Although Devil in the Blue Dress, Smoke Signals, and Traffic, are very different films from each other and vastly vary in their subject matter, all three represent race in an interesting way. None of the above films is overtly racist, but all of them consists some element of stereotypes. Smoke Signals depicts race in the most interesting manner, Devil ranks second, and Traffic would rate as the least. The director’s own ethnic identity, outlook towards race, intention or goal as a film maker and finally their auteur style are some of the key factors that influence the depiction of race in their respective films.
Smoke Signals seems least stereotypical in its depiction of race. Since the film is written and directed by Alexie Sherman, who is a Native American, the film has a ring of authenticity to it more than Devil or Traffic. Also, mainstream films largely exclude Native Americans or race issues connected to this group. If films (such as Dances with Wolves) depict Native Americans, then their representation is stereotypical.
Although Smoke Signals is written and directed by a Native American, the representation of Native American’s in the film is not completely devoid of stereotypes. Victor and Thomas have opposing set of values and move between masculine binaries. In the scene where Victor and Thomas are on the bus ride to collect the ashes of Victor’s father, we see the two characters talk about being an Indian and we get their world-view. Victor portrays a macho masculinity, whereas Thomas depicts a feminized version–the braided hair, his facial expressions, soft stance, and his role as a storyteller are just a few examples of his feminized identity. We see the depiction of Native American masculinity stereotyped in the film.
However, later on the bus ride, when two cowboys take Thomas and Victor’s seat, we witness racial discrimination against them. The director handles this scene with freshness and original rebuttal against the issue of racial prejudice. “This minor, petty moment of mean spiritedness echoes several centuries of white’s dislocating Native Americans from their rightful locations” (Roth 311). While Victor looks mean and tries to put forward his case, Thomas later notes that the mean look doesn’t always work. Victor and Thomas ultimately move to the back seat, but sing a song about John Wayne’s teeth. The song becomes a humorous rebellion and draws attention from the cowboys and other White passengers on the bus. Thus, Victor and Thomas, Elaine Roth explains, “challenge oppressive expressions of racism with humor and a hybridized mixture of popular culture, artistry, and Indian tradition” (311). Alexie Sherman’s is unique auteur in that sense, creating his own brand of films as he uses both the Indian traditional and popular Hollywood with good blend of humor while dealing with the weighty subject matter of race.
Traffic on the other hand is a far more sophisticated film–big budget blockbuster, parallel narratives, complex and well crafted plot, huge cast, and so on. This helps the film not only achieve a wider audience, but also enables the director, Steven Soderbergh brings home the issue of drug trafficking in Mexico and US with panache. And yet, the film has more stereotypes about race, than Smoke Signals or Devil in Blue Dress. However, Soderbergh’s auteur style–parallel narratives, sleek editing such as jump dissolves, clever dialogue, visual landscapes (as seen in Traffic, Ocean’s and Syrian among others)–overshadows the content of the Traffic. They style dominates the theme-the form overtakes the function.
Although Soderbergh’s Traffic is more entertaining and sophisticated film than Devil and Smoke, it reinforces stereotypical representation of race that big budget Hollywood blockbusters often do. Carlos and Gordon, the two DEA Agents in Traffic remain minor character characters not just in terms of screen time they get but because they are reduced to comical figures. In the scenes when Carlos and Gordon survey Helena, we hear their clever banter. For example, when Helena walks over to the van and offers them lemonade, they talk about her. Castro says, “She is your girlfriend. Open it, talk about your kids.” Mark Gallagher explains that Carlos and Gordon conform to racial stereotypes. He writes, “the comical moments productively unsettle the film’s ideological project, but they also rob the characters of the ability to matter or weigh in rhetorically on the film’s subject of the narcotics trade” (235).
But Devil in a Blue Dress uses both the style and function of film making to depict race.
Walter Mosley’s novel and Carl Franklin’s neonoir film version of Devil in a Blue Dress portrays the historically marginalized social group-African Americans- in 1948 post war L.A. Berrettini notes that Devil in a Blue Dress uses noir style and genre conventions which allow the director to explore issues of crime, corruption, and “racialized social relations” prevalent during the 40s (111).
We see the depiction of race relations handled in a serious yet dramatic way in the scene when Easy is arrested by the LAPD detectives and taken into custody. We see the racial prejudice prevalent in the 40’s which seem authentic. Easy is dragged through a long corridor, and taken to an interrogation room. He is brutally beaten and harassed by the detectives, who are corrupt and violent. the interrogation is filled with racial slurs and physical abuse. Easy is a rime suspect for Correta’s murder and treated as guilty. After three hours, they let Easy go. But once Easy is out of the Los Angeles City Jail, cops patrolling the road, harass him. Easy notes in his voiceover, “The game of cops and niggers kept up outside the station, but I hardly even noticed.” Thus, the scene handles race in a mature way, providing a voice for the African American community.
Carl Franklin, while speaking to the audience about his goal as a film maker said, “I am interested in the universal values of the black experience” (Black Camera” 8). Franklin’s commitment to represent the African American community and a unique neonoir style thus lends a auteur quality to Franklin’s Devil and makes the film more powerful.