You’ll be hard pressed to think of a controversial play or film that even decades later, still remains just as controversial. You could probably count them on one hand. But it’s maybe impossible you couldn’t make up such a list without putting Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman on it.
The play first premiered in 1964 in New York when Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, was in the process of a divorce from his white first wife and going through the political and philosophical process of becoming a black nationalist.
Not surprisingly, his play caused shock and outrage. It’s a work that could be interpreted in hundreds of ways. But Baraka makes it clear Dutchman is whatever you want it to be, and you can take whatever you want from it. But at its core, it’s a work about the ever present tensions between sex and race.
However, on the surface, the film is most obviously a cautionary tale for black men. It says loud and clear that they should stop lusting after white chicks… or else you’re going to be soooooorrrrryyyyyy.
The film version with Shirley Knight (who could be considered the Meryl Steep of the 1960’s) and Al Freeman Jr (best known for playing the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X) was released in 1967 and has an interesting backstory.
According to Knight, in the latest issue of Shock Cinema magazine, she saw the play in New York and immediately wanted to play the daring female lead role of Lula herself. She did shortly afterward in a Los Angeles stage production, which drew, not surprisingly, its fair share of controversy, including riots, protests and even death threats.
Inspired by the success and notoriety of the L.A. production, Knight and her producer husband decided to turn it into a film. Their plans to actually shoot the film in New York, since the play is set entirely on a N.Y. subway car, were ditched when the city wouldn’t give them permission to shoot the film there, because they thought it would be bad publicity - which is surprising considering the city obviously had no problem giving its permission for another film I’ve seen, made the same year as Dutchman, a 20th Century Fox film called The Incident, with Martin Sheen, Ruby Dee and Ed McMahon (of all people), in which a pair of low life punks terrorize and sexually and racially harass a group of riders on a N.Y. subway car. Funny, no concerns about bad publicity from that film.
So Knight and her husband shot the film for what was then $25,000 in a London film studio; and to direct the film, they got Anthony Harvey, the film editor on Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, making his film directing debut.
And it’s to Harvey’s and the producers' great credit that they totally resisted the temptation of “opening up” Dutchman to make it more like a normal feature film which would have resulted in diluting its impact.. The film stays true to the play, taking place entirely on one set and running a very trim 55 minutes.
In the film Clay (Freeman) is on his way home on a hot summer day, on the subway, when he encounters (more like eyeballs) Lula, a mini dressed vixen (Knight), and they strike up a conversation.
It doesn’t take long for Clay to realize that he’s met the black man’s dream - a crazy white nymphomaniac who will do anything, anyplace, anywhere. Maybe even right there in the subway car (why not? No one’s around). However it soon becomes clear that Lula is not some crazy nympho. She’s just crazy, even using racial slurs against Clay.
Now you would think that Clay, realizing his mistake, would, at least move, to another car, or just get off and wait for another train. You would think. Unfortunately, not him.
In fact he becomes even more perversely intrigued and infatuated by Lula. That is until, eventually, she gets totally out of control, and he comes face to face with the horror that he’s made a huge mistake, but at too late a price.
Knight is admittedly brilliant in the role of Lula. Granted it’s the big show off role in the film, but she plays it for everything its worth. Her unbridled, aggressive in your face sexuality becomes sour when her obviously increasing madness and unpredictable behavior becomes more frightening with every mounting minute.
Harvey and his cameraman, Gerry Turpin, effectively use the small, limited space. And with his expertise in film editing, he knows how to ramp up the claustrophobic stifling atmosphere and builds up the tension to some eventual unforeseen doom.
Freeman has, in a way, the more difficult role, Seemingly passive at first, he slowly comes to realize, through subtle conflicted looks on his face, that he has some serious doubts about Lula and the situation he’s gotten himself into.
Yet he’s trapped, no doubt due to his fascination with white women (Brothers take heed). However, when he comes to the realization that he’s made a tragic mistake, his utter dejection that his dream has turned out to be a nightmare, is shattering.
The film is still shown occasionally in N.Y, at places like The Film Forum, and has never been available on DVD, though Knight says that she has been working to get a restored version on DVD.
But in the meantime, if you’re curious, you can watch the film on YouTube (in six sections).
It’s a fascinating and, in an odd way, timeless film as well. A film that is very much a mirror reflection of the turbulent times that it was made in (if you think things are crazy today, you should have been around during the late 60’s).
But, in many ways, the film also reflects the attitudes, feelings and tensions that are still present today. The more things change, the more they stay the same.