Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review: DUTCHMAN (1967).

The racial allegory runs deep when a seductive white woman targets a black man in this edgy adaptation of the groundbreaking Obie-winning play by Amiri Baraka [LeRoi Jones] -- a two-character confrontation which provides an acting tour de force for Shirley Knight and Al Freeman Jr., and was also the first film by director Anthony Harvey (THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, THE LION IN WINTER). Only 55-minutes long, this often eschews reality in favor of two-ton metaphor, but that doesn't blunt its provocative (and often downright fucking angry) agenda.

It's a steamy evening in the New York City subway, and a suit-'n'-tie-attired black man named Clay locks eyes with a tempting young woman -- blonde, white, wearing a striped mini-skirt -- on the platform. She enters the same empty car, introduces herself as Lula, sits beside him, and begins to flirt so aggressively that it's a little creepy. No surprise, Clay is turned on by this unpredictable beauty, who keeps chowing down on apples that she pulls from her purse, but he's also confounded by her abrupt mood shifts. One moment she's sensually draping her bare legs over his lap, the next this Manic Pixie Nightmare is shouting, crying and eventually even calling him an "escaped nigger" and "Uncle Tom." For the film's first 25 minutes, it's just the two in the car alone -- though it eventually fills up with background commuters who pay little attention to them -- and despite all of her eccentric behavior antics, Lula keeps Clay's from simply bolting from this nutjob with promises of them doing "the nasty."

Steeped in Baraka's almost poetic dialogue, Knight has a field day with this batshit-crazy role -- flinging fruit about, climbing all over Clay, dancing around the car, berating the other passengers, until (like the legendary Flying Dutchman that its title evokes) Lula shifts her attention to fresh prey on this perpetually-moving subway car -- and it's like nothing the two-time Oscar nominee had done before. But while Knight has the showier role, it's only when Freeman's initially passive character finally unleashes his own personal rage that this long-simmering film comes to a full boil. Freeman is so incredible during his blistering diatribe that you wonder how he never became a bigger name in the biz. Meanwhile, its black-and-white cinematography by Gerry Turpin (THE WRONG BOX, OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR) blends authentic, eerily empty shots of NYC subway platforms with its train car set. 

Sure, DUTCHMAN seems a bit heavyhanded nowadays -- what with Lula as a metaphor for America's treatment of the black man -- but when the play premiered in 1964, it was controversial stuff, with its shocking conclusion gaining additional potency following the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and its interracial tensions still resonating 50 years after it was written.

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