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Although Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), directed by Carl Franklin and starring Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals, is clearly a film noir with all the entertainment appeals of that genre, mystery, murder, and suspense, the film goes beyond that genre appeals and reveals certain contemporary social implication, in particular, that the film is as much about the relations of blacks and whites in the 90’s as in the 40’s, the time in which the film is set; and an understanding of this racial motif, especially as it deals with White police power and corruption over Blacks , the Black image of the American
Dream, and miscegenation/interracial dating give a fillip understanding and appreciation of the film.
The movie, adapted from the book written by Walter Mosley, began the trend of using race and racial issues as a theme. With Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of six Easy Rawlins mysteries he showed the history of black life in Los Angeles from the perspective of the 40’s to the 60’s and can be easily paralleled to the 90’s.
Mosley says, "When people like my books, they say I transcended the genre. A broad audience gives the mystery writer a chance to address social issues like race, not just preach to the converted." Today’s crime writers, black and white alike, are tackling the subject of race and that is definitely lacking in mainstream fiction and movies. Many writers don’t look at racial issues as problems to resolve. They write the clues on how society works or how it doesn’t work.
And leave the reader with a stark reality of racial injustices to ponder.
When looking at the first racial motif, authoritarian racism, the interrogation scene was very powerful. This scene has been commonly played out in the news and media and is still present in today’s society. In the movie, Easy was taken in for questioning when, after a women he had questioned and stayed with the night before was found beaten to death. It was during this interrogation that Easy experienced insults and beatings to try and get information or a confession from him.
In a review by Ed Guerro he stated, “The routine insults and violence the police inflict on Rawlins, including a cop punching him during interrogation, is directed by Franklin with a world-weary sense of realism. The scene shows the detailed touch of someone who is familiar with the workings of authoritarian racism.” (419). Another character in the movie was named Mouse, a trusting and loyal friend of Easy, that clearly had mental issues and was explosive to say the least. Leon Lewis describes him as, “a cautionary symbol of the unleashed anger that centuries of indignity and oppression can produce.” (137). This, could be said, is a direct result of authoritarian racism and a powerful picture of the effects this has on human behavior.
Another theme portrayed in the movie was Blacks and the American dream. This was understood when Easy was talking of his home and job. The common ideal is the same if you are black or white. The house, the job and the 3.5 kids in today’s society, home ownership is certainly a striving point for all Americans, but if you are black your options are limited. As a cultural product we tend to live in an area that we feel comfortable and feel safe living. I agree with Ed Guerro’s comments that the end of the film showed a “contemporary pessimism” of that separation (420).
Jack Mathews wrote, “There was a time during and immediately after the war, when South Central Los Angeles represented the American Dream top blacks who migrated there for jobs in the area’s booming aircraft industry, and then the American Disappointment, as they became the first to lose their jobs when the boom ended.” (423). Easy’s dreams were almost shattered when he lost is job because of racial motivation. His fear of losing his home ultimately drove him to seek work that under other circumstances he would have never taken.
The plot of the whole story began to unfold when Easy finally found Daphne Monet, the woman he had been hired to find. She had been threatened that her true ethnic background would be exposed to bring down her fiancée who was running for office against a man who molested children. In desperation Daphne had gotten photo’s that could bring the blackmailer to his knees. This brought up the issue of miscegenation and interracial dating. Ed Guerro comment in the Film Review Annual 1996 has the reader thinking that this is a major problem in today’s society as well as in 1948 (420). I believe that is does happen but not as a common ideal that it should be that way.
Probably in some of the population there are spoken and unspoken beliefs that there should be a separation of white and black as couples. But, that ideal is slowly fading away as the world becomes more global. Jack Mathews believed that even though the story is mainly on the interracial romance he believes that Franklin, the director, doesn’t make the point on the class issues obvious and I agree. Leon Lewis wrote in his review, “The interracial aspect of their relationship and the eventual disclosure that she is from a racially mixed family provides an element of intrigue and pathos…” (137).
The character of Easy Rawlins is very race-conscious this is shown in the scene when Easy was to meet with Mr. Albright and had an altercation with a group of young whites on the pier. Also, aspects of the plot revolve around racial and social identity. In the book, race is tied closely to social class. However, I think that would be an incorrect assessment of the modern tendency to classify any discussion of racial issues as "racism." The treatment of race and racism in Devil in a Blue Dress is an undercurrent theme and a hard reality of the characters' lives.
Race is the enduring, heartbreaking problem of American society and always has been. It lurks behind discussions of many public issues. The American struggle with race gives us reason to hope and reasons to fear the future. On the website PublicAgenda.org statistics and issues that are at the top of American concern are discussed and very helpful when trying to understand the issue of race. The website does acknowledge that, “By many standards, minorities are much better off than they were 40 years ago, when the civil rights movement won its most enduring victories. High school and college graduation rates, life expectancy, home ownership and political participation all have risen substantially for African Americans.”
Black poverty rate has hit its lowest level ever. But it also states that blacks are three times more likely to be poor and twice as likely to be unemployed. A black man with a college degree makes less than whites and that 13% of black men are ineligible to vote because of felony convictions. In a more recent study medical treatment for blacks was judged less than whites and that was even with the same insurance. Keeping racial issues in the publics eye is the only way we, the human race, is ever going to have the chance to eliminate a problem that affects and hurts so many people.
Devil in a Blue Dress. Screenplay by. Carl Franklin. Dir. Carl Franklin. Prod. Jess Beaton and Gary Goetzman. Perf. Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Jennifer Beals, Tom Sizemore, Maury Chaykin. DVD. Tristar Pictures
Ozer, Jerome S., ed. Film Review Annual 1996. Englewood, N.J. 1996
Guerro, Ed. “Cineaste.” Ozer 418-420
Jones, Malcolm. “Its Black, White---And Noir.” Newsweek 139.25 (2002): 86
Mathews, Jack. “Newsday.” 423-424
Mosley, Walter. Devil in a Blue Dress. New York: Norton, 1990
Pawelczak, Andy. “Films in Review.” 420-421
PublicAgenda.org. Issues., <http://www.publicagenda.org/issues>
Wesley, Marilyn C. “Rower and Knowledge in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress.” African American Review 35.1 (2001): 103
Young, Mary. “Walter Mosley, Detective Fiction and Black Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture 32.1 (1998): 141-150
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