Produced by Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment company, and released in theatres in 2008, I recently watched Lakeview Terrace again, in consideration of some reasearch I’ve been doing on contemporary films and their handling of interracial couples.
But in watching it, and putting aside what inspired me to watch it again in the first place, I realized that the film actually had the potential to be significantly more valuable than what ended up on screen.
Let me explain…
The premise engages to start with: in its most simplistic form, a young interracial couple (white man/black woman) moves into their first home, right next door to an older black man a (single father) who despises interracial couples.
But it’s much more than that! Or at least, it tries to be, and fails.
The screenplay introduces several themes, but, unfortunately, none is really, fully explored. If anything, the original race-based premise as I laid out above takes a back seat to a tale on masculinity, as psychological and physical confrontations between both men (the white husband played by baby-faced Patrick Wilson, and the black neighbor, played by the hard-edged Samuel L Jackson) dominate the film.
It becomes a kind of chess match between the two, with Jackson’s Abel Turner having the upper-hand for much of the game; in essence, to put it simpler, we could look at it as a power struggle between a white man and a black man (reflecting everyday realities), with much more than just a house and a woman on the line.
Their entire world, as it exists in the film, and who controls it, is really what’s at stake here. And it could be easy to choose sides based on racial solidarity; but Samuel L Jackson’s character is so spiteful to the point of being somewhat unrealistic, that the audience really has no choice but to dislike him. There’s no subtlety in Abel Turner. He’s an asshole, simply put. There are moments when the film seems to want us to try and empathize with him, but it’s difficult to, given how much of a disruptive force he really is.
Not that men like him can’t exist in real life, but, I think some complexity in his portrayal would have made for a much more intriguing film.
One of those moments I mention was actually a pretty good one, and I think it summed up quite clearly what’s at the core of the anger and frustration that impairs a lot of black men in this country. And the film would have been better for it, if the script further expanded on that moment.
In that scene, Jackson’s Turner tells Wilson’s Chris, the white husband, how much he hates the fact that, as a white man, he can arrogantly have whatever or whomever he wants, without pause, without concern, without having to ask, or worry how he might be received by the rest of the world. And, as Abel sees it, in his emotionally unstable mental state, Chris’s marriage to a black woman exemplifies all of that, and he challenges him in ways most of us probably wouldn’t so readily consider.
But Abel can do this because (and here’s the conceit) he is a police officer. Of course! So, even if Chris toughened up and challenged Abel every step of the way, man-to-man, he’d still likely lose, because he’s not just going up against another man (regardless of race), he’s going up against a cop – a veteran at that, with many friends on the force. He won’t just be going up against a man, he’ll be challenging an institution – a very powerful one, that could make his life reasonably uncomfortable.
There’s another reason for Abel’s madness, which I won’t reveal here, for fear of spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. He clearly feels justified in his actions, and, in that single scene, he tells Chris everything he needs to know. And, as I said, it’s actually quite an important, powerful scene; but instead of staying solidly on that course, the film falters – especially in the last act, when it tumbles, and becomes so absurd that whatever connections I’d made with the characters and the story were quickly shattered, and I found myself laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.
It was a disappointment because, as I said, it had the potential to be so much more. It introduces several topical issues that I’d say really haven’t been seriously and comprehensively tackled enough on film (despite attempts here and there) – notably, attitudes towards interracial coupling, specifically within the black community, especially when one half of the pair is a black woman; the so-called shortage of black men, and the plight of the single, black professional woman; the struggle for power and control between black men and white men; an examination of black manhood and black masculinity; psychological illness in the black community; and a bit more.
However, the film never really digs deep enough on any of those issues, instead choosing to hang onto the usual Hollywood story-telling tropes.
But in its defense, if I could come up with one, it actually had me asking myself what I would do, if I were in either situation – specifically, if I were in Chris’s position. It could be quite emasculating, if not maddening, feeling so helpless, and not being able to protect your family (specifically your wife), as you’ve been socialized to believe is your duty as a man in this society we’ve created for ourselves – as sexist as that might sound. But sexism (and misogyny) is nothing new to Neil LaBute, who directed the film (see In The Company Of Men, his debut).
Kerry Washington is disappointingly more of a prop here, with really nothing to do; although she is present. However, as I already said, the film really becomes centered on this battle between men – one white, the other black; and we could say a battle that mirrors real life struggles.
The ending was inevitable, given the set-up and progression. But it was still laughable unfortunately, and, as already stated, could have been avoided with some tweaking in the screenplay, that would have improved the overall quality of the film.
However, overall, it’s not as bad a film as I expected it to be; so maybe I went into it with low expectations, and thus my expectations were indeed met. But, there’s clearly a brain behind this one (despite its flaws and lack of ambition), and I’d have liked to see this movie made outside of Hollywood, rated-R, instead of PG13, which was its original rating.
There’s a heartbeat here; it just wasn’t given, or should I say allowed, the kind of pump it needs to make it much more compelling.
If you saw Lakeview Terrace, your thoughts?