On being Black in film noir

Angelica Jade Bastién examines the complex relationship that American film noir has had with Black people, and finds that the genre’s coolness, style and unmistakable milieu have always been heavily indebted to Black culture.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
  • This piece was originally published in the BFI Black Star Compendium (2016), and reprinted in the December 2016 issue of Sight & Sound.

For all its aesthetic pleasures, film noir has always been a political genre attuned to the American psyche. You can’t separate the brutal poetry of the dialogue from the conversations real men and women were having as they negotiated power in post-World War II America. You can’t divorce the image of the femme fatale from the position women found themselves in during the 1940s and 1950s, struggling to obtain autonomy. What is the undercurrent of unease in the genre but a manifestation of an era in turmoil through McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist?

So it follows that the deep shadows of noir cannot be properly understood without considering America’s fraught relationship with people of colour. The coolness, the style, the shadows of noir are indebted to black culture – or at the very least to white America’s approximation of blackness.

It has been argued that noir transfers the fear of blackness that permeates American culture into the existential fear of the ‘other’ that marks the genre. That may be true, but noir’s relationship with blackness is still more complicated than that.

Early on in Out of the Past (1947), Jeff (Robert Mitchum) finds himself in an all-black nightclub as he investigates the whereabouts of femme fatale Kathie (Jane Greer). He’s there to meet Kathie’s former black maid Eunice (Theresa Harris). It’s a brief scene, the kind that’s found throughout noir in the 1940s and 1950s: a white character moving as a tourist through a milieu dominated by black faces.

Out of the Past (1947)

The scene works toward ‘othering’ Jeff (due to his ease in moving through this space) and Kathie (since Eunice is the closest thing to a friend we know she’s had). Jeff’s ease in a black environment establishes his swagger, and how different his moral landscape is from the other white characters around him.

Similar scenes appear throughout noir. The black characters in these scenes may not be outright stereotypes the way they are in other films of the period, but they still rarely have interiority. Nonetheless, in noir there are times when black characters are given more interiority than was usual for films at the time.

The Breaking Point (1950)

Take the affecting performance by Afro-Puerto Rican actor Juano Hernández in Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point (1950), the second screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, in which he’s partner to John Garfield’s sport-fishing boat captain. The final scene sees his son pictured standing alone on a dock in search of his father, unaware that he has been killed, his body dumped unceremoniously over the side of Garfield’s boat. Throughout the film, Hernández’s big expressive eyes communicate the sadness that comes with understanding how much of a lie the American dream is – a pivotal theme in noir. And who better understands the hollowness of that dream than people of colour?

Two films that bookend the 1950s – Sidney Poitier’s screen debut No Way Out (1950), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), starring and produced by Harry Belafonte – show what can happen when blackness doesn’t just inspire noir, but is put at the forefront. Poitier’s character Dr Luther Brooks in No Way Out seems to anticipate the civil rights years ahead. His character is underscored by a desire to turn anger into healing and the belief that extolling righteousness in the face of bigotry is the most noble choice.

No Way Out (1950)

Brooks is the first black doctor at an urban hospital. He’s confronted by racism, personified by Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark), a bug-eyed, virulent criminal brought into the hospital with his young brother Johnny (Dick Paxton), after a failed robbery. Johnny dies soon after Brooks performs a spinal tap on him, which sets off a chain of events that threatens Brooks’s livelihood and safety.

By centring black characters in noir, the film brings the country’s shifting racial landscape from subtext into the foreground. Poitier isn’t just one man confronting the failings of his own psyche – he represents every black man and woman in the audience, and how they confront the ugly truth that no matter their excellence, they’ll never be good enough in the eyes

Black detectives like Somerset in Se7en feel like they are traversing the line between two Americas – the one white people experience, and a second that only people of colour know of the racist systems they must reckon with. As Brooks says to his mentor, Dr Daniel Wharton (Stephen McNally), soon after Johnny dies: “They’re not yelling at the doctor, they’re yelling at the nigger.” The black characters in No Way Out all grapple with racism in different ways. Lefty Jones (Dots Johnson), the hospital’s elevator operator, refuses to turn the other cheek as Brooks does.

Perhaps it’s because Jones wears a reminder of the brutality of white violence on his face – a deep gash runs along his cheek. He speaks of how his sister still has to use a wheelchair after the last race riot led by the white men in the community. When Brooks suggests that he shouldn’t fight back as it’ll make him just like his tormentors, Jones spits back, “Ain’t that asking a lot of us to be better than them when we get killed trying to prove we’re just as good?” Brooks can’t reply. How could anyone in the face of such a startling truth?

It’s interesting to see Poitier in this early role display a level of anger usually unheard of for black characters in the studio era. Brooks’s anger isn’t as bold as Jones’s. It exists in flashes, like in his steely reaction when an older white woman spits on him in the hospital for trying to treat her son. This performance may lack the virility we would come to expect of Poitier, but there’s a different integrity here, in contrast to many of his later roles which required him to be an emblem for the ‘good black man’. The blistering race riot sequence, along with the focus on how black people respond to racism, gives No Way Out an almost radical edge.

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Odds Against Tomorrow pivots on the reluctant relationship between bitter ex-con Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) and gambling addict and nightclub entertainer Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) when they’re hired to do a heist. If No Way Out resonates most when positioning Poitier’s mindset in contrast to the other black characters, Odds Against Tomorrow does so in comparing the different versions of masculinity that Slater and Ingram represent. Ingram is smooth, sweet-faced even. Slater is all edges. Belafonte is an interesting choice for a noir lead; he’s charismatic, to be sure, but his energy and style has an ease that sticks out among the deep shadows.

The end shows the price of Ingram giving in to his hate toward Slater. The heist goes south and they’re chased by police through a fuel storage depot. Their disgust toward one another turns fatalistic when they draw their guns, shoot each other, and cause a massive explosion that leaves their charred remains indistinguishable to authorities. The ‘Dead End’ sign that closes the film is meant as a stark reminder that racism is a corrosive force that destroys all in its wake.

In this way the actions of Ingram and Slater seem to be presented with moral equivalence. But this misunderstands that while Ingram’s hate isn’t laudable, it is understandable, and lacks the cultural, institutionalised support of Slater’s. It’s as if the film is afraid to say that Slater’s racism is more than just a personal moral failing and that it actually represents a disease at the heart of America itself.

Odds Against Tomorrow marked the end of the original noir cycle, but the presence of black stars in the twilight world of the genre would return decades later with two fascinating neo-noirs, Deep Cover (1992) and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). Significantly, both films not only feature black lead characters in predominantly black casts, but were made by black directors – Bill Duke and Carl Franklin respectively.

Devil in a Blue Dress takes us back to Los Angeles in 1948. It’s a classic noir world, but instead of Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart we find Denzel Washington – a star with more than enough charisma, skill and internal complications to authentically inhabit the role of noir’s most enduring archetype: the detective. The film provides a window on to the kind of black environment that earlier noirs relegated to the margins. At last we’re fully taken into the world we only get a glimpse of when Jeff visits the black nightclub in Out of the Past.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Franklin’s film has all the hallmarks of classic noir: voiceover, flashbacks, a labyrinthine investigation, colourful side characters and complicated women (if not outright femme fatales) like Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), who passes as a white woman and whom Washington’s character is hired to investigate. By focusing on Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins (Washington) and the other black characters in his orbit, the film deals with themes of identity and autonomy in ways very different to previous noirs.

For Rawlins, almost any action can have fatal consequences. He’s a black man who finds himself in the line of fire of very powerful white figures. This forefronting of the racism of the late 1940s breathes new life into a story that would otherwise be rather typical. The film openly critiques the racism of this time and so the genre itself.

Deep Cover, meanwhile, offers a radical update of noir by having its story take place in a contemporary Los Angeles. It follows a detective, Russell Stevens (Laurence Fishburne), as he goes undercover as John Hull, a drug dealer on the make – an assignment that eventually puts his soul on the line. His movements are controlled by the openly racist DEA agent Gerald Carver (Charles Martin Smith), and he gradually finds himself coming to embody characteristics that lie at the heart of the most pernicious clichés of black masculinity – stereotypes he hoped to bypass and challenge by becoming a detective.

Jeff Goldblum and Laurence Fishburne in Bill Duke's Deep Cover (1992)

The racism critiqued in Devil in a Blue Dress is arguably made more palatable by being trapped in the past. But Deep Cover addressed a more recent blight on American life in its unflinching portrayal of the legacy of the Reagan era, during which the drug trade, government and law enforcement had upended black communities.

The film probes the ways our identity is shaped by the images we seek to project, and is a sly critique of the gentrification of noir itself. The way Stevens/Hull deals with characters like attorney-turned-drug trafficker David Jason (Jeff Goldblum) is an open repudiation of earlier noir’s surface-level fascination with black lives.

One of the film’s most transfixing scenes comes when Stevens/Hull has to kill a rival drug dealer – a retaliation for offing a mother of four who was in his employ. Fishburne fully embodies his character’s conflict: between the need to keep his cover, and an awareness that his actions are hurting the community he wants to protect.

The death isn’t quick or pretty or easy to forget. “I killed a man who looked like me. Whose mother and father looked like my mother and father. And nothing happened,” he says. Noir is full of stories of men losing their souls, but few have the mix of fury and bravery found in Fishburne’s character in Deep Cover.

It’s interesting to look at Morgan Freeman’s Detective William Somerset from David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) as part of the same 90s noir revival. Where Deep Cover and Devil in a Blue Dress openly critique racism and feel boldly political, Se7en elides these thematic underpinnings. Somerset is an older detective, sick of the morally depraved unnamed city he works in and eager to retire.

Se7en (1995)

But the tension between him and his short-tempered partner David Mills (Brad Pitt) rests on age not race. However Freeman’s performance still exists within the tradition of black actors in noir, because the weariness that he brings to his character recalls the same sort of downtrodden emotional state that the new-to-the-game detectives in Deep Cover and Devil in a Blue Dress grow to have. Black detectives like Somerset feel like they are traversing the line between two Americas – the one white people experience, and a second that only people of colour know. They’re asked to move between both worlds, an experience that isolates them from everyone.

If Deep Cover and Devil in a Blue Dress offered new depths for black men in noir, the genre still takes a very limited view of black women. Noir is all about perspective – who gets the voiceover, whose mind we’re inhabiting, whose journey proves to be the emotional anchor. The 1980s and 1990s put women – femme fatales in particular – in the lead (think 1987’s Black Widow and 1994’s The Last Seduction). But it was never a black woman.

Nonetheless, there are some beautiful, albeit rare, supporting roles for black women in noir that acknowledge their interiority. In Joseph Losey’s The Big Night (1951), the teenage Georgie (John Drew Barrymore) finds himself enjoying the musical stylings of an all-black jazz band until the drummer’s rhythm brings to mind the savage beating of his father that sets off the film. Superimposing the image of this beating over the drummer questionably aligns blackness with violence.

Mauri Lynn in Joseph Losey's The Big Night (1951)

It isn’t until Terry Angelus (Mauri Lynn) comes to the stage, singing a song punctuated by loneliness, that Georgie’s waking nightmare is broken. Outside the club he runs into her and is effusive in his praise. “I think you’re the most wonderful singer in the whole world. That isn’t all. You’re so beautiful even if you are a – .” The word he doesn’t say hangs between them, souring the tender connection. She slumps against the light post, resigned, as if this isn’t a new occurrence. Just another blow, another night, another show. Lynn’s performance only lasts a few minutes, but it’s the most honest of the entire film.

In No Way Out, Mildred Joanne Smith (in her only film role, as Cora, the wife of Poitier’s character) is given two great moments. The first is a monologue as she holds a sleeping Brooks. She discusses the weight of trying to move through a world that abhors her blackness and his. The second involves her going to Dr Wharton to let him know Brooks got arrested in order to force an autopsy to clear his name.

When Wharton and Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell) leave, Cora and Wharton’s maid, Gladys (Amanda Randolph), are left alone in the room. Cora breaks down once they are out of sight. “That’s it, baby. Let it go. They’re gone now. They can’t hear you,” Gladys says to comfort her. In 1950, a scene in which a black woman’s pain is acknowledged, and in which a black woman is comforted by another black woman, feels revolutionary.

More recently, in films like the misguided noir pastiche Sin City (2005) and shows like Netflix’s Daredevil, Afro-Latina Rosario Dawson has brought charm and confidence to noir. In Devil in a Blue Dress, Lisa Nicole Carson plays Coretta James, a friend to Monet. She’s neither good girl nor femme fatale. She’s a woman who is openly sexual, cunning and with an edge of sadness.

In Out of Time (2003), Sanaa Lathan is a series of contradictions. She’s a damsel in distress yearning to be saved by Denzel Washington’s lead detective, but she’s also a villain orchestrating his downfall for her own ends.

In Angel Heart (1987), Lisa Bonet plays the ridiculously named Epiphany, who blends innocence with blistering sexuality. Some of these characters are better written than others, but all are granted an interior life by the actresses themselves.

Strange Days (1995)

One who stands out as being more well thought-out than most is Lornette ‘Mace’ Mason, played by Angela Bassett in Kathryn Bigelow’s futuristic sci-fi noir Strange Days (1995). Bassett completely inhabits the role, so much so that you wonder why she’s not the film’s lead – she’s overqualified as sidekick to Ralph Fiennes’s Lenny Nero.

Noir is a powerful genre. But when it denies the interiority of people of colour, it loses the truth it seeks to find lurking in the shadows of the American psyche.