Natural Born Killers

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts Our Town, Arts Our Town Downtown, Arts West Side Spirit.


Blue Caprice sentimentalizes tragic history

In the low-light neo-noir visual scheme of Blue Caprice, dark-skinned actor Isaiah Washington is automatically a silhouette, an emblematic obscure object of both dread and desire. Washington portrays John Muhammad, the elder member of the two-man team responsible for the Beltway sniper killings over three weeks in 2002. French director Alexandre Moors sees this social tragedy from a distance that turns its key elements of race and unfathomable evil into art concepts. 

trailer-for-blue-caprice-based-on-washington-dc-sniper-shootings-headerThis view of how grudge-bearing Muhammad met the lonely, fatherless young John Malvo (played by Tequan Richmond) in Antiqua, then brought him to the U.S. where he trains the kid to be a mindlessly obedient killing machine, is a strange platonic love story. Moora’ cool, sleek, steadily ambiguous mood makes projections about Black male character: how insular, stigmatized social figures develop and express anger. Named after the teal-and-chrome used car Muhammad and Malvo outfitted into a covert attack vehicle they drive from Tacoma, Washington to D.C., Blue Caprice is an estheticized existential mystery with a political enigma at its center–a shadowy Black boogie man.
It’s possible that Washington (who co-produced the film) chose this role to express some of the frustration from his recent career trouble and media vilification–relating in some way to Muhammad’s own resentment of his failed marriage and social profiling. Yet despite Washington’s coiled efforts, this “dark” characterization is not enlightening. It repeats racial stigma and complements the mainstream media routine that exploits Black subjects then ignores their essence. Fittingly, the film’s documentary opening establishes a standard news and sociological point-of-view of the Beltway killings then goes no further.
This mystification–recalling David Fincher’s Zodiac “process” and Terrence Malick’s lyrically disaffected Badlands criminals, is in a different class from the trashy political sentimentality of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. But Daniels’ crude film comforts audiences with the sap they already want to see. The Black characters in Blue Caprice are no deeper than these generic title designations–just butler, maid and weapon: The enigmatic duo go underground (“I’ve created a monster” notes a white militia landmines seller). Take driving lessons and target practice (“The kid’s a fuckin’ natural,” says an off-grid white after seeing Malvo’s gun skills). Muhammad writes a Handbook (“A sniper must not be susceptible to emotions such as anxiety or remorse”). Yet their exploits (including s&m-style training sessions in the woods and quasi-sexual professions of love) don’t illuminate the subliminal problem of social maladjustment–even though the major issue comes down to race conflict.
In Andre Techine’s probing The Girl on the Train, New York’s Tawana Brawley case was transposed to Paris as a bourgeois white girl’s story to investigate the warped liberalism of too-close identification with social victims while Blue Caprice stays morally distant, catering to spurious, liberal sympathy–the flipside of racist contempt. In this view, Muhammad and Malvo are archetypal African Americans and a Black man’s grievance seems just…crazy.
Muhammad is livid and Malvo is morally blank; like the protagonist in Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien, they refute any understanding about the effects of racism on personality. At the film’s New Directors/New Films premiere last Spring, the MoMA crowd bought this terror–welcomed it as part of their cultural sophistication–while avoiding any movies about life-affirming Black experience as banal. That’s one of the problems Blue Caprice doesn’t resolve.

Moors’ Blue Caprice

Moors’ Blue Caprice

Why would Washington rebound from career ignominy by portraying a serial killer? The choice could be a perfect response to the frequent Black demonization in film culture (whether it’s Denzel Washington’s rogue cop in Training Day, Halle Berry’s skank in Monsters Ball, Mo’Nique’s gorgon in Precious or when stereotyping is reversed as in the maudlin victimization of Fruitvale Station). In the same fashion Blue Caprice perceives only the superficial aspects of Muhammad and Malvo’s malevolence and leaves it at that. Muhammad and Malvo aren’t seen with the same inquiring depth as the father-son theft scene in Vittorio deSica’s The Bicycle Theif. Instead, by ignoring–excusing–the complexities of Black American social circumstances, Blue Caprice falls into the same pit as Denzel Washington’s bacchanal in Flight: the query into Black masculine stress is left a bogus mysterious. Malvo becomes a bleeding-heart puppet and gets the last, guilt-inducing word: “Where’s my father?”

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