Prelude to a . . . waitasec. What was the question again? [Rerun Sunday]

You can find a brief explanation of “Rerun Sunday” here.

The post below originally appeared on 10 Feb 2007.

[Possible mild spoilers ahead, depending on just how sensitive you are to these things.]

Just came home from seeing The Departed at the glorious second-run theatre around the corner. And it was, in all sorts of ways, classic Scorsese: it’s not a film for folks who flinch at a little blood (’cause there’s more than just a little to be found here), but it’s sharp and engaging and taut . . . and it’s tough to make a 151-minute film seem taut.

Still, as I walked home from the theatre, I found myself wondering about the film’s opening moments, which feature footage of white-vs.-black violence from the Boston busing furor of the 1970s, with a voiceover from Jack Nicholson’s character, Frank Costello:

I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me. Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying — we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers; true guineas. They took over their piece of the city. Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a fucking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this — no one gives it to you. You have to take it.

And then, after that, except for one brief line (also in the opening few minutes) from Matt Damon’s character, blackness effectively disappears from the movie as a subject of any significance. There are no scenes where Boston’s Irish mob tangles with crosstown black crime bosses, no visible racial tensions involving the movie’s lone black police officer, no further utterances of the N-word from Costello (or anyone else): for the last 145 minutes or so of the film, it’s simply a white man’s world, and no one else really matters much.

Which, to my mind, makes that opening speech and the accompanying footage all the more disturbing. Maybe the idea was to convince us that Costello is a cold-hearted bastard — except that Costello is also clearly supposed to be (and is) charming and charismatic (while still being a brutal crimelord) . . . and there are enough early scenes of Costello behaving like a violent badass to render any opening “tough guy” speech unnecessary to establish his credentials as such. So those initial words and images feel much more gratuitous than anything else: an excuse to have the biggest star in the movie drop the N-bomb and accuse black folks of being lazy, and to recirculate old images of rocks being thrown at (presumably) “lazy” black schoolchildren. And then, having done that, we can sweep all the blackness that’s just been invoked back under the rug and get on with the “real” business of watching six white men (Baldwin and Damon and DiCaprio and Nicholson and Sheen and Wahlberg) rack up an impressive body count to determine which of them is the real Alpha Male of All Boston.

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