By Armond White
In the low-light neo-noir visual scheme of Blue Caprice, dark-skinned actor Isaiah Washington is automatically a silhouette, an emblematic obscure object of both dread and desire–the fear of and attraction toward murderous African American vengeance. Washington portrays John Muhammad, the elder member of the two-man team responsible for the three weeks of Beltway sniper killings in 2002. French director Alexandre Moors sees this social tragedy from a distance that turns its key elements of race fascination and unfathomable evil into art concepts.
This view of how grudge-bearing Muhammad met the lonely, fatherless young John Malvo (played by Tequan Richmond) in Antiqua, then brought him to the U.S. where he trains the kid to be a mindlessly obedient killing machine, is a strange platonic love story. Moors’ cool, sleek, steadily ambiguous moodiness makes projections about Black male character: how insular, stigmatized social figures develop anger and act on it. Named after the teal-and-chrome used car Muhammad and Malvo outfitted into a covert attack vehicle they drive from Tacoma, Washington to D.C., Blue Caprice is an estheticized existential mystery with a political enigma at its center–a shadowy Black boogie man.
It’s possible that Washington (who co-produced the film) chose this role to express some of the frustration from his recent career trouble and media vilification–relating in some way to Muhammad’s own resentment of his failed marriage and social profiling. Yet despite Washington’s coiled efforts, this “dark” characterization is not enlightening. It repeats racial stigma and complements the mainstream media routine that exploits Black subjects then ignores their essence. Fittingly, the film’s documentary opening establishes a standard newsmedia sociological point-of-view of the Beltway killings then gets no deeper.
This mystification–recalling David Fincher’s Zodiac “process” and Terrence Malick’s lyrically disaffected Badlands criminals, is in a different class from the bogus political sentimentality of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. But Daniels’ crude and sappy film comforts audiences with the myths they already want to see. The Black characters in Blue Caprice are no deeper than these generic title designations–just butler, maid then weapon: The enigmatic duo go underground (“I’ve created a monster” notes Muhammad’s white militia landmines seller). Take driving lessons and target practice (“The kid’s a fuckin’ natural,” says an off-grid white after seeing Malvo’s gun skills). Muhammad writes a Handbook (“A sniper must not be susceptible to emotions such as anxiety or remorse”). Yet their exploits (including s&m-style training sessions in the woods and quasi-sexual professions of love) don’t illuminate the obvious problem of social maladjustment–as if the major issue didn’t come down to race conflict.
In Andre Techine’s probing The Girl on the Train, New York’s Tawana Brawley case was transposed to Paris as a bourgeois white girl’s story in order to investigate the warped liberalism of too-close identification with social victims while Blue Caprice stays morally distant, catering to spurious, liberal sympathy–the flipside of racist contempt. In this view, Muhammad and Malvo are archetypal African American malcontents and a Black man’s grievance seems just…crazy.
So in Blue Caprice, Muhammad stays livid and Malvo is morally blank–like the protagonist in Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien. They confound any understanding about the effects of racism on personality. At the film’s New Directors/New Films premiere last Spring, the MoMA crowd bought into this terror–welcomed it as part of their cultural sophistication–even though regularly avoiding any movies about life-affirming Black experience as banal. That’s one of the problems Blue Caprice doesn’t resolve. Sad that Washington can count on such racist disaffection.
Why would Washington rebound from career ignominy by portraying a serial killer? The choice could be a perfect response to the frequent Black demonization in film culture (whether it’s Denzel Washington’s rogue cop in Training Day, Halle Berry’s skank in Monsters Ball, Mo’Nique’s gorgon in Precious or when stereotyping is reversed as in the maudlin victimization of Fruitvale Station). In the same fashion Blue Caprice presents only the superficial aspects of Muhammad and Malvo’s malevolence and leaves it at that. Muhammad and Malvo aren’t seen with the same inquiring depth as the father-son theft scene in Vittorio DeSica’s The Bicycle Theif. Instead, by ignoring–excusing–the complexities of Black American social circumstances, Blue Caprice falls into the same pit as Denzel Washington’s bacchanal in Flight. This query into Black masculine stress ends with Flight’s bogus mystery. Malvo becomes a bleeding-heart puppet and gets the last, guilt-inducing word: “Where’s my father?”
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair