White Devils, Black Heart

Invoking social realism more than pulp fiction, Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress is an innovative genre film on several counts. As the director's first studio project, the movie retains the same modest preference for acting and mood that distinguished his masterful indie thriller One False Move. This amounts to a triumph in the post-Tarantino age, when the brilliance of crime-film auteurs is measured by their facility with ultraviolent shocks and convoluted narratives. Instead, Franklin allows his larger themes some room to percolate by delivering the movie's private-eye formula with a casual, almost antiquated grace. Devil's most novel twist is its emphasis on the particulars of '40s-era African-American life. And where most noir whodunnits charge shadowy females with the crime of disturbing their hard-boiled male counterparts, this film's eponymous devil has her reasons. In fact, you could say the real femme fatale here is the white male.

Like the Walter Mosley book on which it's based, Franklin's film is equal parts classic mystery and historical portrait of Los Angeles circa 1948. The protagonist, Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins (Denzel Washington), is a war veteran who's recently lost his job as an airplane mechanic for mouthing off to his white boss. Early on, the ironically named Easy is described as "one of the few colored men around here who owns his own house"--which can't be an easy feat. Indeed, up against mortgage payments without the benefit of a steady paycheck, Easy accepts a sleazy-looking white man's offer of a hundred bucks to locate Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), a high-society gal who's the fiancée of a rich mayoral candidate, and may be on the lam in L.A.'s black sector ("She likes dark meat," Easy's employer says). Mosley makes it clear that crossing the color line--except when whites hired blacks to solve their problems--wasn't allowed in the '40s, if ever. He may be Bill Clinton's favorite mystery writer, but Mosley's sensitivity to issues of race and class is real.

More than the archetypal private dick, Easy is a conduit for both Mosley and Franklin to explore the rigid divisions within segregated society. Appropriately, the movie restricts our understanding of the mystery to what the hero himself knows: Easy's smooth voice-over narration keeps us properly informed, while a few well-placed flashbacks indicate his past struggles with the white world. Through Easy (played with consummate cool by Washington), we become privy to the corrupt power structure that defines the rules of this urban game. Easy's worth as a protagonist, and talent as a private investigator, is that he's able to traverse all manner of locations: the smoky jump-blues clubs where Daphne is said to hang out; the run-down apartment complex where Easy goes to get info from a black acquaintance; the lavish mansion of Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), L.A.'s prospective mayor; and the ritzy, segregated hotel where Daphne has ensconced herself (she hires the bellboy to sneak Easy up to her room). As Franklin gradually paves the way to a climactic showdown, the movie's intrigue leads to a little cabin in the woods where the story's secret is literally being kept.

In drawing connections between these opposing milieus, Devil in a Blue Dress affirms that everyone--even the average Joe with a modest house and a tiny salary--is inextricably bound to the power structure. And in playing the characters' moralities off each other (not even Easy is immune to the temptations of greed and status), the movie also suggests that personal choices--to take money for investigating some obviously sordid goings-on, to date a big-wig player, to transgress boundaries, even to stay within enclosed circles--have dangerous consequences and larger ramifications. Throughout the film, Easy keeps upping the ante: He takes another hundred from his boss, the sadistic Dewitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), then a grand from Carter, then seven grand from another.

The increasing risk of Easy's wager is clinched by his request for the help of an old buddy named Mouse (Don Cheadle), a guy whom he knows to be a trigger-happy psychopath. Mouse's character could have been a familiar nutcase (think Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death or Joe Pesci in GoodFellas), but Franklin makes him infinitely more unique (and scary) by using Cheadle's gold-toothed grin as comic relief for Washington's reserved brooding. When Mouse suddenly shoots a suspect in the shoulder, he seems genuinely surprised that Easy is upset. The entire movie is that disarming; while the film's central mystery shouldn't be revealed, suffice it to say that the plot leads to a secret that's both ordinary and profound, reprehensible and forgivable.

In addition to being historically precise, Devil's view of post-war race relations is compelling in its contrast to current times (and current movies). On the one hand, Franklin indicates that L.A. has always been insidiously segregated and racially volatile; on the other, he reveals a subtle longing for the days when racism might have included slurs and even violence, but not the feel-good, de facto apartheid that emerged in later decades. Franklin's sun-washed images of Easy's neighborhood are filled with a wistful desire for simpler days: folks sipping beer and watering their lawns, kids jumping rope and selling lemonade, a mother and child playing with a stuffed animal. Easy looks on his neighborhood with pride, but he also understands the hypocrisy of what his investigation has uncovered: that racism persists even after a world war has been fought to secure freedom. In the movie's final scenes, Franklin's camera lingers on the relative calm that once was, taking measure of how far we haven't come in 50 years. CP

Devil in a Blue Dress is playing at area theaters.

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