Big, Bad Black Dealers and Junkie White Girls
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The sorry plight of the drug addict has long since made for inviting and scintillating subject matter in Hollywood cinema.
John Schlesinger's 1969 classic Midnight Cowboys helped to define the genre of gritty, poignant junkie-films, followed by Jerry Schwatzberg's 1971 film Panic in Needle Park, with the young Al Pacino as Bobby, the heroin addict. Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy and Scott Kalvert's Basketball Diaries -- to name but a few more recent films -- have subsequently deserved praise for bringing pieces of the day-to-day euphoria and agony of chemical dependency to the big screen.
Last year's Requiem for a Dream and Traffic are the two latest, and most notable additions to the realm of drug-related films; the latter of the two has even rather single-handedly sparked a good deal of dialogue about the immeasurable civilian casualties, astronomical cost and the ultimate 'unwinnability' of the so-called Drug War.
This is the power of American cinema. More than any other American art form, celluloid is the kind of cultural glue that can manage to move our collective psyche from one point to another.
And it's the kind of cultural glue that can keep our psyches stuck in one place, as both Requiem and Traffic manage to do where the ethnic and gender dimensions of drug dealing and addiction are concerned.
For all of Requiem's visual appeal and Traffic's much more weighty overall impact, both movies manage to hang on to a stubborn and dangerously entrenched set of notions -- crass stereotypes, in point of fact -- about the lives of Euro-American female dope addicts and the African American male drug dealers who ostensibly await their sexual availability and servitude.
Requiem for a Dream, Daniel Aronofsky's much-awaited second feature-length movie (filmed on a substantially bigger budget than his first indie gem, Pi), revolves around a central cast of four, including Jared Leto (as Harry Goldfarb) as the junkie with a drug-related plan to lift himself -- as well as his lonely, widowed, television-addicted mother Ellen Burstyn (as Sara Goldfarb) and his best friend Marlon Wayans (as Tyrone C. Love) -- out of poverty and into a better and more comfortable. There's a girlfriend, too, a 20-something woman, Marion Silver (played by Jennifer Connelly), who comes from a wealthy family but has fallen into coke addiction and fallen madly in love with her somewhat simple-minded, poor Jewish junkie boyfriend, Harry. Unsurprisingly, Harry's plan unravels, and the lives of the characters come gruesomely undone at a nauseatingly frantic pace.
Nominated for five Academy Awards, Steven Soderbergh's Traffic is infinitely more complex and far-reaching in its insights into the truly borderless reach of the drug war. In all respects, this is an intelligent, demanding film that reaches for a new understanding of the scope of the drug problem in the U.S. Here, as in Requiem, the primary portrait of the female drug user is of a wealthy, intelligent, overachieving 16-year-old, Caroline Wakefield (played by Erika Christensen), whose own recreational drug use is introduced early in the film. Caroline is none other than the daughter of the nation's newly appointed Drug Czar. Her first experience freebasing cocaine with a rich boyfriend happens just as her father has assumed his transitional responsibilities to his new governmental post.
In plot development and cinematic style, Requiem and Traffic would otherwise bear little comparison to one another except for the fact that they manage to arrive at one, similar crucial point in the stories that unfold on screen: both female drug addicts hit their lowest point -- strongly represented in each film as their most personally desperate act -- when they decide to trade their bodies for sex to unfeeling, coldly ruthless African American male drug dealers.
Marion's desperation for a fix leads her to the breaking point, and into the posh apartment of ""Big Tim" who only makes his product available in exchange for "pussy." Big Tim -- a large, menacingly portrayed dope dealer -- demands a blow job. She hesitates. His request grows harsher. We watch as the fear and self-loathing stare out at us from within her eyes, before she finally consents.
In Traffic, Caroline escapes from her private drug rehab for her freebasing addiction and runs back to the ghetto streets which her prep-school boyfriend had taken her to for cocaine. There, we, the audience, are made to feel as though we are her, buried beneath the naked body of an African American dealer. He is a muscular and dark-complexioned man who -- through the lens and the location of the cameraman -- is pounding away on top of us. On top of lily-white Caroline. A hard, mechanical, unfeeling kind of sex that is only interrupted, briefly, when the nameless dealer arises from bed -- naked, glistening with sweat -- to sell drugs through a small opening in his door and returns to find Caroline eying the syringes and dope packets in his bag. She wants more drugs. He smiles knowingly and then proceeds to inject her with the product, and in doing so introduces her to the world of injection drug use.
And so it goes.
Once sex with the Black dealers has happened, the quick descent into hell officially begins for the two females. Both Marion and Caroline lose what they used to have of their identities and cease to understand their own boundaries. Their corruption is complete. Big Tim becomes a kind of pimp to Marion and arranges for her to have sex with another female coke addict in front of a room of horny, rich white businessmen.
In Caroline's case, it seems implied that the dealer with whom she had sex has arranged for her to start having sex with other men. When her father finally tracks her down -- lifts her out of the pit into which she has sunk with no help from the same gun-wielding dealer to whom he first turns for help -- he finds her prostituting herself to a white businessman.
The young women have been sold like goods. They are, in the classic Hollywood scenario, in desperate need of rescue. One finds redemption in her father's arms, and the other awaits salvation from her boyfriend. It never comes.
So deeply and subconsciously held are these ideas among many filmgoers that these kinds of representations of female drug users and dealers are allowed to dance past our eyes, unquestioned.
Yet they are representations that demand dissection, from all possible angles.
Dating back to the early days of American cinema -- most notably with D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation in 1915 -- there has often been a harsh, oversexed, white-flesh-desiring component to the portrayal of African American male sexuality on screen. From that point forward, from the 1970s-era Blaxploitation movies to more recent pictures written and/or directed by Euro-Americans and some African Americans -- films including Booty Call and The Player's Club -- have continued to present African American men in an entirely hypersexualized manner. (An empirical study presented at the 1999 American Psychological Association convention in Boston confirmed that African Americans themselves strongly objected to the representation of Black sexuality in films like Booty Call)
What bears particular mention with both Requiem and Traffic is not only how these movies manage to perpetuate the damaging stereotype of crass, uber-sexual African American men, but also how they highlight the ease with which filmmakers slip into a mindframe -- a misguided mystique -- surrounding Black-on-White sex. There's the component of it that wants to experience it with porn-style-voyeurism: "Show us the big, powerful Black daddies subdue those angelic-looking, pale-skinned girls."
It's a dark fantasy, if you will; perhaps a subliminal projection of the way the filmmakers might imagine that interracial sex (at least in this particular ethnic combination and under these kinds of circumstances) would be like.
Insofar as this kind of dominant/submissive interracial sexual scenario might be a turn-on to some, it's also represented as a total and egregious violation of the females. The dealer has taken advantage of the confusion and the ultimate innocence of the privileged Euro-American female who is so caught up in her unintentional addiction that she can't see straight. She needs drugs, and we're to believe that there's just no other way for her to get them than to enter into the Black man's 'drug lair.' The ensuing scenes of sexuality are filmed entirely devoid of affection , as if to say, "See how cold and cruel and heartless the sex is? Don't go there, girls, don't you dare go there."
And there, in that unstated but absolutely implied message, is another aspect of most drug-genre films that is dishonest and generally untrue-to-life: The lives of women who use drugs.
In these and many of Hollywood's other druggie films, women are not recreational drug users, they are hopeless and pathetic addicts -- or, to be more specific, the addict girlfriends of main character addict boyfriends. If they are to have any kind of central role in any film, they are most certainly Euro-American. Their use of any kind of drug snowballs, almost overnight, into freebasing or heroin injection. They need to be rescued, and unless someone is there to do exactly that, they end up prostituting themselves -- in these most recent two cases to callous, African American dealers. Remarkably, all of this happens quicker than you can blink an eye, and the women are, at least temporarily, lost in the morass of drug desperation.
Hollywood has always liked its formulas, and this is one that has remained largely unchallenged.
It's a rather unpopular idea about the subject matter at hand, but it needs to be said: Many women in this country can and do choose to do drugs simply because they feel like doing them, and because they handle their use the way they would a few glasses of wine. It's not something anti-drug outfits like D.A.R.E. would ever want to hear, but there are women all over the country who know that they can dip into the rampant availability of the supply available, have a mind-altering experience, and then go to work or school the next day.
This isn't a way of romanticizing the experience; drug use comes with its serious risks, of course, and the 'harder' the drug, the more serious the risks. And statistically speaking, most of the women willing to entertain these risks and go ahead with recreational drug use are Euro-American. At least that part is something the filmmakers have gotten right.
What's at issue here is fundamentally an old feminist idea, albeit applied in an area -- drug use -- where the founding mothers of feminism surely never intended for it to be applied: Women are capable of making independent decisions without male intervention or influence. Women can make their own mistakes. Barring more severe consequences, women can even fix and learn from their own mistakes. The notion of women's inability to pull themselves together from drug use of one kind of another without a man reaching into pit to pull them out of their "bad" behavior plunks audiences back on Pretty Woman territory. Different story, same theme.
In the realm of addiction, there is no question that the physical, emotional, financial and familial consequences of habitual drug use is horrible no matter what the ethnicity or gender of the person affected. Do some female addicts end up prostituting themselves? Absolutely. Do girls face additional pressures where sex and drugs are concerned? Without doubt. But the road to prostituting oneself for a drug habit is usually a long and difficult one, not one that is typically achieved in a matter of a couple of scant weeks.
And still, women in films like Requiem and Traffic are perceived to be incapable of making drug decisions rationally or managing occasional recreational drug use. Celluloid stories continue to treat the issue as though personal decline and the damage are horribly inevitable for any woman who dares to break the law where drug use is concerned.
Ultimately, the Step A to B to C movie formula where women, drug use and prostitution are concerned is so simplistic (and ineffectual as a drug-prevention message, if that is the aim of this well-worn formula) that we can and should critique that kind of overgeneralization as firmly as we should reject the tired formula that relentlessly over-promotes images of African American men as drug users and dealers, and represents African American male sexuality as being somehoww geared toward the heartless and calculated seduction of Euro-American women.
The latter is the kind of damaging and distorted imagery that has been playing to audiences since 1915. Nearly a century later, each generation winds up watching the same kind of scenes -- updated and repackaged -- unfold on the big screen.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Even in the realm of junkie-films, filmmakers and audience members alike should be capable of so much more. Just try us.
Silja J.A. Talvi is a Seattle-based freelance journalist and essayist with credits in a variety of national publications including The Progressive, In These Times, High Times and Utne Reader.