Lakeview Terrace is tiresome largely because Samuel L. Jackson’s Belligerent Black Man antics are so predictable. He’s dug a lowdown niche; and movie after movie he keeps shoveling crap over himself. —Armond White reviewing Lakeview Terrace in New York Press
Which was pretty much my attitude before I saw the movie. Snakes on a Plane, Black Snake Moan, 1408—is the guy on a roll or what? But the fact is that, compared to Jackson‘s work in these other films (what J.R. Jones once described as “boogety-boogety”—not the most racially sensitive notion in the world, but y’all white folks know what he be sayin’), his character notes in Lakeview almost (if only part of the time) seem like underplaying. It might even be Jackson’s best outing since, oh, I don’t know, 187 or thereabouts. Which obviously takes us back a long, long way.
But Armond White does have a couple incisive points to make. Those long, ominous stares, the sneer at the end of a steel-trap smile—like Eddie Murphy in 48 HRS. (“I’m your worst nightmare—a nigga with a badge”), which sets off the same kind of racial alarm bells among the bigoted and beleaguered. Interesting comparison though, since the invidious stereotypes Walter Hill invariably trafficked in were just as invariably put to progressive ends. Get two guys who are both each other’s nightmare—the slow, brutish, and stupid honky (Nick Nolte), the smart-alecky, threateningly sexualized black jive jammer (Murphy)—and throw ’em together until, against all odds and “natural” inclinations, they learn how to get along. Since if even they can do it, the idea seems to run, then so can all the rest of us unreconstructed assholes. But the audience for the films Hill used to make is gone—as for that matter are the theaters they played in. Human relations 101 for street punks and grind house habitues—like basic practicality, something you do just to stay alive.
But back to White and his “racist” challenge. Not that I know what he means by it—though in fact I do: one of those Humpty Dumpty expressions that give back what you’re already inclined to see, with powers of infinite application and expansion—but I’m probably on J.R.’s side (see comments thread here) of this polarizing debate. (Whoa, two white guys agreeing on race; so what else you got to sell me?) Because it’s the context that saps the accusation of whatever sting it has, since everyone in the movie except Jackson’s character (and maybe the guy who plays Kerry Washington’s dad, the wisdom and ruefulness of age, that hoary ol’ shtick) treats racial intermixing as a given. It’s an understanding that comes with the territory, that surprises and disturbs nobody aside from one extremely cantankerous individual. The movie’s comfortable with that—maybe too comfortable, which is part of its nettlesome point—as the audience is assumed to be as well (preaching to the half-converted, in other words, since all the overt “racists” have decided to take a pass). Whether that comfort’s been honorably come by is another matter entirely.