Chinatown is one of those bulletproof L.A. films that has a lot going for it. It’s an L.A. story that refreshingly ignores Hollywood. You’ve also got Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in their prime, the pastiche-filled framing of a postmodern noir, Polanski before the rape charges came down, John Huston playing perhaps the scariest man in film history, that quintessential ’70s downer ending and some fun photography and location choices to play ’70s L.A. as ’30s L.A. And then, inevitably, there’s the film’s references to the so-called Water Wars.
When Chinatown turned 40 in 2014, there was a spate of anniversary pieces by local writers who seemed terribly fixated on the fact that the film was inaccurately telling the story of the California Water Wars.
Sure. It’s a movie, not a historical documentary or a statement of fact. If you look to fictional films for historical accuracy, maybe your priorities are misaligned, not the film’s. But yeah, granted, Chinatown plays fast and loose with the details of how, essentially, the Valley got incorporated into L.A. over water-rights issues. But many of the events the film alludes to do have some historical analogs, though at no point does the film claim to be truthful in the lowercase “t” truthful sort of way.
In fact, all of these writers and L.A. historical cranks seem to be missing the point entirely. If your takeaway from this film is that it doesn't accurately portray L.A.'s water history, that's evidence of some pretty clear, oblivious privilege.
Chinatown isn’t about water. Chinatown is about fucking Chinatown and L.A.’s history of white supremacy and displacement of people of color. That’s the capital “T” Truth the film explores, and it’s woven into practically every facet and scene of the story.
Nearly every scene has some reference to Asian-Americans or Asian-American culture in Los Angeles. The name of the film is Chinatown, after all. Not Water Wars. Water is the MacGuffin. The real subtext is how white Los Angeles constantly subsumes nonwhite Los Angeles and has its way with the culture it tries to dominate.
Apart from the title, Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is constantly referencing his experience as a detective in Chinatown, presumably in the 1920s during Prohibition. Jake says he always tried to do “as little as possible” there. We are to infer that all manner of human rights violations and shakedowns were taking place in Chinatown before he left the precinct. We generally get the impression that all manner of atrocities go on here, and everyone is supposed to just look the other way.
And there are references to Chinese-Americans throughout the film, from dialogue to design. Jake tells the off-color joke about the “Chinaman” and his sex life. Then there are Evelyn Mulwray's (Dunaway's) maid and gardener, also Chinese-American. The gardener, in particular, provides the crucial clue in solving the murder of Hollis Mulwray. Production design details dot the frame throughout and accent the white hegemonic interiors. Immigrants and their culture are peppered all through the film but are rarely in control of the frame.
The film's bleaker-than-bleak finale, of course, is the only scene to be shot in Chinatown. It’s crowded; it’s dark; it’s ominous. It’s the stage for the ultimate display of corruption and perversion. We know justice won’t be served in Chinatown. Jake and the audience are famously told to “forget it.” Let it go. This is a place where terrible things happen on the regular — not because of the people living there but because of the ruthless white oligarchs who use Chinatown as the forum to do their dirty work.
So Chinatown really isn’t a story about water. It’s about land. Much as The Shining is about the violent white supremacist history of America, Chinatown is about how racism and capitalism intertwine in the halls of L.A.'s past, specifically about how Chinatown One became Chinatown Two.
The original Chinatown is where Union Station now sits. Chinatown One was eventually razed to build the station after a protracted public battle over the future of L.A.’s transportation. The railroad interests won out — after some nasty race-baiting in local publications — and the whole Chinatown community was displaced and forced to relocate to the Chinatown we’re familiar with today. Yet even Chinatown Two is holding on for dear life as the heaving pressure to gentrify mounts with each passing day.
In that sense, Chinatown is as relevant as ever, as so many of our neighborhoods are fraught with fighting against the fallacy that gentrification is inevitable. In the pocket of developers, the leadership of Los Angeles is actively pushing to extinguish its ethnic and poor enclaves to deliver us to some sanitized, whitewashed and artwashed vision of the future, like the antiseptic, gentrified vision of L.A. in the film Her or something equally revolting.
In Mrs. Mulwray's garden, next to the saltwater pond, Jake Gittes asks Noah Cross (John Huston) why Cross — who’s already ridiculously wealthy — needs to kill and embezzle for the water. Cross famously replies, “The future, Mr. Gittes. The future!” sounding like every ghoulish, pseudo-progressive politician L.A. has burped up in since this film was made.
With L.A. leading the country in homelessness, murder-by-cop, deportations, environmental problems, wage stagnation, wage theft, landlord abuses and cost of living, we don’t have much to look forward to, given how corrupt and feckless our local politicians have proven over this last decade of “revitalization.”
The reality is that L.A. still doesn’t have sanctuary status. That’s how little the suits downtown care about immigrants in 2017. Very little has actually changed in the past 100 years. Those with their hands on the levers of power could give two shits about the people living the most precarious existence in this city. Whether it's neo–Noah Crosses like Peter Thiel and his sovereign island nation, Elon Musk creating secret tunnels under the city for Tesla owners, or the various boondoggles of Eric Garcetti (who just casually floated the idea of an L.A. monorail earlier this week), the people of L.A. are effectively being rewritten out of the history of their own city.
The future, it appears, for many Angelenos on the bubble, is pitch black. Maybe we should forget it — that is, the prospect of L.A. being a great city for everyone — for a while.