The box office was good this weekend for closeted-lesbian Jodie Foster’s new movie “The Brave One” this weekend (she both stars and is credited as Executive Producer). Some reviewers have compared this film, directed by Neil Jordan, to “Death Wish,” and it does share similar gun-violence and revenge-fantasy themes with that earlier film. But for me, more salient referent is Bernhard Goetz, the white racist subway vigilante that gunned down four African American teenagers on the 2 train at 14th Street in 1984.
Now, before I continue my critique of this film, in the spirit of full disclosure I have to confess that I saw this film over the weekend, so some of my coins (ok, $11 here in Manhattan) went to the box office totals. I also went to see this film with my long-term partner, Julie, and we did enjoy Ms. Foster’s, ahem, acting. As lovely as she and her chiseled jawline, cropped hair and form-fitting t-shirts are, she is a perennial disappointment in terms of her politics. The fact that someone of her stature doesn’t have the strength of character to come out publicly confirms the kind of societal level homophobia that contributes to the high rates of suicide and homelessness among LGBTQ teenagers. Her recent donation to The Trevor Project doesn’t ameliorate the larger message of her being in the closet, in fact, it only serves to highlight the duplicity of what Michael Musto calls “the glass closet.”
Her abysmal sexual politics are now joined by some pretty deplorable racial politics in “The Brave One.” [SPOILER ALERT: For those of you who haven’t seen the film and plan on it, the rest of this post contains numerous spoilers.] Foster’s character in the film, Erica Bain, is an NPR-style radio host who is engaged to a dark-skinned South Asian (male) nurse, David Kirmani, played by Naveen Andrews. The white woman – dark lover idyll is meant to signify that the Foster character is “not a racist,” as is the presence of a Caribbean woman who is her neighbor, and later voices the moral of the film (more about her in a moment).
As the couple walks their dog late at night through Central Park, entering ominously through the “Stranger’s Gate” at 106th Street, they are attacked by a group of tatooted, bandana-wearing, whisky-guzzling Latino thugs who are equipped with metal pipes as weapons, and with a small, handheld digital video camera to record the attack. Foster’s character is badly injured and is in a coma for three weeks, her boyfriend is killed. After she emerges from the coma, she goes on a grief-stricken killing spree as a sort of vengence-as-recovery strategy. She kills a number of people, some of them white all of them men, in her revenge spree, but the quintessential moment in the film is the incident on the subway by two young African American guys, and as with Bernhard Goetz, she doesn’t only shoot them, she unloads her gun into them. The rather straightforward white racist reaction (two young African American guys on a subway must be a threat), is complicated by the gender and class dynamics. After the two African American guys harass a young white guy and steal his iPod, a current urban symbol of class status (and make fun of his musical choices on the iPod as they steal it), the subway car empties and they turn their menacing attention to Foster’s character, who – – packing a Glock – – has chosen to remain on the subway. As the two men approach, they make an explicitly sexual threat to her involving a knife, and she responds by emptying the gun into both of them and calmly walking away. This image, of two, large, Black men, one with a phallic-and-threatening knife, approaching an assumed-to-be-innocent white woman resonates with the deepest strains of white supremacy in the U.S. The entire history of lynching was premised on just such an image of gendered racism, and the response is evokes from most whites is one of fear, outrage and identification with (or a desire to protect) Foster’s character. However, the image of a woman with agency, who acts in her own defense and does not wait to be rescued, barely registers on the American political landscape; so, for most of the film, people don’t suspect Foster’s character because they assume the vigilante is a man. The subversive possibilities of a woman fighting back against male violence (“who’s a b*tch now?” she asks as she shoots one of her perpetrators) are competely overshadowed by the regressive racial and class politics of the film. Once she as is back at home, Foster listens to an audio recording of the shooting again and again, much like the perpetrators of the attack on are assumed to have watched the video recording of the attack on her, thus blurring the lines between them. Yet, it’s not the similarities between Foster and the various Black, Latino and even white, perpetrators that the audience is left with, but rather the distance between her and her attackers marked by racial and class differences.
While Stephanie Zacharek, reviewing the film for Salon, writes that the Dublin-born director Neil Jordan “has a surprisingly strong grasp of what living in New York is like, and he translates it beautifully onto the screen,” I think Jordan completely misrepresents the city and what it’s like to live here. More accurate is Neil Rosen’s take in his review for NY1 in which he writes that, “Although the movie is set in the present, the crime ridden New York that’s depicted in the film bears more resemblance to the 1970’s.” And, this is a key point in my critique of the film. While Foster’s NPR-radio announcer character refers repeatedly to New York as “the safest big city in the world,” a line from the Guiliani-administration, neither she nor the film as a whole make reference to the police state that Guiliani established that has made Black and Latino young men are the primary targets and vicitms, the very people configured in this film as the menacing villains. The reality of living in New York City today if you look like white and middle-class, is that it is one of the “safest big cities in the world.” However, if you’re a young Black or Latino man, and also happen to live in — or are just passing through — one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, this is a very dangerous city, and that danger very often comes from the police. For example, the New York Daily News this morning is reporting a story about the teen-aged African American son of an NYPD veteran who was repeatedly tasered, hit him 15 times with a nightstick and put into a choke hold for no apparent reason at a “community sponsored” barbecue at 126th St. and Park Ave. last month. The carcicatured portrayal of young Black and Latino men on the screen, and the spectacle of one after the other gunned down, the last one with help from the police detective played by Terrence Howard, renders the film an apologia for the police-state in New York City, rather than simply entertainment or, as one might hope, a cogent social analysis wrapped in an entertaining package.
It is not only Black and Latino young men who are targets here of racial profiling by the filmmaker: a Black woman is also portrayed in stereotypical fashion. Ene Ojala, who plays Josai, the apartment-building-neighbor to Erica and David. Josai first appears as a large, gruff presence that Erica and David make jokes about. Then, once Erica begins her revenge-killing-spree, it is only Josai, in almost supernatural fashion, that discerns Erica’s secret. Josai conveys the central message of the film when she tells Erica, “There are plenty of ways to die. You have to figure out a way to live.” And, fulfilling the “mammy-role” by serving as nurse to Erica who shows up wounded in the apartment hallway in the middle of the night, Josai is not moved when Erica tells her she killed a man, and Josai replies that “in her country” (which is unnamed) she saw lots of killing. The final shot of Josai in the film is one from above, further depersonalizing her, as she scrubs Erica’s blood off the hallway, on her hands and knees. By giving Erica a neighbor who is Black and an immigrant (as well as her boyfriend), director Jordan intends to deflect the broader racial implications of a film in which Jodie Foster plays a thinly veiled version of Bernhard Goetz. Such casting also allows white audiences to go and enjoy Foster and Jordan’s creation with little thought about what is implied.
There is a rich legacy in this country of progressive, even radical, white lesbians who are anti-racist, such women as Lillian Smith, Adrienne Rich, Mab Segrest, and Dorothy Allison. Yet, Jodie Foster — who had access to an elite education — seems unaware or unmoved by such a legacy. While there is no denying that Jodie Foster looks great in a t-shirt, and she just looks better with age, her politics are more troubling than ever.