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Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog

Wednesday, Mar 15 2000
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Forest Whitaker has a magnificent face: dark and full, with one eye sloping slightly downward. It’s etched softly but deeply with emotions that are long past ordinary rage, grief or sorrow. Or joy. It‘s a face that, even at rest, is never really restful -- and that’s likely never been called beautiful. I‘d guess that it’s rarely been truly seen. In Ghost Dog -- a film laced with brilliantly knotted ideas on race, masculinity and cults of violence -- writer-director Jim Jarmusch has Whitaker‘s weighted countenance pull double-duty: As the title character, the actor functions both as the symbolic “black man” and as a painstakingly drawn individual. It’s a testament to the depth of Whitaker‘s talent that he so nimbly, seamlessly pulls it off, crafting a haunting (and haunted) portrayal of black manhood.

The bare bones of the film’s story are simple. Ghost Dog is a peerless assassin-for-hire who works exclusively for Louie (John Tormey), a low-level member of an aged, crumbling Mafia family based in New York. Deeply immersed in the philosophical tenets of samurai culture, Ghost Dog has pledged unwavering loyalty to Louie, who saved his life years earlier. When a hit he‘s contracted for goes wrong, mob higher-ups want him killed, eventually pitting him in a life-and-death battle with the man he calls his master.

Draped over those narrative bones, though, are some astute observations on the nature of masculinity, how it’s honed and sustained through violence and death, how near-parallel rituals of bloodletting link men across various cultures and traditions, real-life and cinematic. And because this is a distinctly American film grappling with these issues, and the rare honest one, the black male is its locus: invisible man and menace to society, the fount of and receptacle for sexual fears and anxiety, blindly worshipped and necessarily annihilated.

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Jarmusch, who overhauled the Western by blasting apart genre conventions in the elegantly revisionist Dead Man, unravels genre this time by making deep nods to gangster and gangsta flicks, to hip-hop (Wu Tang Clan‘s RZA, who also makes a cameo appearance, provided the moody, beat-driven score) and to Eastern philosophy -- Ghost Dog’s relentlessly quoted bible is Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. The director, who has a facility for deploying the artifacts of pop culture, also brilliantly utilizes cartoon clips of, among others, Betty Boop, Woody Woodpecker, and Itchy and Scratchy from The Simpsons; deftly woven throughout the movie, they both foreshadow and comment on the action.

Those same clips also underscore the absurdist humor that‘s spread throughout the film: the old mob guy who loves classic hip-hop and reverently quotes Flava Flav; the elderly Puerto Rican man who’s building a ship on the top of his apartment building with no way to get it down when he‘s done. Jarmusch’s levity lets him get away with riffs that would likely find a black director massacred by the critics, as when Ghost Dog‘s best friend, Raymond, a French-speaking ice-cream vendor played by the stunningly beautiful Isaach de Bankole, cheerfully exclaims, “Vanilla is the most popular, but chocolate is the best!” Or when Ghost Dog and Raymond speak wholly different languages, yet somehow are always in sync with each other, the inference being that shared race transcends different native tongues -- indeed, that race is itself a bond of shared experiences and perceptions.

What Jarmusch has, in fact, done is to make the first fully realized hip-hop film, one in which the filmmaking is as dizzyingly inspired and purposefully surreal -- while keepin’ it real -- as the bravest, most urgent avenues of hip-hop culture, particularly rap music. He samples various filmmusicliterary genres, then juxtaposes his finds, having them double and triple back to comment on one another. In the process he‘s created a protest film that is both poem and polemic.

The pop-culture machinery has been working overtime for a while now to insure that hip-hop culture is nothing more than the latest nigga-derived opiate of the masses, to defang its blackness by paradoxically hawking caricatured Negro life. On the flip side of that coin, music scribes, social critics and artists breathlessly celebrate those undaground hip-hop gatherings where every race and dialect imaginable can be found, using them as proof of progress in race relations, as harbingers of a new day. It’s Revlon in lieu of revolution, of course, with the true goal being the maintenance of white folks‘ comfort zones. (Come on in, the shopping’s fine.) It‘s also the willful turning of a blind eye to the hatred of black folk that continues to rend the fabric of this country. It’s that hatred, and the layers of rage and frustration that it has spawned, that are at the core of hip-hop.

In Ghost Dog, Jarmusch takes the off-kilter humor, the coolly measured visual and rhythmic style that he‘s perfected over the course of his career, and lines it up effortlessly against hip-hop mores, employing his style in the service of radical black representation. Although the movie is filled with male collectives that enshrine masculine identity -- the geriatric Mafia, a ghetto posse that drops rhymes in the park while smoking blunts and drinking forties, a gang of racist white boys who, in flashback, beat the young Ghost Dog to a pulp -- Ghost Dog himself is a loner, a man who has consciously embraced the paradox of his existence, the fact that he’s both invisible and perceived as society‘s ultimate threat, and turned this paradox into a tool of survival. His worldly strength lies in his existential vulnerability, his willingness to engage death on every level while working from a moral code that’s painfully aware of the beauty and harshness of life. He practices his rituals of spirituality in isolation, with no need for approval or validation -- he has created his own definition of what it is to be a man.

The film‘s settings (captured in gritty beauty by cinematographer Robby Muller) are various environs in and around New York: dingy gangster hangouts, impoverished ghetto neighborhoods, moneyed suburbs. But its more crucial setting is simply the discordant tenor of contemporary American life -- that entangled realm of casual racism, violence and bloodied rites of passage. Throughout the film, characters speak longingly of the old days and the old ways, pointedly oblivious to the fact that it was precisely those “uncomplicated times” that led to their complicated, death-ringed lives. While the movie is very much about male terrain -- within and without -- it also speaks to the toll all this takes on women. The lone girl-child in the film is a precocious black preadolescent who’s tackling W.E.B. Dubois‘ The Souls of Black Folk. The daughter of the Mafia leader is a doped-up, dazed young woman named Louise who sports a messy version of Louise Brooks’ Pandora hairdo and carts around a tattered copy of the novel Rashomon; when a hail of gunfire cleanses her world of nearly all its men, she‘s almost instantly revitalized -- clear-eyed, sober and coolly poised to take charge.

Ghost Dog would be powerful in its own right, at almost any time on the American clock, but it’s especially so right now. It‘s hard not to feel the brush of Amadou Diallo’s ghost as we watch an unarmed black man beaten by a gang of white men, as we watch black men cower in front of guns and hear the orders to kill any black man who looks like the one being hunted. Thankfully, Jarmusch pulls no punches; he doesn‘t worry about being polite or finessing the bigotry of his characters so that we know he’s a good liberal. (He also offers no commentary on the fact that Ghost Dog calls Louie “master,” leaving the audience to work through that mind-fuck on their own.) The lazily tossed off, racist prejudice in the film is, at times, so raw that it actually engendered laughs of shocked recognition from me and the other black folk who attended the same screening. But it‘s the end of the film that breaks your heart. As Ghost Dog and his old boss square off in the middle of a New York street, striking gunslinger poses, it hits you that he is rigidly following the code of the samurai not simply because he’s a good student, but because it has provided him with relief, with a way out not only from America, but from a world of cruelty and dulled consciousness. As he slowly walks toward the firing gun, you realize that Ghost Dog is not necessarily suicidal, but he is tired of being.

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