Sunday, May 20, 2018

Norma Rae

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
This 1979 film is an appropriate follow-up to last week’s North Country as it too deals with female empowerment in the workplace. Here, the story (also based on a true one) takes place in a small southern American town in 1978, and the industry is textile manufacturing. Although the plot revolves around the attempt to unionize employees, the focus is on a man and a woman who forge a nonsexual bond that enhances both of their lives.
The movie opens to the sweet sound of Jennifer Warnes voice singing the Oscar-winning song “It Goes Like it Goes,” about blessing the hands of the working man as we see pictures of Norma Rae (Sally Field in her first Oscar winning role) as she grows up. But all of this nurturing has occurred within the boundaries of this insulated, poverty-constricting environment. That melodic music is harshly contrasted with the next scene inside the mill where the sound of the manufacturing machinery is deafening.  This counterpoint seems to imply that the voices of the workers are drowned out by toiling under punishing circumstances, and they are rendered unable to hear the voice of another who argues against their way of life. In fact, Norma’s mother, Leona (Barbara Baxley) can’t hear her own daughter speak during a break (yes, the whole family works here, because it is the only industry in the area, and, thus, the company has all of the power over their lives in the absence of choice). And, Norma’s voice is ignored when she complains to the company doctor that the hearing loss will eventually become permanent. In this scene, we do see that Norma is already defiant against unfair treatment as she says to her mother, “They don’t care about you.”
During that work break, as Norma talks with a fellow employee, we immediately get a feel for how the meager income existence has not left much opportunity for enjoyment here. The friend’s only excitement was jarring a large amount of fruit on the weekend. Norma uses humor to cope with her situation. When asked what she did, Norma says, “I soaked my feet.” But, her friend noticed that Norma was with a man with a nice car, and Norma readily admits that she spent time with him at the motel. But, her sleeping around can, at least in part, be understood as wanting to escape the dreary drudgery of the work week. When her father, Vernon (Pat Hingle), worried about her going out to meet men, asks where she is going as she prepares to leave the house, she sarcastically says she is going to buy underwear, some Kotex, and then she’ll be so worn out by all the excitement, she’ll have to come home. We do witness that she cares about her two children as she limits how much “junk” they watch on TV, and instructs them to finish their homework.


There is a switch to the other main character, Reuben Warshowskey, (Ron Leibman, who was robbed of at least an Oscar nomination for his powerful performance). His last name implies that he goes to “war” to help workers and “show” them the need to unionize. Although we learn that he has a great deal of experience as a union recruiter, he is a foreigner to these parts, and is suspect as an outsider. He goes to the door of one of the locals saying he’d like to board with a mill worker. The home owner asks him what kind of name is Warshowskey. There is the suggestion of anti-Semitism, which Reuben deflects when he says that his name is the kind you have to spell out. The scene shows the cultural barrier he must deal with. That negativity toward his Jewish background becomes overt when Reuben inquirers at Norma’s house. Her father, with Norma observing the encounter, is hostile toward union people, telling Reuben they are, “communists, crooks and Jews.” Vernon, like many others, has been indoctrinated to demonize anyone who will challenge the entrenched familiarity of the status quo.


Norma meets Reuben at the town’s motel lobby, where she is waiting for a man for a sexual encounter, and he is looking for a room, since he has been rejected at each home at which he stopped. Although these two are from very different worlds, they share a few similar experiences. Norma tells Reuben to make sure they spray his room for roaches, and he says with a smile, “I am very familiar with roaches.” There are unsavory places in all parts of the country. There is no smile on Norma’s face after having sex, and she tells the fellow that it’s the last time, the situation not making her feel good about herself, given that he is married, and the gossip can get ugly. Her reaction shows how she wants more for herself, but that she gets involved in this type of activity implies that she doesn’t have high enough self-esteem to expect to be in a good relationship. His reaction is demeaning, comparing her to a prostitute, having been paid with a steak dinner and pralines, and she is there to make him feel good, not her. We have the sexual double standard in full force here, as well as later in the film. He says she is a hick, with dirt under her fingernails, and he is outraged that she would have the nerve to dump him. His superior attitude makes him think he has the right to be abusive, and he then hits her as punishment for her even considering that she, a poor woman, is as good as he is. Reuben hears the commotion from his room and offers Norma some ice to put on her bleeding nose. She takes responsibility for her actions by metaphorically saying, “If you lie down with dogs, you get fleas.” By placing these two scenes sequentially we see contrasting ways that men treat women. The local male has an unevolved, closed minded attitude toward Norma, while Reuben, from a metropolitan area, where there is a free flow of ideas to question accepted beliefs, treats her with nonjudgmental kindness.

She enters his room (his world?) where she sees a picture of his girlfriend. The woman, Dorothy Finkelstein, is a Harvard graduate, Jewish, and a hotshot union lawyer.  Thus, the outside world offers a woman the opportunity to actualize her talents. He has a lot of books in the room, unlike many of the people in the area, who have been brought up to only use their bodies for labor, but not to exercise their minds. Norma, who has been so cut off from the truth of what lies beyond her surroundings, admits to never having met a Jew. Bigotry grows in ignorance, and she says that she was told that Jews have horns, suggesting the analogy to the devil. After meeting Reuben she concedes that falsehood, and says that he is just like them. Outwardly yes, but he points out to her that being a Jew makes him different. She asks what makes that so. His response is “History.” He is already expanding her perspective.
Reuben hands out flyers in front of the cotton mill at the beginning of the work day to persuade the workers to join the Textile Workers Union of America. Norma takes one of the sheets of paper, and now she starts to help him. She says that he used too many big words, thus showing that he has to better understand the people there for him to win them over. Inside the factory, a worker tells Norma that a supervisor wants to talk to her. Norma, so used to come-ons from other men, says that she already turned the supervisor down for dinner. The messenger says maybe the other man wants to make it breakfast, implying the desire to sleep with her. As in North Country, we have sexual harassment very much in existence here, where all the power resides with men. The supervisor tells Norma (and informs the audience) that she has already been outspoken concerning changes in the workplace. He says that she has the “biggest mouth,” asking for more work breaks, additional time for smoking breaks, Kotex machines, etc. To shut her up, he says she’s promoted to the position of spot-checker, and she gets a $1.50 an hour raise. She lives with her parents and wants to be more independent in order to take care of her children, so she takes the position. But, she knows it won’t earn her any friends, having to report on how fast the workers perform their tasks. She must even push her own father to pick up the pace of his duties.
Reuben and Norma continue getting to know about each other and their worlds in humorous and serious ways when they meet at a local baseball game. He can’t even eat one of the local hot dogs, pointing out it isn’t anything like one from Nathan’s of New York, and she says that the local hot dogs contain a lot of different food colorings and a great deal of stuff he doesn’t want to know about. Ellis Harper (John Calvin) confronts Norma saying she looks fine, basically making a sexual overture, Norma is a bit embarrassed as we can see by the way she shoots a sideways glance at Reuben. She says that maybe he should show up to see his son. He says he can’t do that and leaves. She tells Reuban that Ellis got her pregnant with her son, and he hasn’t been good for anything since. Despite admitting to her mistake with Ellis, she shows that she exercised some control over the situation when asked by Reuben if she married Ellis. She says, “He didn’t bother. I didn’t bother.” Reuben shares the story of his first sexual encounter which was with his piano teacher. The husband came home, cried, and Reuben felt badly, and the three shared some tea. His sophisticated New York experience is quite different, and amusing in contrast. But it is also significant that he relates a story about how a woman was looking for sexual satisfaction, subverting the typical double standard belief that it is only the male who needs to seek sexual gratification. Norma comments that what must Reuben think of her, always being hassled by some man when they meet. He tells her, “I think you’re too smart for what’s happening to you.” His statement shows that he acknowledges Norma’s intelligence, provides her with validation of her worth, and offers urging for her to escape her situation.
At work, Norma encounters Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges), who acts strangely, jumping from one task to another so Norma can’t track his activities, and clownishly diving into a bin filled with cotton. He later shows up at Norma’s house and apologizes for his actions. He says that he was just served his divorce papers, and it triggered his unorthodox behavior. The two knew each other as children, showing the smallness of small towns, and he invites her out for a drink to make up for what happened earlier. At the bar, Sonny admits that he had a gun and thought about using it against his wife and her boyfriend, but says he couldn’t do that. He admits that his wife was a good person, but somehow she changed. Norma admits to being different now, too, which probably refers to not only what has happened in her past, but also Reuben’s effect on what she wants to do with her life. She hears a song playing that was what she heard when she found out that her husband, the father of her daughter, was killed in a bar fight. The lives of these afflicted people are fraught with sadness. Norma sees Reuben and invites him to join them. This little action shows the resistance to outsiders as Sonny doesn’t want the intrusion. But, it also shows how Norma is more open to inviting someone, and something, new into her life. Sonny is polite though, but says to Reuben that there better be more than just himself to fight the rich guys, who have all of the power. Reuben has only had club soda, so he becomes the designated driver when the other two become drunk. When he has to pull over because Norma is ill, it is Reuben who sticks with her as she becomes sick, again showing how he is there for her.
Norma gets the silent treatment from her friends at work because she has joined the ranks of the supervisors. The only word one says to her is “Fink.” She quits the new job, and realizes that was management’s purpose all along. They wanted to cause ill will toward Norma on behalf of the other workers, and wanted to show her that she couldn’t have it both ways, because being a supervisor means sacrificing congeniality with the other workers. When she returns to working the machines, she is again accepted by her fellow employees.
Sonny proposes to Norma in a very unromantic manner. Because their lives are under such economic strains, Sonny feels the need to compose his proposal in practical terms. He says that he can fix anything electrical, started a new job at a gas station, and will turn over his paycheck. They have brought their children on their date to show what they are getting into together. Norma says it’s been a long time between offers, as if this is a business deal. But, she does ask him to kiss her, although it is to seal the deal, and says if the kiss works, then everything else will be okay. They are married at a tiny ceremony with no frills. Sonny, in a toast to Norma, says he hopes he “can keep up with her.” Just like Reuben, he knows what a force of nature Norma can be, and he accepts it, and doesn’t make it his goal, like other men in the region, to try and break her will.


Reuben speaks to a small gathering of potential union members at an African American church. Blacks in this country know about oppression and are more willing to aid a cause to fight imposed injustice. Reuben’s speech emphasizes the power of people in large numbers, noting that over eight hundred union workers of various beliefs and ethnic backgrounds showed up at his grandfather’s funeral in New York. He comes from someplace else, to bring them alternatives that do not exist in their socially insulated community. Though the workers at the funeral came from different backgrounds, they had fought together and “they were one. That’s what union is.” He notes that the textile industry is the only one that was not unionized in the United States. A lucrative business that has no checks on its economic power means “they are free to exploit you, to cheat you, to lie to you, and to take away what is rightfully yours - your health, a decent wage, and a fit place to work.” It does not seem like a great deal to ask.

Norma witnesses, and is inspired by, Reuben’s inspection of the mill, which is in compliance with a court order that insures that his union notice has been posted inside the building. He has to show strength as he is escorted by intimidating burly management goons who call him by an ethnic slur, and place his notice so high up that, as Reuben says, “Wilt Chamberlain on stilts” could not read it. He threatens them with calling his lawyers to issue a contempt order if they do not comply with the law. He gets them to place the post at eye level. They have also placed obstacles in front of the other bulletin board, and appear to be ready to physically intimidate Reuben until a large African American worker, sympathetic to the union organizer, appears and quietly protects Reuben. Reuben is the outsider, who threatens the company’s way of life by simply providing the workers with information so that they can make an informed choice about their livelihood.

Reuben is the catalyst that ignites Norma’s fiery potential to make a difference. She signs up to help unionize the mill. She goes to the head of her white church, Reverend Hubbard (Vernon Weddle). She wants to use the church for a union meeting that will have blacks as well as whites in attendance. The Reverend does not see that his church should get involved in a secular issue, and says, “This is a house of God.” Norma’s smart reply is, “I’m waitin’ to see whether it is or isn’t.” She is all in in her new found purpose and is willing to leave the church if Hubbard does not comply. For her, and the minister of the black church, God’s house should be open to fighting against unfairness and economic slavery. Reverend Hubbard, however, allows his institution to religiously give a stamp of approval to the entrenched system that segregates the races and keeps the population impoverished. He says to her, “We’re gonna miss your voice in the choir, Norma.” Her witty, defiant reply is, “You’re gonna hear it raised up someplace else.” She is declaring that her female voice will no longer be stifled by white men in power.

Instead of the church, Norma offers her house for the meeting. She does not try to hide this fact, but instead courageously tells her neighbor, one of the mill’s supervisors, what is going on, and humorously says that the he can see what’s going on through recently cleaned windows. Norma is throwing down the gauntlet, and is ready for battle. Sonny, afraid of what the community will do, says she is going too far inviting black men into their home. Norma’s wit again shines, pointing out the false fears that maintain an oppressive system, when she says black men haven’t caused her any trouble. Only white men have done that. Reuben allows the workers to speak now so that they become empowered by giving voice to their concerns. One woman says that she isn’t allowed a break when her menstrual cramps are very bad. One black worker sums up their predicament when he says that their work should not be a “jail sentence.”

Reuben says the small turnouts mean he is not getting the word out. Here is where Norma becomes his mentor. She tells him that if the workers don’t come to him, he must go to them. They hit the countryside, changing ties, whittling sticks, and generally meeting the members of the area. She can relate to the people, and knows about what the moms bake, and whose kids have the measles. Reuben here is the “fish out of water,” as Norma calls him, and at one point falls down in the mud on a local property. The next scene is a meaningful one. Reuben swims in a creek as Norma tries to clean up his clothes. It is very hot and she decides to jump in, too. They are both naked, but sexuality is not an issue with these two. So, there is no gender discrimination involved. They are two equals, stripped of all societal constructs that have been created to use as leverage against each other. He says that on a day like this one back home he would work out, go to an opera, and eat Chinese food. He says that she would like it in New York, as he realizes that she is open to new things. For her part, she tells him it’s safe in the water, and it’s only minnows swimming up against him. She does observe that he has a “skinny build.” She says that Sonny works out with weights, but Reuben says he tried that and dropped one on his foot. She says that he doesn’t have to work out because he has a head on his shoulders and knows how to use it. In a way the watery scene symbolizes how Norma and Reuben are reborn, she into his way of life, and he into hers.

She later comes across a book of Dylan Thomas poems in his room, and asks why should she “bother” to read it if it’s difficult to understand. Reuben says “maybe he has something to say to you,” which is what outside knowledge can bring to expand circumscribed ignorance. She says she will give the book a try, and he says don’t read it while eating because he doesn’t want food on his book. His Jewish influence on her is evident when she comically says, “Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch.”

Another memorable scene occurs when Norma is up late, telling Sonny that she has to make a hundred phone calls to try to sign up people to join the union. He spits out sour milk because she hasn’t gone shopping, and complains about the lack of clean laundry and the eating of TV dinners. Norma jumps up and runs around throwing clothes in the sink with dish soap, tossing a roast in a water filled pot, ironing clothes, and saying “You want” this and “You got” that. She even says that if he wants to make love she can lift up her nightie and have sex while she irons. By acting this way she satirizes all of the numerous chores traditionally assigned to a wife, and shows how she will not fit into that outdated role by giving up her union activities; so, those wifely activities will be compromised. To Sonny’s credit, he gets it, laughs, and kisses her.
The viciousness of the company meanwhile is in full force. They reduce the workers’ days to three a week, but the days are long with less weekly pay. Norma’s dad is not looking well to her, and when he asks for a break at work because he needs to lie down, he’s told to hang in there until his break. In a powerful shot, his arm stiffens up and he drops dead of a heart attack right into one of the bins. Norma is even more committed to the union cause now. However, the film does not show all union officials in a good light. A couple of them come to Reuben’s room while he is at the printer’s, and Norma complains about the lack of supplies and support at the national level. When Reuben returns, the two big shots want to cave into local prejudices concerning the double sexual standard. They say the fact that Norma has an illegitimate child, has a history of sleeping around, and allegedly made a porn movie (a bit of fake news) means she is hurting their cause. Outraged, Reuben tosses them out, showing how he will not be compromised by those with unenlightened beliefs.


The company now tries to stir up racial trouble by posting a statement on the bulletin board that says that the blacks want to take over the union and boss the white workers around. An interracial fight breaks out, and after Norma informs Reuben of what’s happening he tells her he needs her to record what the bulletin says. She courageously defies the supervisors, but at the loss of her job, as her boss says she was using the company’s phone for private use. She stands up in the middle of the mill holding a sign that says “Union” on it. The other workers show their support by turning off their machines, stopping production. Norma is hauled off, kicking and screaming, and booked for disorderly conduct. She calls Reuben, who bails her out. She cries on the way back home but Reuben tells her of much worse stories of those who tried to unionize companies. He talks of a pregnant woman hit in the stomach with a club, a sixteen-year-old boy shot in the back, and a guy who whose car blew up when he started it. His words remind us of how hard it was to earn the rights many workers now take for granted.
At home, Sonny questions Reuben why Norma called him and not her husband. Reuben says she knew he could make bail. Sonny echoes what he said about his first wife, that Norma has changed. But, Reuben, announcing Norma’s liberation, says that Norma stood up on that table, defied what was trying to keep her down, and is a free woman. Either Sonny can accept that or not. Later in their bed, Sonny asks if Norma ever slept with Reuben. She says no, but he’s in her head. Perhaps that joining can be more profound than a physical one. Sonny seems to accept that, but shows his commitment to Norma, and accepts her freedom, by saying that he will stick with her in sickness, bad times, and old age, and nobody else is in his head.
The workers vote to join the union. Reuben’s work there is done, and is ready to move on. He and Norma say their goodbyes, and express their gratitude for what each has given to each other. But, fittingly, they do not give each other a farewell hug or kiss. They shake hands, showing that their coming together was one of mutual respect and admiration, separate from any connections to their genders. The movie ends as it began with Jennifer Warnes singing. The lines from the song are ones that we can all join in on, with one voice: “Maybe what’s good gets a little bit better/And maybe what’s bad, gets gone.”

The next film is Coming Home.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

North Country

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Given the current consciousness raising concerning the mistreatment and empowerment of women inspired by the #MeToo movement, this 2005 film directed by Niki Caro deserves a closer look. (Also, this topic is of personal importance to me, since I have written about it before, and it will be the central theme in my upcoming novel, The Bigger Picture, a mystery that focuses on the depiction of women’s sexuality in movies).

The main character in this story is Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron, in an Oscar-nominated performance). The first name suggests the feminine version of a regular “Joe” (you know, like “Joe the Plumber”), someone who is a regular blue collar worker, trying to make ends meet. “Aimes” can indicate a person who takes “aim” at those who contribute to and allow an unjust system that represses and harms her because she is a woman who wants to make a living in the traditionally male dominated iron mining industry. (One could argue that Theron’s own personal history made her particularly sensitive to male abuse and female retaliation, since her father was a dangerous alcoholic who was killed by Theron’s mother).

We are told that the film takes place in 1989 in Northern Minnesota, and that the first time a woman became a mine worker was in 1975. But, even after thirteen years, the ratio of miners was still thirty to one in favor of the males. The script is based on the true story centering on Lois Jenson who sued the Eveleth Mines for sexual harassment. The first shot in the film is of a very young girl at Christmas, which is supposed to be a joyous time, one of wonder and innocence for children. But, the girl, Karen (Elle Peterson), is playing with a Barbie doll, which shows how society starts early in trying to program females to focus on their appearance to attract men. The merry season is dashed by a car which approaches Josey’s house, obviously driven by someone who is drunk. The scowl on Josey’s face wordlessly tells us that her man is behind the wheel. We next see Josey on the kitchen floor, blood on her face, which we know came from her husband hitting her. Even though we witness these scenes, most of the events are in the past, and Josey describes them in a courtroom (although up until the end, some of what is depicted involves internal flashbacks in Josey’s mind triggered by current abuse).

The Pearson company which owns the iron mine has strategically hired a woman lawyer, Leslie Conlin (Linda Emond), who is questioning Josey. After the assault by her husband, she left with Karen and Sammy (Thomas Curtis), her early teenage son. Josey drives through the “north country” in winter, which seems to mirror the symbolically emotionally cold environment she will encounter in her new home. But, Josey tells Conlin, she “did what I had to do” to survive, which meant not calling the cops about her husband, because presumably that would just have meant more dealings with conspiring men. When Conlin addresses her as “Mrs.” Josey says “There’s no Mrs. here,” which shows she wants to free herself of the necessity of counting on the unreliable and painful attachment to a man. But her new start didn’t provide the liberty she sought. She tells the attorney that Conlin doesn’t know how tough life is “in the pitt,” which is a literal and figurative description of what Josey and other women miners have had to endure.

In a flashback, Josey arrives at the home of her parents. Her father, Hank (the superb Richard Jenkins), instead of considering his daughter’s side of the story, automatically assumes the bruises on Josey’s face resulted in her husband finding out that she cheated on him. There are also judgmental looks at a church service aimed at Josey because of the gossip that she is promiscuous, the double sexual standard being in full force here. At a Catholic Holy Communion reception, (the belief in the Christian attitude of good will to others contrasts with just the opposite behavior in this place), women comment about how Josie was always beautiful, as if that is the most important female attribute, and one which creates envy among other women who may excel more in other areas, but are not admired for those strengths. So, they gossip how Josey is nothing but trouble for her parents, as Josey’s mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek) pretends not to overhear. At the bar, Hank talks to another man who says marriage problems are ironed out by going “out to the shed,” which is where you hit kids in the past to discipline them. He admits that his wife left him several times, and that’s how they worked out the “kinks” in the relationship. This short scene shows how these men see violence as an intrinsic part of a marriage. It’s like a battleground for them.
Josey gets a job at a hair salon, and meets an old friend, Glory (Frances McDormand) there. They become reacquainted, and the dialogue between them is revealing. Josey shows her surprise when she learns that Glory drives a truck at the mine. She has been programmed to think a woman would only do secretary work at a place populated by men. When Glory jokingly asks if Josey left her husband because she found out that he was wearing ladies underwear, Josey says isn’t “wife beating” reason enough? It’s as if violence toward women is accepted in a marriage, but the non-threatening activity of cross-dressing is the real perversion. Glory informs Josey that there are openings at the mine, and the pay there is much better than that of a hairdresser. Josey wants to be independent and the fact that Glory performs a job that was traditionally assumed to be only for men inspires Josey to apply.

When her father hears about Josey working at the mine, he asks her if she wants to be a lesbian now. The prejudicial assumption is that a woman doing a physically demanding job must be more sexually male than female. Hank also says that there have been more accidents at the mine lately, and he blames that fact on the perception that women can’t handle the workload. This is a priori reasoning, where you make an unsubstantiated assumption, and then only look for evidence exclusive of all others to justify a belief.

There are more cuts to the courtroom where Conlin asks who is Sammy’s father. Josey says she doesn't know. By stating ignorance surrounding the paternity of her son, Josey comes off as being promiscuous. But, the real reason, we learn later, is that she is ashamed to admit a childhood assault. Here we get personal flashbacks of Josey when she was in high school, where a boy approaches her and grabs her butt. She smiles, because this behavior was considered permissible as an acknowledgment of physical attractiveness, the predominate way a girl was valued, as opposed to being condemned as a violation. We then witness a lascivious look on the face of a teacher as he watches the two students.

Speaking of violations, Josey, and other potential female mine workers, must undergo a gynecological examination to make sure they are not pregnant before starting their employment. It’s as if the traditional role of motherhood precludes employment in the manly world of the mines. We jump back to the courtroom where Conlin says that Josey freely submitted to the examination, but, it was more like forced submission. Josey rightly tells Conlin she didn’t have to have an internal examination before joining her law firm, which stresses that some types of employers remained unevolved.

Josey’s mom, Alice, reflects her programmed sexism when she tells her daughter that each person has a circumscribed role to play in society. Josey should be a mother and she will shame her father by working at the mine, implying that Josey is defying the natural order by seeking work that should be reserved for men. After this confrontation, Josey moves in with Glory and her husband, Kyle (Sean Bean). Kyle no longer works at the mine after being injured. He is supportive of Glory, and his delicate work with watches shows that he does not need a machismo-infused job to define his manliness.

Glory advises Josey that she can’t be a “cowgirl” while working at the mine, but has to be a “cowboy.” Glory is a union representative and plays ball with the men in order to get some concessions for the women workers. (When she gets port-a-potties for the women and one of the men suggestively asks what do the men get, she has to participate in their raunchy humor by saying they get discounted blow-jobs). Women have come across this problem when working in many professions that were exclusive to men. They are forced to play by the rules that men created, and sometimes must submerge their feminine identity and act like men. This capitulation amounts to a gender surrender.
There are numerous incidents that show sexual harassment and abuse in the film. Some critics have said the movie is heavy-handed. The fact is that the filmmakers had to leave some of the incidents out because there were so many. The Human Resources representative, Arlen Pavich (Xander Berkeley), flat out tells the women that he and the other men don’t want the women there because the job is dirty and physically demanding, and the mine is no place for a woman. But, the Supreme Court ruled against job discrimination, so they have been forced to employ the women. He says to Josey that he was told by the doctor that she looks good under the work clothes. Pavich then lectures the women that they must play along with that type of joking, and have a sense of humor to survive there. Of course that view perpetuates debasement of women under the guise of humor. It would not be tolerated if a person’s religion or ethnicity were openly ridiculed in the workplace. The men here create a hostile work environment (which later becomes the definition for sexual harassment) because, as Pavich says, more steel is imported at cheaper prices, which has compromised American factories, and led to layoffs. The men see the women as taking their jobs, and want them to stay in the homes to take care of the children and do domestic chores, thus keeping the females under their economic thumbs (The Handmaid’s Tale anyone?). So, they write derogatory sexual comments on the women’s locker room and bathroom, make lewd comments, grope them, leave semen on their clothes, and even lock one in a port-a potty, knocking it over and immersing the woman in human waste. After one of the women finds a huge rubber penis in her lunchbox, Josey says “It won’t leave the toilet seat up. It won’t fart in bed. I might just marry it.” Her humorous preference for an inanimate object shows how disappointing actual males have become in her life.

Josey’s primary sexual harasser is Bobby Sharp, (Jeremy Renner). Bobby is the boy who grabbed young Josey’s behind in her flashback. He requests that she be his assistant in the “powder room,” a particularly filthy place that has the euphemistic name for a woman’s bathroom, where the female employees, despite being in “manly” jobs, are told they must do what women do, which is clean up. There are some men who do not approve of their co-workers actions, including Ricky, (Corey Stoll), who intervenes when the abuse gets really oppressive. But, he is sarcastically called a “Boy Scout” by the men, which shows that even the enlightened males working at the mine are intimidated into falling into line with the anti-female agenda. (Later in a bar, Josey dances with Ricky and asks him if he is a “nice” man, which seems to be a type of person that she has found to be rare in her life). Glory tells Josey she just has to take what the men have to “dish out” if she wants to keep her job. And, Josey, who now has a place of her own and can take her kids out for a nice meal, does appreciate the independence that a decent wage can bring her. She admits that for the first time she actually feels like she is “living.”

At the local bar where the miners unwind, Josey and the female workers enjoy an evening together with the male employees also present. This scene shows the complexity of male-female interactions. Glory’s husband, Kyle, is at the bar with a friend, Bill White (Woody Harrelson), an attorney, and ex- hockey star (showing him to be a man of brains and brawn) who has returned from New York following his divorce. He reveals his hurt ego, and sexist bias, when he complains to Kyle that the judge ordered his wife to pay him alimony. Why has he returned to this town? Possibly to get a testosterone transfusion because he feels less manly since his ex-spouse makes more money than he does? One of the inebriated miners, angered by Kyle and Glory giving Josey a place to stay, accuses Kyle of helping Josey just so he can have a “three-way.” For this man, the sexual component is the only way he understands how men relate to women. Bill, trying to be the peacemaker, gets between the other two men, but his evolved, reasoning side becomes undermined in the heat of the moment, and he winds up punching the drunk worker out, reverting to the macho side of his personality. Glory wants to set Bill up with Josey, but he is romantically gun-shy at the moment, after being wounded by the break up of his marriage, and unsure of his role as a man at the moment. One of the women miners, Sherry (Michelle Monaghan, in one of her early roles), a bit under the influence, comes onto the more senior Bill. He awkwardly says that he has “underwear” older than she is. Sherry, being a young, attractive woman, has been brought up thinking that her sexuality is the only weapon in her feminine arsenal, and to have it rejected is very disarming. She lashes out, and questions Bill’s heterosexuality. So she, too, reduces the male-female dynamic to one of sexuality.
At work, Bobby lies to Josey about a conveyor belt being clogged so he can get her way up at the elevated end of the mechanism, isolated. The height is symbolic of the dangerous precipice on which she finds herself by trying to shake up the masculine system. After he orders the operator to start up the machinery, the deafening sound would drown out a person’s yells. Bobby presses himself against Josey and says that they should kiss and make up. She struggles and he lets her go, but he seems to not understand why she is so resistant to him, given their time in high school together. There is a cut back to the courtroom, and we see that Bill became Josey’s lawyer. Pavich, the Human Resources worker, is on the stand and says that Josey was just paranoid and there was no evidence that would make him take action when she reported harassment to him. Pavich says that a man will always try to cross the line when it comes to sexual abuse, and it’s the job of the woman to smack him back over that line. His testimony accepts the notion that “boys will be boys,” and absolves males from responsibility for their actions, as if they have no control over their drives. He places the burden on the women to defend themselves, even though men have rigged the rules so that they have the social and economic power to force their will on the female population.

In the background the film displays on televisions the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas sexual harassment proceedings. This element shows that the unfair exertion of male power over women not only exists in a remote mining town but also at the level of the Supreme Court, which is supposed to represent the highest standard for justice. Alice turns the TV off in the Aimes home, an act that implies that Josey’s mother feels that fighting gender abuse is hopeless. She says that Anita Hill’s action has only brought harm to Thomas’ family, so she does not feel sympathy for him, but her worry is for his wife and children. At this point she feels the same way about Josey, as does Hank, as they both believe that Josey is stirring up trouble by working at the mine and complaining about the men’s behavior, when there is no way to change the way things are. Josey tells her dad that she works just as hard as he does and she deserves her earnings. When he questions that she is saying that she is the same as him, she says no, because she has to perform her duties while being constantly harassed and worrying about being raped.

Those at the forefront of struggles against unfairness and oppression usually suffer the most because they are the first in the line of fire when the entrenched system is still powerful and exerts its resistance to change. Josey’s actions have their fallout. Her son, Sammy, loves hockey, but the boys won’t pass him the puck because the players’ fathers have told them not to do so in retaliation against Josey’s charges. At a hockey game, Bobby’s wife, after he’s told her lies about what is actually happening at the mine, publicly shouts at Josey, accusing her of trying to seduce her husband. This open attack slanders Josey, and undermines her complaints by spreading gossip (the precursor to social media bullying) and making it appear that Josey is the sexual predator. Sammy, at a very vulnerable age when it comes to peer pressure, blames his mother, calling her a “whore.” He feels the pressure of the status quo bearing down on him, and quits the hockey team. He blames Josey, and says that a mother should stay at home, and cook and clean.
The women mine workers are split concerning Josey’s urging for them to be vocal about the sexual harassment. Sherry, who is the victim in the port-a-potty incident, hates the treatment, but needs the job to take care of her sick mother. Peg (Jillian Armenante) is the most resistant to Josey, and later denies on the stand that there was misconduct against the women, despite the fact we see that the men have written under her operating booth references to charging for oral sex. To justify her opposition, Peg buys into the male explanation for “crossing” that harassment line, which is that women are “asking for it,” of which she accuses Sherry. It is like blaming the victim for causing the crime instead of accusing the perpetrator. Big Betty (Rusty Schwimmer) is more sympathetic to the cause. But, no woman is willing to accompany Josey to her meeting with the big boss, Don Pearson (James Cada), who earlier encountered Josey at a restaurant and was encouraging about coming to him if she had any problems. In the meeting, Pearson has three other men with him, including Pavich who already has told Josey she has raised no “legitimate” issues. The room full of men is meant to be intimidating, immediately communicating to Josey who has the power. Pearson shuts her down quickly, saying that since she is so unhappy in her job he will waive the two-week notice period and she can quit immediately. Josey is stunned by how Pearson turns out to be just as hostile as the male workers, again showing how pervasive is the anti-female attitude. She says she needs the job. Pearson then cruelly says she should stop wasting time stirring up the other women and spending time in the beds of co-workers (thus joining in on the slander about her sexual behavior).

The final straw for Josey again occurs in the “powder room” when Bobby literally knocks her down, jumps on her, and grabs her by the crotch. He says to her that she likes “that,” which hints at his wanting to believe that she is sexually available. She breaks away and later confronts Bobby in the cafeteria, now calling him out in public, mirroring what happened to her at the hockey game. But, she is in the right, and refuses to keep the harassment silent, as the other women have. One of the men says that Bobby was with him all day, and even Ricky, although appalled, won’t stand up for Josey, which shows how the status quo hinders the men who oppose sexual abuse from speaking up. Big Betty allows Josey to take her car to go home, and Josey announces that she quits.
Josey asks Bill to sue the mining company. He tells her at first to forget about it. The defense will use the “nuts and sluts” defense, which means they discredit a woman’s claims by either depicting her as deranged, imagining wrong deeds, or else saying that the woman was seductive and encouraged the sexually aggressive male activity. Bill demonstrates the attitude of the times by saying she is beautiful, and Josey knows that he means she can get a man to take care of her. But, Josey’s been through that, and she tells Bill now she wants to take care of herself and her children. Later, after sharing a drink with Kyle, Bill notices all of the animal heads mounted on the walls of the bar. On the one hand, it points to the male desire to validate their manliness by gathering trophies, which extends to the sexual arena. But, on the other hand, Bill realizes that animals are safer in a herd than if they try to go it alone. He tells Josey that he will represent her if they can enlist other women and pursue a class action sexual harassment suit, which has never been done before.

Glory has developed ALS, and her condition deteriorates. Even though she no longer is an employee, she shows up at a union meeting to still be useful in trying to negotiate solutions to some of the problems brought about by Josey’s actions. Again, the intimidating all male gathering politely dismisses her, since now she is no longer a force to be reckoned with. Back in the courtroom, the judge (John Aylward) tells Bill that he will consider his case to be a class action suit if he can get three plaintiffs. Josey approaches Glory later in her hospital room to join the lawsuit, but Glory is so bitter, she dismisses Josey. The company’s lawyer, Conlin, aggressively tries to pressure Glory to state that there was no sexual harassment, even threatening to subpoena the dying woman, which shows to what lengths the company will go to not change their policies. Pearson is even condescending to his own female attorney, saying that he hired her, not because she is the best lawyer, just the best woman attorney, so it appears that he is fair toward women. But he tells her that there are certain jobs, like being a football player or a miner, that are not meant for women. Conlin points out the repercussions of a legal loss. The company has no insurance against “punitive damages,” and a negative ruling means paid leave for pregnancies and the implementation of new sexual harassment policies, which will affect all businesses. Pearson says they will win by depicting Josey as a woman of low morals. Conlin brings in Bobby to get some dirt on Josey so she can present her as a woman with a sordid past.

Alice brought money to Josey to help her now that she is unemployed. When Hank finds out he says he worked hard for that money, but Alice says that so does she. She tells her husband how much would he owe her if she charged him for all the loads of laundry she washed. Hank, still giving lip service to the loose morals argument against his daughter because all of his co-workers plead innocence to him, says that Josey brought shame onto the family. Alice is now angry, and tells him his daughter just had a baby outside of a marriage, she didn’t rob a bank. Her statement points out how unfairly punitive is the gender double standard’s condemnation of women’s sexual activity. Alice, now feeling the need to protect her daughter and lend her support, takes a room at a motel because she can’t abide her husband’s failure to defend his daughter.
The union members have a meeting, which is stoked by a speech by Bobby which urges exoneration of the male workers and praises the women miners for not joining Josey’s lawsuit. Josey arrives with Bill and courageously tries to address the crowd. The men are loudly sexually abusive. Hank finally gets up and tells the gathering that Josey has the right to speak. Hank takes the microphone and tells the workers that he was a miner all of his life, “And I’ve never been ashamed of it until now.” He points out that words like “bitches” and “whores” were never used when they took their daughters and wives to the company picnic. The implication here is that as long as the women stayed in their designated roles, they were exempt from scorn. Hank says some of the words shouted and written at work, and the grabbing of the women’s “privates,” are acts so bad that he deems them “unspeakable.” He indicts the men and praises his daughter when he says, “You’re all supposed to be my friends, my brothers. Well, right now I don’t have a friend in this room. In fact the only one I’m not ashamed of is my daughter.” These words show how Hank has reversed what is shameful: it’s not his daughter’s past, but instead it is the the oppressive sexism of the men. The changes in the behavior of Alice and Frank may be too abrupt in the script, but that fact does not diminish the power of their acts and words.
In order to negate the legitimacy of Josey’s claims, Bobby told Conlin that Josey has always been promiscuous, even having sexual relations with a high school teacher. Conlin brings the teacher, Paul Latavansky, (Brad William Henke) into the courtroom. On the stand, Josey now shares what were her private memories. The teacher, the one previously seen with the lewd look on his face, caught young Josey and Bobby drinking alcohol and kissing, and brought them in for detention. After dismissing Bobby, the teacher raped Josey in the classroom. Josey saw that Bobby could see that the teacher violently pressed her, crying, against the windowed classroom door, but the young boy ran away from the scene. Sammy is the teacher’s son, and Josey kept it a secret. She was like most young people who are sexually assaulted, who wonder why such a horrible thing happened to them. Were they at fault? They are made to feel ashamed and don’t want to reveal the attack, afraid they will be blamed, which is especially how girls have been made to feel. And, they feel powerless to blame an adult for a wrongdoing. After finally hearing the secret that Josey has been keeping about the assault, Hank goes after Latavansky, and is restrained and removed from the courtroom. There are no witnesses to verify Josey’s version of what happened, so Conlin argues that the testimony is self-serving.

Sammy doesn’t want to believe that he is the child of a rapist, and not the son of a soldier who died in the war, which is what Josey had told him to shield him from the truth. While hanging out with Glory’s husband, Kyle, Sammy says his mother is just a whore who is lying so she can win her case. Kyle says that Sammy can accept the truth because his mother could have put him up for adoption, but didn’t, and took care of him, was proud of him, and always went to his hockey games. Sammy goes home and Josey is honest with him about not initially wanting him after the assault. But once she felt him move inside of her, she knew that he belonged to her, not her rapist. She assures him that none of the ugliness that was part of his conception attached itself to Sammy.
It is difficult to accept harsh truths when it is easier lie to oneself and cover up terrible acts. Which is what Bobby did. He couldn’t stand the guilt of not helping Josey when she was being raped, so he rewrote history to put the blame on Josey, and labeled her a slut. When Bill gets Bobby on the stand he uses the rough sport of hockey as a metaphor to break down Bobby’s defenses by saying a real man must bleed, suffer, in order to show his courage. By impugning his masculinity if he doesn’t show courage and tell the truth, Bill gets Bobby to finally admit that Josey was raped. He didn’t report the attack because, he says sobbing, “what was I supposed to do?” Bill sums up the problem and the difficulty of the solution presented by the movie. He says, “What are you supposed to do when the ones with all the power are hurting those with none? Well, for starters, you stand up.” In the back of the courtroom, Glory is there, unable to speak, but making a rattling noise. She has prepared a statement which Kyle reads, and which announces that she’s “not dead yet,” and that she stands with Josie. One by one, many in the courtroom stand up, including some of the women workers, Josey’s parents, and some male miners. Josey has her class action suit.
The ending has Bill giving Sammy some hockey pointers, and we hear that Josey has won the case. The last shot is of Josey showing Sammy how to drive. She is now the one in control of the road ahead of her. A message informs us that in the real case, there was a modest financial settlement, but sexual harassment policy was established to protect the current women workers, and those that followed.
It is important to see where progressive change sprang from and the courageous sacrifice made by many to achieve justice. But this case ended in 1998, after a fourteen year struggle. And, as we see in the headlines daily, sexual abuse of women has continued for many years after the end of this case, carried out by unscrupulous men in the very industry that produced this film, and at all levels of government. We must continue to, as Bill says in the film, “stand up” to make a difference.

The next film is Norma Rae.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Training Day

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
This 2001 film, from African American director Antoine Fuqua and writer David Ayer, presents us with two world views: one, the right-side-up version, represented by LA police officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke); and the other, the upside-down one, embodied by narcotics detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington in a Best Actor Oscar-winning performance). In a way, Jake is the before picture of an uncompromised rookie cop who wants to “protect the streets” by getting rid of dangerous drugs, and Alonzo is the after photo of a man who lost his idealism and has crossed the legal line, going from by-the-book methods to illegal ones to put away criminals. While doing so, Alonzo serves himself as much as the community, maybe more so. (You can find this theme of crossing the line in David Mamet scripts. Think of The Verdict, House of Games, and The Untouchables, among others). Actually, as we get to know these two characters, and others, it’s not really that black and white. There may not he fifty shades of gray, but there are a number of them in this story.
The first shot is of the sun rising on this “training day.” We have the classical “unity of time” in this movie, everything taking place within one twenty-four hour period. The movement of the sun at the start of the film is like the curtain rising on a stage play. We see subsequent shots of the sun as it marks the movement of the story until it sets at the end of the tale. The fact that Jake must prove himself, and Alonzo must solve his problem in the same compressed span of hours escalates the plot’s tension. Jake is already awake when his alarm goes off at five in the morning. He is nervous because today he must demonstrate that he is worthy of joining Alonzo’s special narcotics undercover unit. His wife, after nursing their baby daughter, adds to the pressure when she tells him not to screw up this opportunity. Although wanting to be a good cop, Jake is selfishly interested in getting promoted and making more money. He is envious of the nice homes of his superiors. Later when Alonzo pushes him to state why he really wants to join his team, Jake reveals his ambition when he says, “I wanna make detective.”

Jake receives a phone call from Alonzo. In this brief exchange we start to see what kind of person Alonzo is. He tells Jake that his men “don’t go to roll call,” saying that is for “patrol ferries.” (Alonzo several times belittles other policemen, such as one changing a person’s tire, by not acknowledging their contributions), and when Jake starts to thank him for the opportunity to serve with him, Alonzo hangs up on him. Alonzo believes the rules do not apply to him, whether they involve his job or even manners. When Jake arrives at the cafe to meet Alonzo, the latter practically ignores him as he reads the newspaper. Jake is uncomfortable, not knowing what to do, and when he talks, Alonzo chastises him for interrupting his morning ritual. Alonzo is a jaded man, calling the printed news mostly “bullshit,” and reads it only for entertainment purposes. Since Jake interrupted his fun, he bullies Jake, making him perform for Alonzo, having him tell a personal police story, which Alonzo then criticizes as being boring. Jake, however, sees his story as an example of having saved someone from getting killed by a heavily armed guy, which is a cop’s job. (In this conversation, Alonzo uses the word “boom,” as he does often in the movie, which not only sounds like a gun going off, and which points to him being dangerous, but it also signifies how Jake, and us, never know “what’s going to happen,” as there are surprises in the plot. As he tells Jake later, “This shit’s chess, it ain’t checkers”).

Alonzo also drags the conversation into the sexual gutter, saying he has five boys, and if “You ever need a son, you let me know. I’ll hook your old lady up. I can’t miss.” Jake asks him to leave his family out of the conversation. Alonzo says, “I respect that.” But, he doesn’t, and then starts asking Jake about his sex life with his wife. Alonzo also insults Jake’s virility for not making a sexual move on his female training officer. Alonzo is crude and demeaning, asking Jake if he has a penis, and if so, he should reach into one of the pockets on either side of his male organ, and find some money. So, Alonzo even makes Jake pay for Alonzo’s breakfast. Maybe Alonzo humiliates Jake because he regards Jake’s Boy Scout attitude as naive and dangerous, or maybe he resents Jake for holding onto the values he has lost along his crooked way.
Alonzo’s rogue ways are evident in the way he crosses the street, defying the traffic signals. He wears his two guns openly, as if he’s a sheriff in the Wild West. His car is a 1979 Chevy Monte Carlo with hydraulics that jack the vehicle up, mirroring Alonzo’s arrogance. And, his ride is his “office,” showing how he doesn’t even have to report to division headquarters, like other policemen. He looks more like a hoodlum than a cop, but then again, he is supposed to be undercover, (even though the whole neighborhood knows who he is), and his impressive arrest record allows him to indulge his posturing. Alonzo doesn’t have to walk the straight and narrow ethical path, and, instead can be the “zig-zag man,” because, as he says, they build prisons because of him. His cynical attitude is reflected when he advises Jake to forget about what he learned at the police academy, because abiding by the rules will get him killed in the real world.

The law according to Alonzo allows small time drug dealers to operate so that they will inform on the big time criminals, and Alonzo can make the big busts that allow him so much legal latitude. He takes Jake to where one of his confidential informants does business. This young Latino man can be lethal according to Alonzo, but he allows him to stay on the streets just so Alonzo can extract information from the youth. That is why Alonzo calls the dealer his “teammate,” because Alonzo has blurred the line between cop and criminal. He bends the law, doing favors for crooks, like getting this fellow’s mom out of INS detention, thus putting them in his debt. Alonzo also says that he allows the young man to sell illegal substances to make some money for his family. In his twisted way, Alonzo has rationalized his actions by accepting the pessimistic premise that dealing drugs is the only way the boy can earn a living.
The dealer sells marijuana to some white youths in a car. Alonzo chases them and scares them, saying if they show up again in this neighborhood he will have the local hoodlums sexually assault the girlfriend, who is in the back seat. He confiscates their purchase, but doesn’t arrest them. He isn’t going to bring them in for a small purchase, so why does he stop these kids? In a strange way he is protecting white youths by making them afraid to enter this territory, as if he doesn’t want to rock the “white privilege” boat, which may bring him grief. He also appears to want to use their “product” to show Jake that he must be willing to take drugs in order to go undercover. Jake at first declines, sticking by his ethical standards, but Alonzo is brutal in his admonishment of Jake’s refusal. He puts a gun to Jake’s head, saying Jake would blow his cover, and would be a dead man. Alonzo tells him, “You turn shit down on the streets, and the chief brings your wife a crisply folded flag.” He then stops the car (in the middle of traffic, again defying the rules) and tells Jake to get out of the Monte Carlo because he doesn’t want him on his team. Knowing that he may blow his chances for promotion and putting drug dealers away, Jake smokes the pot. Jake admits to smoking weed in school, and Alonzo says that fact wasn’t in his records, making the point that everyone has “secrets,” and even the supposedly clean Jake has some dirty laundry in his past.
Jake starts to feel very mentally altered, and Alonzo admits that he gave him pot laced with the much stronger PCP. Jake is alarmed because he thinks he will fail a urine test and will be fired. But, Alonzo assures him he’s safe, because their lieutenant always gives his team a week’s notice when a drug test will be performed. Here again we see how Alonzo operates outside of the law. He tells Jake he smoked the stuff of his own free will. He says nobody put a gun to Jake’s head, which is exactly what Alonzo did, as he makes a dark joke about how he has manipulated Jake.
Their next stop is at the home of Roger (Scott Glenn), who we know must have made a great deal of illegal money since he is talking about “retiring” soon and going to the Philippine Islands. He and Alonzo behave like they are old friends, and we learn for the first time from Roger that Alonzo has recently incurred the wrath of some Russian gangsters while he was in Las Vegas. (Alonzo seems to associate more with outlaws than policemen). Alonzo tells Roger he is working out his problem, which turns out to be a foreshadowing of how Alonzo will double-cross Roger. Roger tells a cryptic joke that he says will tell Jake everything he needs to know about life on the streets. Jake, in his altered state, says he already knows what it’s all about, “Smiles and cries,” which a surprised Roger agrees with. Jake says, “You gotta control your smiles and cries, because that’s all you have and nobody can take that away from you.” It’s as if Jake is saying that you can’t count on anything else, so living the hard life in the inner city, you can only rely on what moves you to laugh and cry. Alonzo scoffed at the line, but maybe Jake understands more about the people living in Alonzo’s community than what one would expect. Roger reinforces the idea that Alonzo was once like Jake, wanting to clean up the streets when he was a rookie.
As they drive, Jake sees two men trying to rape a young Latino girl. He tells Alonzo to stop the car, which the jaded cop does reluctantly. Jake takes on two tough guys who don’t seem to care that he is a policeman, yelling obscenities at him. Alonzo just watches, acting like a detached judge, assessing Jake’s performance. Jake overcomes the men, one with a choke hold, while sustaining a bit of a beating. Alonzo again doesn’t want to bother himself with arrests here. He threatens one of the men, beats him with the pistols he’s carrying, and takes their drugs and money. Alonzo just tells the girl to go home. Jake is angry because he wants do his job by taking her statement and getting the the two men off of the street. He also finds the girl’s wallet that she left behind. After hearing from the girl where she came from when she yells at her attackers, Alonzo says that the girl’s family will exact revenge. Jake says that is “street justice.” Alonzo, who no longer believes in the effectiveness of  working within the legal system, has no problems with, as he puts it, “the garbage men taking out the garbage.” When an upset Jake says, “so just let the animals wipe themselves out, right?” Alonzo’s reply is, “God willing.” His invoking the deity here seems ironic given the barbarity of what he is advocating. Alonzo has accepted the idea that the ends justify the means, and basically says you have to use the enemy’s tactics to defeat him. So his motto is, “it takes a wolf to catch a wolf.” Alonzo points out that Jake using the choke hold was not playing by the rules, but he did it because “you did what you had to do.” For a moment Jake looks like he might join Alonzo’s pack. He howls like a wolf and drinks a beer, as does Alonzo while driving, which again, is illegal.
Alonzo wants information out of a man named Blue (Snoop Dogg), who is a paraplegic ex-con in a wheelchair. After Alonzo makes Jake run after Blue in a comic-sad chase sequence given Blue’s disability, Alonzo threatens Blue with breaking parole because he is carrying a gun. He also takes a pen off of Jake and, in a act of police brutality, sticks it down the paraplegic’s throat, making him vomit up some crack he had swallowed. Jake is again upset by Alonzo’s actions, but Alonzo, true to character, doesn’t see the problem. We later learn that it was Alonzo who shot Blue and put him in the chair. This scene shows that there are felons out there, but the police are even more of a threat to the legal system because they act with impunity as they pretend to uphold the law.
Blue gives Alonzo the name of a connected drug dealer known as the Sandman. Alonzo and Jake go to this man’s house. There is more disregard for procedure and individual rights, as Alonzo pretends to have a warrant (which turns out to be an Asian restaurant menu), and forces his way into the Sandman’s home. He is not there, but his wife (Macy Gray) and child are. Jake is awkward keeping the wife and the boy on the sofa because he is not really sure why he is there (in more ways than one), after having urged Alonzo to get a real warrant, and then seeing that Alonzo grabbed money from a bedroom. Alonzo appears to be searching for drugs, but he really just wants the Sandman’s stash of cash to help him with his problem with the Russians. When the wife demands the warrant and sees that it is a fake, she yells at the two cops, “You ain’t the police.” She is figuratively correct, since Alonzo isn’t acting like a law abiding cop, doing an illegal search and seizure. She yells to the neighborhood men to stop Alonzo and Jake, and the men open fire on the cops. Alonzo participates in the gunplay, and his car sustains rear windshield damage, as the scene looks more like crooks fighting crooks, instead of the police battling lawbreakers.
Alonzo next takes Jake to one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. He warns Jake never to enter this part of town alone. Alonzo talks to one of the locals, Bone (Cle Sloan), who thanks Alonzo for helping a relative (probably by skirting the law). But, after Alonzo walks away, Bone says he’s sick of Alonzo and can’t stand him, probably because he does these favors and expects all of the residents to treat him like royalty. Alonzo is here to have sex with a woman, Sara (Eva Mendes), who is hospitable to Jake, and is almost reluctant to abandon him to babysit Alonzo’s young son in the living room. When Alonzo comes out later, Jake and his boy are napping. The look on Alonzo’s face is sinister as he wakes Jake in an ominous manner, pressing his gun to his leg. Alonzo speaks gently to his son, who appears sad, maybe because his father is leaving, or maybe because, even at that young age, he knows how scary his world is. Alonzo exploits those who live in dire circumstances. Otherwise, if he cared about Sara and the boy, he would remove them from their dangerous surroundings.
In contrast to where they were, Alonzo drives Jake and himself to a fancy restaurant where he will meet with the “Three Wise Men.” We again have an upside-down reference here, comparing the biblical travelers who brought gifts at the birth of Christ to three high level corrupt cops who must be given a share of the illegal funds acquired by their minions as payment for approving the carrying out of illegal acts. (Although one could argue that there are too many people of color depicted as criminals in the film, one should also remember that the notorious big shots on either side of the legal divide are white men). Alonzo introduces the men to Jake as some of LAPD’s “finest,” which really means that they are the “finest” at being crooked. Alonzo then exiles Jake to another part of the restaurant. One of the men, Doug Roselli (Harris Yulin) tells a story about how a burglar he caught fooled a judge into thinking he was mentally unbalanced, thus escaping imprisonment in a penitentiary. Alonzo’s first reaction is that you have to give the man credit for working the system (which shows Alonzo’s moral flexibility). When Doug doesn’t share this view, this “Wise” man says he’ll take the burglar out. It isn’t a matter of justice for Doug. He just didn’t like his arrest record being tarnished.

One of the men, Lou Jacobs (Raymond J. Barry) says he doesn’t know why he’s talking to Alonzo, because, “I don’t talk to dead men.” They know about Alonzo’s trouble with the Russian mob. Alonzo says he can solve his problem if they will allow him to “cash in on an account,” his oldest one. This statement is code for killing a drug dealer and taking his money so he can pay off the Russians. Alonzo says the guy has to be taken out or else he will be a “high security risk,” and would expose the police involvement in the drug business. But, he has to ask permission from these three men, who instead of respecting the law, give him the green light to rob and commit murder. They realize that they will no longer get a cut of the criminal’s business, but they are willing to let that go because they want to keep Alonzo working for them. Alonzo must pay them to get a genuine search warrant to make the the police activity against the drug dealer appear to be legal. Alonzo puts the money he took from the Sandman’s home in the trunk of one of the men’s cars. It’s a Mercedes, which shows how well these men have profited by using their power to perpetuate criminal activity to enrich themselves. Stan Gursky warns Alonzo to make sure he makes the hit look legitimate, so he says to him “I don’t want to see you on the front page,” because that would damage their outward appearance of legitimacy.
Alonzo calls his team and tells them to bring picks and shovels. It turns out that Roger is Alonzo’s target. Alonzo tells him that he has to dig up the four million dollars buried underneath Roger’s kitchen floor because the Three Wise Men said “You gotta render unto Caesar.” We have another instance here where Alonzo, engaged in criminal acts, ironically makes a religious reference, in this case a quote from Jesus, which has the effect of sharpening the contrast between what is the right and the wrong thing to do. Alonzo wants to turn in three million and keep a million for themselves. Jake does not want a cut, which makes the others apprehensive about Jake since now he can turn them in without incriminating himself. One of the men says, “Someone didn’t sleep through ethics class,” because school is a dream world that should not be confused with the real one. It fits in with what Alonzo said earlier that Jake had to forget what he learned at the police academy to survive outside of it. Alonzo tells Jake that he will kill Roger because he is “a virgin shooter beyond suspicion,” and the death will appear legitimate (again, there is irony in that Jake’s uncorrupted past would be used to hide a murder). When Jake refuses to do the deed, Alonzo shoots Roger, and uses the victim’s gun to fire two shots at one of the men, Jeff (Peter Greene), to make it look like Roger’s death was an act of self-defense. Alonzo says they will still say Jake did it, for which Alonzo says Jake will receive the Medal of Valor. In this upside-down world, a murder can be passed off as an act of heroism. Another irony is that one of the bullets Alonzo shoots at his bullet-proof vest wearing “teammate,” Jeff, actually gets through, which points to how Alonzo’s “chess” games can prove dangerous to the players. Alonzo first threatens to kill Jake, too, whose death he will pin on Roger. However, Jake grabs the gun from Alonzo, but Alonzo says if Jake doesn’t play along, he’ll have him tested for drugs and the PCP in his blood will end his career.

After the police and ambulance arrive, Alonzo drives off with the money he skimmed off the top, and he and Jake drive to a Latino area. In the car, Jake is angry about the killing of Roger, and wonders how Alonzo could murder his friend. Alonzo says he wasn’t a friend; he was a man who sold drugs to kids for ten years. Alonzo makes it sound as if he exacted justice without bothering the overburdened legal system. He says, “the world is a better place without him. The man was the biggest major violator in Los Angeles.” Of course, Alonzo doesn’t say that he took Roger out now, not because he was corrupting young people with illegal drugs, but because he needed his money. Alonzo wants Jake to take his cut, because the others won’t feel comfortable if he doesn’t. He says, “Sometimes you gotta have a little dirt on you for anybody to trust you,” and Alonzo and his unit are “comfortable” living in, and contributing to, a dirty, corrupted world. Jake still refuses. We don’t know it yet, but Jake’s desire to play by the rules convinces Alonzo that he has to have him eliminated. He is already on the phone in the car to a Latino gang leader, Smiley (Cliff Curtis), and tells him, “Make sure that bathtub is clean, homey.”

Alonzo makes a stop under the pretense of delivering packages to Smiley’s house. He says, “I do try to do some good in the community.” But whatever “good” Alonzo does, he wants major payback. There is money in one of the items Smiley opens. Alonzo pretends to have to use the bathroom, but actually leaves. The money is payment for Smiley and his companions to kill Jake. Smiley decides to tell Jake about Alonzo’s problem. He says that Alonzo is a “hot head.” There was a Russian in Las Vegas who was nasty toward Alonzo, and Alonzo beat the man to death. It turns out that the Russian was connected to the Russian mob, and they gave Alonzo until midnight of this “training day” to come up with a million dollars, or else he would be killed. Smiley and his men beat Jake up and drag him to that “clean” bathtub in order to shoot him. Smiley says to Jake, “You got the right to be bitch-slapped,” parodying what the police are supposed to say when reading a suspect his Miranda rights. Probably for Smiley and his crew, killing Jake must feel like payback for the times they have been brutalized by the cops and what they endured in prison (being raped is alluded to earlier by Sniper, played by Raymond Cruz). Before shooting Jake, they go through his pockets for money and find the wallet of the young girl Jake rescued from being raped. The girl turns out to be Smiley’s cousin, and he is incensed that Jake has this item. Jake gets out the story of how he helped her. Smiley calls his cousin and she confirms the story. Smiley thanks Jake and sets him free. So, as opposed to what Alonzo was saying, Jake’s putting himself in harm’s way, not for a big drug bust, but just to do the right thing, pays off and saves his life.
Night has now come toward the end of this long day. Jake, looking battered but hardened and focused, rides the bus, and loads his gun. He goes to the neighborhood where Sara lives, the one Alonzo said Jake shouldn’t enter without him. Jake has not complied with his training, since he bothered to save the young girl, wouldn’t shoot Roger or take a cut from the cash they took from him, and now dares to go to the neighborhood called “a jungle.” Bone ask why Jake is there. He can see he means business, and Jake says, “I’m here for Alonzo.” They let him go, because they hate Alonzo, and figure, in a variation of what Alonzo said earlier, “let the garbage men take out the garbage.”

Jake sneaks into the house and gets Alonzo’s son to hide in a closet. Jake gets the drop on Alonzo who is with Sara in the bedroom. Jake wants to arrest Alonzo and confiscate the money. Alonzo flicks a cigarette at Jake, distracts him, and a gunfight ensues. Sara tells Jake that Alonzo went out the window, so she obviously is also not thrilled about being under Alonzo’s thumb. The two cops fight, but Jake gets the worst of it. Interestingly, Alonzo doesn’t finish Jake off, underestimating him. Jake is able to jump down from a balcony and cause Alonzo to crash his car. Alonzo thinks he can bribe the men in the area to shoot Jake. But, they have had enough, and Bone puts a gun on the ground, telling Alonzo he has to do his own dirty work. They don’t mind Alonzo being brought down as long as they don’t get blamed for it. Alonzo’s thinks he can take advantage of Jake’s reluctance to shoot someone, especially a fellow officer. But his arrogance causes him to belittle Jake, who shoots him in the butt before Alonzo can reach the gun on the ground. Jake says he has acquired knowledge on this training day. He says, “You wanna know what I learned today? I’m not like you.” He yanks off Alonzo’s badge, sort of court martialing him, stripping him of his ability to continue to hide his crimes behind his policeman’s facade, and says, “You don’t deserve this.” Alonzo has been so corrupted by the abuse of his power as a cop that he can’t face defeat. He continues to threaten the community, saying, “I’m the police. I run shit around here. You just live here.” His total embracing of his arrogance is seen when he says, “King Kong ain’t got shit on me.” Not only is he delusional about his strength, he also is ignorant of how much more noble Kong was then he is.

The community allows Jake to leave with the bag of money. Alonzo drives to the airport, maybe hoping he can get out of town. But, the Russians have been following him. They use vans to cut him off. They open fire on Alonzo’s car. He staggers out, still in egotistical denial about his fate, trying to reach his trunk for a weapon. They finish him off with a gangster’s version of a twenty-one gun salute. He ironically becomes an example of the street justice he advocated, since he crossed the line and became a criminal who was wiped out by his own kind.
The film ends with Jake going home after a day at work, but what a day it was. We hear a radio voice-over saying, “A Los Angeles Police Department narcotics officer was killed today serving a high-risk warrant near LAX.” A cover-up, most likely concocted by the Three Wise Men. Will Jake, a lone, honest cop fighting corruption, be able to bring them down and put an end to the corruption? What do you think?

After a week off, the next film is North Country.