As I type this, Black Lives Matter protests are still going in cities across America. Recent horror movies like GET OUT and MA are exploring the racial tensions between black and white Americans. This is nothing new. DUTCHMAN (1966) thrust those themes onto the screen nearly 40 years ago. Not only does it examine the difficult questions, but it’s got a stronger sense of suspense and dread than many movies made since.
DUTCHMAN is based on a play by Black author and activist Amiri Baraka. The entire movie consists of two speaking characters (others do appear silently in the background). There is one set–a subway car, aside from a couple brief shots of subway stations. The entire thing takes place in real time. Clay is a young black man and, in the beginning, the sole passenger of the subway car until Lula boards the train. She’s a white woman, a few years older than Clay, and dressed in an outfit that would be considered skimpy even by today’s standards, let alone the mid 1960s. She slinks over and, despite the entire car being empty, sits on the same bench as Clay. Immediately her flirtations begin. Lula offers Clay an apple, the symbolism of which is brutally obvious. He, being a college age man, enjoys her attention even as he’s a little creeped out by how forward she is. As odd as it is that she seems to know details of his life she couldn’t possibly know, her blatant sexuality is too much for him to turn down. She feeds him apples and snuggles up to him, rubbing his legs and inviting his affection.
Clay gets into it until he realizes the subway car has filled up while he wasn’t paying attention. Immediately he cools off. This infuriates Lula, who taunts Clay with racial slurs and makes fun of his middle-class affectations. At first Clay takes it with remarkable stoicism, but even the strongest man has to break at some point. His revealing monologue leads to a shocking moment of violence. By the time the movie ends we’re not sure where the story ends and the symbolism begins, or even if the characters were human at all.
When you only have two characters they both have to be on top of their game to keep the movie interesting. Luckily these two were. Shirley Knight was fearless as Lula. She oozed sinister sexuality with wild abandon. Al Freeman, Jr. pulled off the middle class, repressed Clay, who’s suppressed rage simmered closer and closer to the surface.
Amiri Baraka wrote the play after divorcing his Jewish wife. I have to wonder if that contributed to the racial and gender portrayals in the story. While I haven’t read the original play, considering Baraka wrote the screenplay, I imagine any changes fit his original vision. Director Anthony Harvey (who would go on to direct THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS) showed an incredible amount of restraint in letting the story and the characters speak for themselves. Even in its minimalism the movie borders on heavy handed melodrama. Harvey kept it from going so far over the edge that the audience would have been lost instead of fascinated.
Question of the night: what’s the strangest thing you’ve seen on public transportation?