DUTCHMAN (Anthony Harvey, 1967)

This is the sort of thing I cannot understand. Less than two years earlier, Anthony Harvey, the director of the inflated, misshapen, sentimental, largely rhetorical The Lion in Winter (1968), made a fierce, elegant Dutchman, adapted by Amiri Baraka from the ferocious play, a contemporary U.S. racial parable, by Baraka when he was still using his birthname, LeRoi Jones. Both are British films, but Lion seems strangely Hollywooden. In any case, Dutchman is well worth watching, even at this late date.
     Shirley Knight is terrific as Lula, a white woman who sexually teases and in every way taunts Clay (Al Freeman Jr., excellent), a reserved black man, on a subway train. The two are, at first, alone in the subway car, but unaccountably more and more passengers seem to be popping up there. Before long, the two are making out and Lula is slapping Clay into place with the word nigger. Violence is where the train is headed; and once Clay is taken care of, Lula moves on to work her compulsive calamity on another unsuspecting African-American passenger.
     Harvey also (expertly) edited, and Gerry Turpin’s creamy black-and-white cinematography deposits the action in a repetitive, incendiary dream. One metaphor, alas, seems unshakable: the train has no chance of leaving its track in its “buried,” underground setting. We move along, sometimes suppressing our racial divisions, but doing little, if indeed anything can be done, to eliminate the mindset of white superiority and historical rationalization that have engendered these. When in the twenty-first century they exhort U.S. blacks to “just get over” U.S. slavery, U.S. whites are being (more or less willfully) blind to the monstrousness of the institution and the persistence of its residue in other American institutions and in American lives and everyday American life.


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