By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
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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