The Way of the Samurai Directed
by Jim Jarmusch
Whitaker returns to the prison of white imagination in Ghost Dog: The Way
of the Samurai–a movie with a concept dumb enough to excite those teenagers
struck by the exoticism of chop-socky movies. The potentially commercial title
suggests a correlative for the frustration and revenge of their inner-city lives.
But director-writer Jim Jarmusch, no disadvantaged ghetto teen, employs hip
exoticism out of bohemian fascination and superficial frustration with the straight
As Ghost Dog–a hip-monickered
New Jersey loner and pigeon-trainer who functions as an underground hit man
for the mob–Whitaker plays a fetish object of white condescension. The
difference between Ghost Dog and The Green Mile‘s John Coffey is
only that the former carries a gun. The difference between Forest Whitaker and
Michael Clark Duncan is that the former is an actor–a superb one. Whitaker
makes Ghost Dog’s impassive image at times remarkably stirring; he implies
levels of feeling that Jarmusch’s script doesn’t explore. It’s
not a hateful, ignorant black proposition, as in Liberty Heights or Tarantino;
Ghost Dog is plainly meant to move audiences from feeling scared to compassionate
about Whitaker’s menacing hulk.
But Jarmusch is a political
naif if he thinks his story effects a progressive emotional movement or moral
enlightenment. In today’s hiphop mentality, mainstream culture is in love
with its black bogeymen. This is just The Green Mile for hipsters. It’s
centered around a moment of white guilt: Ghost Dog gets beaten by a trio of
young white men until an older white mobster, Louie (John Tormey), comes upon
the assault and saves him. Jarmusch’s tale doesn’t address the white
racist hostility of such haunting events as Bensonhurst or Howard Beach (as
even Spike Lee did not have it together to do in the reactionary Jungle Fever).
Instead Jarmusch indicates such tragedies, then claims the current confused
mix of patronization and shame. He shows nothing more of Ghost Dog’s past
or his sexual life; through the near-lynching flashback we see that Ghost Dog’s
being–as a figure of cultural obsession and local myth–was sparked
at an ambivalent moment of white social consciousness.
Distracting from this self-centeredness
is Jarmusch’s formal overlay of Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai,
an 18th-century Japanese warrior text. Ghost Dog unaccountably reads it and,
in return for saving his life, applies its precepts to becoming Louie’s
hired killer. Ghost Dog indentures himself while Louie and the other white mobsters
(angry that a hit was performed in front of one’s daughter) become obsessed
with killing Ghost Dog. As a paradigm for modern race relations Ghost Dog’s
sense of indebtedness is berserk; only the mob’s exasperation follows any
social logic. Viciousness comes two-sided: Sonny (Cliff Gorman), the mobster
who says, “We’re gonna peel this nigger’s cap back,” is
also the one who dances to “Cold Lampin with Flavor.” Though it’s
as facile as anything Spike Lee concocted in Summer of Sam, Jarmusch’s
film has a more benign temperament. He treats racial misperception in his usual
When a mobster discussion
of such hiphop nicknames as Ghost Dog and Snoop Doggy Dogg leads to Ray (Henry
Silva) comparing the Indian names Red Cloud and Black Elk, Jarmusch then points
up the mob’s own Joey Rags, Big Angie. His cultural reduction is just a
hipster version of John Sayles’ local color. Despite impeccable transitions
like Hagakure tropes superimposed over Ghost Dog’s measured urban
odyssey in stolen luxury cars, Jarmusch’s relative mastery of film technique
is no better than Sayles’. He noxiously pretends anti-sophistication. I
recently mistook a friend’s disparaging reference to Dead Man (Jarmusch’s
previous racial-commentary movie) as “deadpan” because–it can’t
be denied–Jarmusch’s low-key style of comedy is terribly enervating.
Even when confronting social injustice. It presumes emotional distance (a modern
version of the Beats’ existential cool) from bourgeois preoccupation. But
Ghost Dog‘s deadpan humor becomes frustrating; its detachment, an
insult to the social misery portrayed.
Jarmusch emblazons the epigraph
“And everyday without fail, one should consider himself dead. This is the
substance of the way of the Samurai.” But is it really the way of American
life–of the murderous old men sitting around in See-No-Evil trios, of homeboys
shouting out to Ghost Dog as he totes his briefcase/arsenal like Radio Raheem’s
beatbox? Perhaps only to bohos interested in moribund behavioral chic. This
puts Jarmusch ahead of a downward curve: combining style politics, hiphop allure
and movie references. Ghost Dog pursues urban scum vengefully like a black Travis
Bickle, confusing Taxi Driver‘s racial and sexual conflicts in a
stagy stop-action massacre–but, hey, anomie is cool. Especially when the
black protagonist eventually pays for the general social malaise with his life.
If a black man dies for the sins of rednecks (as in The Green Mile),
it’s called corny; if he dies for the sins of hipsters (Jarmusch also brings
Dante and Rashomon into play), it gets critical cachet.
Not so with Edward O. Bland’s
too-little-seen 1959 The Cry of Jazz. It contrasted better-known Beat
movies like Pull My Daisy with its scolding of white hipster assumptions
about black America and the psyche of the Other. The Cry of Jazz supplied
a cultural antidote to well-intended subculture nonsense that today’s hiphop
rarely provides. (Everlast’s anti-cop song “The Men in Blue”
is, for a white Irish-American, a braver pop project than Ghost Dog.)
Jarmusch attempts to justify
his wholly conventional stereotyping by mirror reflection when Ghost Dog greets
Wu-Tang’s the RZA on the street. Given the brain-fried dragginess of RZA’s
music score, their face-to-face is redundant. (Where’s Tricky when you
need him?) And Jarmusch’s teensy Lauryn Hill-figure, Pearline (Camille
Winbush)–an optimistic child whom Ghost Dog befriends and lends a book–is
not redemptive. She’s really just an early Jonathan Demme cherub.
Hip critics applaud Ghost
Dog’s characterization because it compresses collective white fantasies
about social displeasure more than it dramatizes his own–or anyone’s–individuality.
In Diary of a Hit Man, Whitaker played a distinctly defined hit man among
a close-knit group of social misfits. Here, he’s a figure of political
stealth, a recognizable phantom avenging the social chaos that, in the white
imagination, will one day be avenged by grim black reapers. That’s part
of the fantasy 50s hipsters imputed to black criminals and it’s been carried
through to contemporary notions of black sexual and social audacity in hiphop.
It’s personified in Ghost Dog, the mass-murdering auto-thief. Whitaker’s
plaited-back hair and broad scalp line recalls the rapper Eric B. His sleepy
right eye evokes the various bad-health-care deformations of the Wu-Tang Clan.
It’s a face some can only see as angry, reflecting back their own insensitivity.
And though he looks opaque and sullen, Whitaker supplies a soulfulness that
makes up for the deadpan inarticulacy Jarmusch imposes. Even the choked utterances
of his death scene–as much as he ever gets to say–attest to Whitaker’s
marvelous skill and empathy.
Yet, Whitaker’s Ghost
Dog does not achieve Terry Malloy’s spiritual struggle in On the Waterfront,
because a black male’s social context is not as well understood or familiar
to Jarmusch as white proletarian suffering was to Budd Schulberg or Elia Kazan.
They theatricalized it and authenticated it. In place of social or humane astuteness,
Jarmusch further anthropomorphizes Ghost Dog with two parallel cartoon edits–one
during a shootout and then making key symbology when Ghost Dog, looking through
his own gunsight, spots a woodpecker. Jarmusch links this to a tv broadcast
of Woody Woodpecker as an emblem of Ghost Dog’s wiliness. It’s cute
but despite our post-Civil Rights frankness and hiphop-era postmodernism, Ghost
Dog’s character isn’t any more readable than Juano Hernandez playing
William Faulkner’s Lucas Beauchamp, the stoic black man opposing white
lynch mobs. In fact, Ghost Dog, inscrutably familiar to our sense of racial
deprivation, is probably less readable. Because that’s the way it’s
meant to be, Jarmusch’s movie is a patronizing failure.
“A black man has to
be in prison to get an Oscar nomination,” a friend said about Denzel Washington
and Michael Clark Duncan’s place in Hollywood’s recently announced
popularity contest. Ignoring last year’s most remarkable performances by
black actors–Jamie Foxx in Any Given Sunday, Harry Lennix in Titus,
Charles Dutton in Cookie’s Fortune, Jeffrey Wright in Ride with
the Devil and Delroy Lindo in The Cider House Rules–the Academy
Awards demonstrated the cultural preference for a subjugated black image. If
the specter of black criminality isn’t literally institutionalized, it’s
still in people’s minds.
The Academy’s putting
The Cider House Rules in the Best Picture running, rather than The
Hurricane (or Cookie’s Fortune), pinpoints this tendency to
promote black deprivation over perseverance or understanding. And, fittingly,
The Cider House Rules keeps that social dread undercover. You’d
never know from Miramax’s carpet-bombing ad campaign that the movie had
any black characters. The triumphal tv spots and print ads emphasize the cuddly
orphanage story–Michael Caine’s sentimental abortionist over Tobey
Maguire’s callow lad–summarizing its idealization of white liberal,
pro-choice vanity. It’s the black characters (headed by Delroy Lindo and
Erykah Badu) who bear the punishment of social transgression–but only after
they have supplied the film with its quasi-hipster, dissident title metaphor
by defying the arbitrary social rules of their home and workplace.
In Miramax’s Music
of the Heart (Meryl’s Oscar nod), ghetto students show off at a charity
benefit by scratching “We Shall Overcome” on their violin strings.
Both these movies–two accursed weepies–exploit black culture and its
implicit social struggle for white self-congratulation. Cider House author
John Irving and director Lasse Hallstrom share Jarmusch’s social interest
but they can’t overcome the racist hegemony they think they’re addressing.
Cider House‘s black incest subplot throws Hallstrom’s delicate
sentiments out of whack for a fake impression of depth, just as Jarmusch demonizes
the black loner to highlight social inequity. The Green Mile similarly
sentimentalizes its black martyr who has already–conveniently–executed
the real killer (not to mention having congressed with a white woman). Using
black characters to exact revenge on the social ideas one abides by yet dislikes
is a new style of hypocrisy. Think of The Cider House Rules and Ghost
Dog as exemplifying Hollywood’s Hypocritical Oath.
Wars. Forest Whitaker’s fine acting in Ghost Dog is currently complemented
by Judy Berlin‘s largely female cast giving depth to white American
female frustration. You could extend Judy Berlin‘s limited scheduled
engagement by running to see its poignant emotional mosaic. It deserves more
comment next week.