Putting the black into film noir

Issue 

Devil in a Blue Dress
Tristar Pictures
Written and directed by Carl Franklin
Based on the novel by Walter Mosley
Starring Denzel Washington, Jennifer Beal and Don Cheadle
Released nationally on February 8
Reviewed by Norm Dixon Devil in a Blue Dress is a taught, gripping, atmospheric gumshoe thriller set in segregated Los Angeles circa 1948. The film has its quota of corpses, gun fights, crooked politicians, dirty coppers, red herrings, the mandatory femme fatale, and a hero with dry wit and wry observation. But there much more to this film than your average tough, hard-bitten private dick pic. Devil is a parable of 20th century African American urban history in a noir wrapping. It's the context that makes the film so compelling and, it should be noted, the novels of Walter Mosley compulsory reading. Director Carl Franklin consulted left activist Mike Davis' social history of LA, City of Quartz, to get the racist structure of '40s LA down pat. He meticulously reconstructed the barber shops, record stores and clubs that lined Central Avenue, once the "West Coast Harlem", although Walter Mosley's mum complained there were too many cars in the film, and I would add that they were too new and shiny. The soundtrack full of great '40s r&b, criminally pushed far into the background, is spellbinding. With millions of other African Americans, soon after the second world war, Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins (Denzel Washington) joined the "great migration" from the south to the cities to find work. It was a time of great hope. The US had won a war for democracy in Europe, and blacks were going to share in the prosperity and liberty so loudly promised by their rulers. Easy believed the promises. He moved to LA, found a job in an aircraft factory, borrowed enough to buy a neat little house with a lawn, fruit trees and a front verandah. But Easy's stake in the new order, like that of most blacks, is tenuous and at the whim of the white powers that be. Easy loses his job when he refuses to grovel to the cracker boss. He's behind in his house payments, and his precious home is on the line. It's then that Easy is confronted with an almost Faustian choice when a shady white carpetbagger offers him $100 to find Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), who has gone missing in the black part of town. Easy knows there has to be a catch, but to maintain his little patch of America he decides to do a deal with this white devil. Easy is convinced he can maintain his dignity, his sense of right and his commitment to his community despite it all. Remarkably, by and large, he succeeds. By the end of the film, Easy's illusions in democracy and prosperity are severely tested. The irony is that he survives only because of the loyalty of his best friend, Mouse (Don Cheadle). Mouse is everything that Easy is fighting to avoid becoming: a person without a shred of morality, who can kill and injure without the blink of an eye, whose only goal in life is to survive. It is a paradox that perplexes Easy throughout the film and into Walter Mosley's next three novels. The release of Devil in a Blue Dress casts a brilliant spotlight on the work of Walter Mosley, whose novels follow in the tradition of the great African American crime writer Chester Himes. During a recent visit to Sydney, Watts-born Mosley explained in a newspaper interview, "I'm interested primarily in poor black people. That's my roots. I write about us — our lives, our history and the issues which even in today's so-called enlightened society are still murky." Mosley's novels — beginning with Devil, then A Red Death, White Butterfly, and finally Black Betty — are set between 1948 and 1961. As time passes, reflecting the mood of the black population as a whole, Rawlins becomes increasingly conscious and militant. Mouse becomes increasingly desperate and dangerous. See the film, read the books.

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