With June now behind us, and July just welcoming us, Netflix’s usual purge of older streaming titles has happened (rights expirations), with a new list of titles replacing them. Scrolling the list of those that become available on the streaming platform today, July 1, one that immediately caught my eye was "Crimson Tide" – a movie I haven’t seen in ages, and one of Denzel Washington’s best, in my not-so humble opinion.
It got my attention because it instantly reminded me of a debate we had on the old S&A site, many moons ago (when it was still a hobby, and relatively-unknown) – a debate I thought I’d revisit years later, if only because the site’s readership has grown exponentially since then, and I’m curious to read even more reactions to the central argument.
In summary, at a Black cinema conference I attended that year on representation (2009), one of the panelists (Dr Todd Boyd) spoke to the power that black Hollywood stars have in controlling the portrayals of the characters they play on screen, and how that power seems to have almost gone into retrograde, despite the progression in racial acceptance/tolerance since the Civil Rights movement of the 60s.
Specifically, Boyd compared Sidney Poitier’s immediate reaction to Mr Endicott’s slap, in the 1968 classic, "In The Heat of The Night," to, 27 years later, Denzel Washington’s response to Gene Hackman’s double slaps (although they were more like punches to the face), in 1995′s "Crimson Tide."
His point was that Washington, as a contemporary Hollywood movie star, with power, should have insisted, as Poitier did, that his character respond with the same instinctive reaction – a return slap/blow to Gene Hackman’s jaw – especially given the difference in the racial climates during which both films were produced and released. His argument suggested that Washington really had no excuse for allowing that scene to play out as it did, as a black Hollywood star with clout.
Naturally, some disagreed with Dr Boyd, stating that context was important in both instances; and I recall someone mentioning a code of conduct in the Navy, which is the milieu in which "Crimson Tide" takes place, stating that a lower-ranking officer (Denzel’s character) would not respond in real life, and would simply take the blows from the superior officer (Gene Hackman’s character).
And to that, a counter argument was made, asserting that there’s a difference between so-called real life and Hollywood movies, in that, Hollywood movies are essentially fantasy, and don’t necessarily strive to fully represent reality, as we’ve seen numerous times when Hollywood has taken liberties in studio-produced films, re-writing history, or the present; And so, certainly, the script could have been adjusted so that Denzel’s character indeed retaliated, if only because of pride and ego, and then face any legal consequences later… or at least, the character could have been written that way, because, it’s fantasy anyway, right? That was the other side of the argument some presented.
It was also suggested by others that the same could be said for Poitier – specifically, in talking about “realistic” representations of scenarios; would a black man in the 60s, in the south, slapping a white man, get off as easily as Tibbs does in that film? And if not, then, Poitier really was moving mountains by insisting his character return the slap, and thus Denzel, once again, really could have done the same.
It’s all debatable I suppose, hence this post.
We’ve discussed and debated ad naseam the, shall we say, testicular fortitude of Hollywood’s leading black male stars (and/or lack thereof), when it comes to making certain character decisions in the roles that they choose to play, and how they portray them. Dr Boyd’s presentation touched on that a little bit, and this came up as an aside. So if you hadn’t given much thought to this specific comparison of scenes he made a few years ago (and I can’t say if he still feels the way he did back then) between both movies, with Poitier and Washington, think about it now, and share your thoughts in the comment section below!
Here are both scenes.
"In The Heat Of The Night":
And here’s the scene from "Crimson Tide." It helps if you’ve seen the whole movie already, for context. It’s probably the best film on the long list of actor/director collaborations between Denzel Washington and Tony Scott.