On 'Baby Driver' and black retribution hidden behind white privilege

July 11 2017

In just the last 30 or more days between June and July of 2017, Black America has been sent reeling from the acquittal of police officer Jeronimo Yanez for the senseless murder of Philando Castile, an armed and gun permit-holding black man who was killed as he was reaching for the license the officer asked him for after informing the officer that he was armed and had a permit to carry; a mistrial that was declared in the murder of Samuel Dubose by police officer Raymond M. Tensing; the murder of a mentally troubled black pregnant woman, Charleena Lyles who was gunned down by police as she wielded a knife killing her and her unborn child; the murder of Giovonn Joseph-McDade a 20 year old black college student by police officers after a failed traffic stop; and just to add insult to these and many other injustices, perjury charges against the police officer who arrested Sandra Bland who was found dead in her jail cell in July of 2015, have been dropped.  And just like that, in a quick succession of real life events, in the eyes of law enforcement and the judicial system that protects it, back lives certainly don’t matter when it is time to hold those accountable who work within that justice system for their abuses of power and their open murder of black people.

In America, the authority to kill a minority is a privilege that comes with the badge of law enforcement.  Anyone attempting to say or believe something different needs only to wait a few days or weeks until the next cold-blooded murder, the next acquittal, the next mistrial, the next rebellion  and the next multi-million dollar survivor’s court settlement as hush money, to have their illusions stripped away with this cold, racist, barbaric and unjust reality.  Black people are continually being murdered by law enforcement without any legal accountability for the officers involved.

It is within the context of this real-life backdrop of injustice against black people by law enforcement and the judicial system that a film has been released in movie theaters about a mostly white band of criminals, successfully pulling off a succession of increasingly violent robberies (killing over 19 police officers, security guards, and bystanders and causing untold amounts of property damage) until their luck runs out and one of them is caught and sentenced to 25 years to life with the possibility of parole in 5 years.  All this that has just been described is what makes Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver feel like a backhanded pimp slap of white privilege against each and every black face that might be watching this film. Baby Driver is a dynamic film supported by tour-de-force editing, wild car chases, inventive cinematography, an eclectic soundtrack (everything from Queen to the Commodores) that carries with it the stale odor of white privilege as its guiding thematic principal that allows it to show a white male criminal character, complicit in vicious murders of law enforcement,large-scalee robberies, carjacking and property damage, receive a light sentence and get paroled into the waiting arms of his beloved girlfriend. The end; cue music, a white appropriation of the classic Lionel Richie and The Commodores 1977 hit song, "Easy."  This is a discussion of Edgar Wright’s film, Baby Driver, that will look at film from two perspectives: one from white perspective the film seduces the spectator to appreciate using various cinematic and dramatic devices and another from the perspective of the black token character that allows Black audience members to resist the seduction of the white perspective and see the film as both a form of black retribution for real life injustices and an accurate, albeit sickening, display of how the justice system works for white people as it fails over and over again for black people in reality. Therefore, there will be many spoilers for those who haven’t yet seen the film.  

Baby Driver is the story of a white orphan boy named Baby (Ansel Elgort), who after losing his parents in a car crash, is left with a few facial scars and a severe case of “ringing in the ears” which he has learned to drown out with music: both his own and an eclectic playlist on various iPods.  His foster parent, who has raised him into a young man that we see presently on the screen, is a black deaf man named, Joseph (C.J. Jones), who is becoming aware of Baby’s criminal activities but is powerless to stop him. As a means of taking care of his aging foster parent, Baby was forced to become the getaway driver of a criminal mastermind named, Doc (Kevin Spacey), whose car he had once stolen. He must participate in a series of heists and robberies with a crew of usual accomplices to pay back his debt to Doc. Three of the criminal accomplices are Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Elza Gonzalez) an interracial cocaine fueled crime couple and Bats (Jamie Foxx) a hardened black criminal who is suspicious of Baby’s driving abilities and commitment to their criminal endeavors.  Like many other heist and robbery films with professional criminals looking for one last score before getting out, the final heist in Baby Driver is one that will allow Baby to put his foster parent in an assisted living facility and allow him to runaway with his newly found girlfriend, a waitress named, Deborah (Lily James).  Needless to say, things don’t work out as planned during this final heist essentially because of the reckless and destructive actions of the Bats character.

By far, it is Jamie Foxx who both gives the best performance in the film (not withstanding another great performance from Kevin Spacey), and whose character of Bats is the most provocative within the film.  Such critical assessments might seem to be totally mistaken to white spectators of the film, particularly since Baby is the film’s main white character upon which the entire story is centered upon. But, by applying the perspective of black film scholar, Anna Everett, we can understand that these critical assessments are based on the notion that black spectators of films with “'integrated casts,' …may be more conscious than Whites of the racial hierarchy in which members of their group seldom qualify as the hero. (Again, even if Whites are conscious of the hierarchy, it will have different implications for them.)” (1)  That is to say, while many spectators (white people, black people and others) are encouraged to identify with the main white character of Baby Driver, some black people, like myself, may find themselves identifying with the Bats character and his fearless disruption of the best laid plans of  white people in part because of Foxx’s carefully modulated and menacing performance.

The film  Baby Driver references many films from recent and distant film history (as this is part of Edgar Wright’s directorial signature) and with Jamie Foxx playing the Bats character in this film, Wright visually quotes the explosive liberation shot from Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012).  It is a visual reference that allows black viewers to see Fox’s Bats character as a different kind of Django in a modern context.  While on the surface one could interpret the Bats character as merely a black token in an otherwise majority white film (including the Latina character of Darling, who functions as a white surrogate figure in her interracial romance with the white man, Buddy) in Foxx’s capable hands, the Bats character becomes something more than a token; he becomes a symbol of retribution. Similar to the Bechdel test for female characters in films, we can usually judge a black character in a white film as a token when the black character is not given at least one intimate scene of romantic or familial interaction without the white characters on screen. In Jamie Foxx’s powerful performance, Bats is a black token character with an agenda that will be discussed in depth here.

When looking at Baby Driver through a white lens of character identification, which the film emphatically encourages the spectator to do, the Bats character is simply seen as a narcissistic sociopathic asshole who is ruining the plans of the sympathic – but badass  white characters.  Yet, if we look at the Bats character through a lens of black character identification, he appears as a brave and cunning avenger who ruthlessly murders a gang of corrupt undercover police officers in revenge for his own personal injustice (and by extension all corrupt police officers who meet out injustices to black people as part of their daily routine in reality) and he unequivocally questions the authority and the abilities of the white characters to whom he is supposed to defer.  It is through the sudden, violent and cunning actions of the Bats character that all the white characters are forced to own their criminal personas and stop hiding behind the business-like delusion that they just are normal people supplementing their incomes.  

Like the subversive servant character of black actor Mantan Moreland (1902-1973), who appeared as a black token in countless majority-white cast B-movies in the 1930s and '40s (Harlem on the Prairie - 1937, King of the Zombies - 1941, Lucky Ghost - 1942).  Moreland, according to scholar Cedric J. Robinson,”…consistently constructed a comedic space which paralleled, ornamented, and on occasion threatened the principal plot of the films in which he appeared.” (2) In short, while Moreland appeared as the token “cooning” for white audiences, his improvisational asides, gestures, and defiance,”…achieved a documented record of Black coding of filmic reality.” (3) Where white filmmakers and audiences may have thought that Moreland was making a fool of himself for their amusement, black audiences understood that he was actually making fools of the white characters and their dramatic circumstances.  These different codes and readings of black characters in white films can also be seen in how Black audiences might interpret Sidney Poitier’s killer side eye glances in Norman Jewison’s, In The Heat of The Night (1967) that speak of a nonverbal defiance and suspicion of whites to black audiences and how they might mean something different and less defiant and suspicious to white audiences watching the same film.  Black actors like Poitier and Foxx could take token roles in white films and find ways in their performances to communicate through tone of voice, gesture and glance directly to a Black audience that white filmmakers and white audiences are unable to decode or comprehend as intended.

It is my contention that Jamie Foxx’s stunning work as the black token character of Bats in Baby Driver fills a space of black retribution against corrupt law enforcement and white superiority which parallels, ornaments, and on occasion, threatens the principal plot of white privilege that the film upholds by its conclusion.  In particular, the sudden killings of several corrupt undercover police officers by Bats occur as a shock and surprise to all the other white characters in the film.  Bats later explains his reason for the slaughter as being because he recognized an officer who “put him away” years ago and the various markings on the weapons they were sent to purchase revealed to him that these officers were crooked.  But through the lens of blackness, Bats’ actions can be interpreted as a violent metaphor for black retribution against crooked, cowardly and racist cops who have killed and are killing so many unarmed black folks these days for any reason hidden behind the insulting excuse of an armed officer fearing for their life. Where white spectators (and some blacks and others) who have been successfully seduced by the plot of Baby Driver, tend to see Bats as an asshole who is deliberately ruining the best laid plans of the white-led criminal gang for his own personal ego, it is still possible for some black spectators to see Bats actions as a metaphor for justice finally served against corrupt law enforcement and all the black lives that don’t matter to them.

Given how sensitive law enforcement agencies around the country are to anything less than a flattering portrayal of their collective actions in films and television and their outspokenness against filmmakers who dare depict their corruption, cowardice and racism – recall the National Association of Police Organization’s call to boycott Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight after the director spoke out against the murder of unarmed black people by police in 2015. One might ask, what is it that has allowed Wright to get away with a black male character murdering corrupt law enforcement on screen in cold blood in Baby Driver?(4) My two-fold answer for the lack of concern for these subversive acts within Baby Driver is found within dramatic and formal structure of the film itself.  In regards to the dramatic structure of the film, it is only after the gun dealers are murdered that Bats and Doc confirm that these weapons dealers were really undercover corrupt police officers. The withholding of this information until after the murders allows some fictional distance between the violent actions and the revelation of the victims as police officers.  It is this fictional distance between the act and the revelation that allows the metaphor of black retribution to slip past unnoticed by those spectators who have been seduced by the film’s dramatic focus on the white main character of Baby which in turn enables them to interpret Bats’ actions as self centered and unnecessary rather than subversive and retributive.

The second reason the metaphor of black retribution in the violent actions of the Bats character is not seen as politically subversive is that the film Baby Driver is organized around resolving the emotional and dramatic circumstances of the white central character of Baby. It is by very definition a white film. After Baby horrifically murders the Bats character by using his car to drive a long metal pole through Bats’ chest in a visually crude form of white phallic retribution for the persistent myth of exaggerated black penis size, the film itself uses the capture, trial, imprisonment and parole of the Baby character to efface the subversion of Bats’ actions by attempting to force the spectator to accept the happy resolution of Baby’s circumstances.                  

One could easily push back and say that Wright in no way intended Bats’ actions of murdering corrupt law enforcement officers to be seen as a subversive form of black retribution for the murders of unarmed Blacks by law enforcement officers in real life.  It is clear that Wright intended audiences to believe that a White male who was complicit in a series of armed robberies, multiple murders of law enforcement and bystanders, carjacking and untold amounts of property damage could be sentenced to a 25 to life prison sentence and be paroled after 5 years into the waiting arms of his girlfriend.  The final circumstances in Baby Driver are unequivocal representations of white privilege that demonstrate how the judicial system “lightens” the severity of the crimes of White criminals and the sentencing of white criminals vis-à-vis black criminals who are often sentenced for each particular crime related to a single criminal endeavor or punished with mandatory sentences that leave them languishing in prisons for the rest of their lives or are murdered before they ever get arrested by police officers who know that they will never be held accountable for killing a black suspect.  Even though the ending of Baby Driver is dramatically implausible, it has a certain verisimilitude in how it captures the essential difference between how White criminals are treated within the American justice system and how black criminals are treated within that same justice system.    

So even now as black America contends with the brutal beating death of Bakari Henderson, a 22-year-old black college graduate and American tourist allegedly after taking a “selfie” at a bar on the Greek island of Zakynthos in the early morning hours of Friday July 7th 2017, a film like Baby Driver in spite of its dazzling cinematic dynamism, invisible camera work (e.g., camera reflections in windows, mirrors, and reflective surfaces have been carefully hidden and/or digitally removed), and eclectic soundtrack- the film offers something more than just another stale exercise in white privilege with its white boy gets white girl resolution.  

Instead, because of Jamie Foxx’s passionate and calculated performance many black spectators have the freedom to interpret the character of Bats as a symbol and his actions as a fictional metaphor of retribution against corrupt law enforcement who cannot, in this democratic country that often claims to be the moral compass of the free world, be held criminally accountable for the open murder of unarmed and/or gun permit holding black people.  Whether writer/director Edgar Wright intended his film to contain a symbol of black retribution or a symbol of white privilege is beside the point.  Our freedom to interpret the film through the lens of blackness allows us the peculiar luxury of appreciating how one extremely talented black actor in an otherwise majority white film can turn a simple heist film into a powerful performative demonstration of, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (MLK)    

 

Notes

1. Quoted from pg. 122, Shots In The Mirror: Crime Films and Society, by Nicole Rafter. New York, Oxford University Press, 2006.

2. Pg. 373, Forgeries of Memory & Meaning: Blacks & the Regimes of Race in American Theater & Film Before World War 2, by Cedric J. Robinson. Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

3. Pg. 376, Ibid.

4.  “National Association of Police Organizations Joins Quentin Tarantino Boycott” by Dave McNary. 

5. “Towards Defining the Black Film: The Genuine, the Compromised, and the Token,” by Andre Seewood for a concise definition of a White film and a Black film.

             


Andre Seewood is the author of several books on film including Slave Cinema: The Crisis of the African-American in Film.  Pick up a copy here

by Andre Seewood on July 11 2017

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