to yourself,” says Claudia Poloniusly); the hapless Houston (one of the N.B.A.’s most elegant athletes), required by Toback’s baroque plot to throw a game, and therefore playing badly, badly. The most notorious moment (at least in the film’s advance publicity spin) is Robert Downey’s clumsy pass at Tyson, who responds by slapping and choking him. Iron Mike might better have gone after his director.

Even beyond this dismal list, the film’s worst scenes feature Stiller (who recently seems to be making a movie a month, each more pointless than the last). His disillusioned, malevolently racist cop is supposedly the child of civil rights activists, bitterly recalled in a monologue that erupts from improvisational nowhere. One supposes that the filmmaker (no one precisely, but it’s Toback’s name and blame in the leading credits) is trying to say something about the sad turn of racial relations in a generation. Instead, he’s demonstrating an unforgiving truth about filmmaking: famous faces and controversy can’t salvage a scriptless anthology of social preconceptions. Black and White condescends to its own subject, the curious habits of white “wigger” wannabees, and ends up looking in the mirror.

William Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement has screenplay problems of a very different sort. Scripted within an inch of its life by Stephen Gaghan (of ABC’s The Practice), it maintains the predictability of a good guy/bad guy courtroom melodrama as inevitably as the final season of Matlock. Andy Griffith is here played by a dyspeptic Tommy Lee Jones, as Colonel Hayes Hodges, a career officer who became a desk-bound lawyer after being badly wounded in Vietnam. His life was saved by Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson), who executed an unarmed Vietnamese soldier to terrorize the soldier’s superior into ordering a retreat. That bloody battle (well-conceived and shot by Friedkin, although his leads are visibly thirty years too old for the historical moment) is the backstory of the film’s contemporary court martial, in which Childers is on trial for ordering the massacre of eighty-three rioting Yemenis besieging the U.S. embassy.

As a conventional exercise in Hollywood militarism, Rules would hardly be worth discussing except for the firepower of its principals, and the fact that Friedkin is apparently counting on the film to return his reputation to the glory days of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973, and just re-released in the director’s extended cut). But the film is also distinguished by a level of unreflectively anti-Arab racialism astounding even by Hollywood’s very high standard for such nastiness, and by a shameless attempt to re-write recent U.S. military history that is almost inexplicable until one learns that it is based on a story by James Webb, who just happens to be a former secretary of the Navy. At its release, the film quickly became the national box-office leader, which confirms that there remains a considerable public appetite for its central myth: the American soldier is a beleaguered, heroic international innocent beset by enemies and traitors on every hand, and only his fellow combatants can hope to understand his thankless role as the last bloody line between order and chaos.

On the surface — or rather, on its verbal surface — Rules of Engagement is not about race at all, as the word is never mentioned and the courtroom’s “evidence” could just as well originate in Belgrade or Panama, Saigon or Somalia. But visibly, race is everywhere — in the blatant stereotypes of the Yemeni people (so ruthless as to carry infants into combat, so guileful as to make automatic weapons appear and disappear at will), in the interracial subtext of the grandiose male bonding between Hodges and Childers, and most centrally in the scenery-smashing performance of Samuel L. Jackson, who has in the last few years become the inverted Sidney Poitier of this cinematic generation. Where Poitier was all repressed black rage, tamed by civilization, Jackson has become seething, hair-trigger explosiveness — again and again, the black rage banks awesomely for two reels, then turns spectacularly outward at the sinister, dark enemies of honky America. (Among the trailers accompanying Rules of Engagement is a slick, special-effects-heavy revival of Shaft, inevitably starring a baldheaded, mustachioed, impeccably tailored Samuel L. Jackson.) Jackson is a very fine actor becoming increasingly emblematic of a pop-cinema notion of Black Manhood, much as Tommy Lee Jones has begun to take on the awkward mantle of post-John Wayne Texas Good Ol’ Boy. In this ensemble, the two actors are used like a checkerboard cartoon version of American military machismo, cussing, brawling, or weeping as the romantic moment requires.

In the screenplay’s most cynical touch, the persuasive exculpatory evidence against Childers is provided by a North Vietnamese colonel, brought stateside out of the past by the government prosecutors in order to testify that Childers is certainly capable of killing civilians under the pressure of combat. But Matlock — er, Hodges — brilliantly contrives to persuade the former enemy soldier to admit on the stand that given the same circumstances, he would have acted in precisely the same way. The sublimely self-deluding notion that the U.S. empire’s war on Southeast Asia was just a bunch of ordinary grunts on both sides, caught up in the bitter web of combat, may sell a whole lot of tickets in the National Swamp of Forgetfulness, a country better known as the last refuge of scoundrels.

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