LAKEVIEW TERRACE ssss Directed by Neil LaBute Written by David Loughery and Howard Korder With Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington, Ron Glass, Jay Hernandez, and Regine Nehy
The turning point of Neil LaBute’s thriller Lakeview Terrace transpires on the front porch of a nicely appointed home in the title community, located in LA’s San Fernando Valley. The new owners, an interracial couple (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington), have invited friends and neighbors over for a housewarming party, and the black cop who lives next door (Samuel L. Jackson) has just made an ugly scene, embarrassing the white husband in front of his black wife and intimidating their guests. Following the cop out, Chris, the husband, calls him on his obnoxious behavior, apologizes for any perceived slights, and tries to defuse the tension that’s been building between them since the couple moved in. Smiling weakly, he asks, “Can’t we all get along?” The cop stares at him. “Not Rodney King!” he says. “You playing the race card?” Things go downhill from there; by the end of the scene, any pretense of neighborliness has been discarded for good, and the two men are set on a collision course that will end in tragedy.
Lake View Terrace, you might remember, was the suburban district of LA where King was pulled over by the LAPD in March 1991 and beaten by four officers with batons for more than a minute while a bystander caught the incident on videotape. After three of the officers were acquitted by a mostly white jury in April 1992, the city’s South Central neighborhood went berserk; six days of violence left 53 dead and more than 1,000 injured. Property damages were estimated at $1 billion. Sixteen years later, a Hollywood obsessed with topical stories has yet to produce a major motion picture about what happened—the closest it’s come is Ron Shelton’s 2002 feature Dark Blue, which uses the riots as the climax to an otherwise routine dirty-cop drama. For the liberal entertainment community, the riots may bring back unflattering memories: as the chaos spread, many wealthy whites were locking and loading, fearful of what might happen should the hordes make their way to Bel-Air and Beverly Hills.
Lakeview Terrace isn’t literally about the riots, but it’s still one of the toughest racial dramas to come out of Hollywood since the fires died down—much tougher, for instance, than Paul Haggis’s hand-wringing Oscar winner Crash. Its masterstroke is reversing the racial polarity of the King beating, making the cop black and the victim of his abuse white. At first glance this might seem like the ultimate dodge, relieving white viewers of any lingering guilt and lending credence to the Rush Limbaughs of the world. But by scrambling the typical power relationship Lakeview Terrace focuses our attention on power itself, and by plunging into the subject of black bigotry, still relatively taboo in mainstream movies, it gets us closer to the truth of bigotry in all its forms than we’re liable to get watching another pious exercise in white atonement.
Most of the credit for this will probably go to LaBute, the daring social dramatist who wrote and directed In the Company of Men (1997) and The Shape of Things (2003). But a fair amount should also go to Jackson, who was attached to the script before anyone else and, as LaBute revised it, lobbied hard to make his cop, Abel Turner, more dimensional and problematic. In some respects Abel is a man we’ve encountered many times before: the inner-city patrolman who’s seen too much. He already has several “question marks” on his record for bending the rules of engagement, and even his fellow cops are leery of him. But Abel is a complicated figure: he grew up in South Central and still polices its ugly streets, but he’s repelled by its culture of poverty, dependency, and victimhood. His wife has died, leaving him with a teenage son and daughter to raise, and if he behaves like a martinet that’s only because he’s so concerned about their character. When Abel stands around watering his suburban lawn, you get the feeling he’s fought for every blade of grass.
The flip side of this achievement is Abel’s simmering contempt for whites who cross the color line. When he and his partner pull over a white B-boy who’s one of their street informers, Abel calls him a wigger, mocks his “Vanilla Ice impression,” and pointedly tells him, “Clarence, we ain’t brothers.” A self-appointed night patrolman for the neighborhood, Abel catches Chris listening to hip-hop in his car as he sneaks a cigarette. “You can listen to that noise all you want,” Abel tells him with a menacing grin, “but when you wake up in the morning, you’ll still be white.” Later, after their relationship has turned poisonous, Abel introduces Chris to his pals on the force with the degrading line, “Chris got himself a little dark meat over there!”
To his credit LaBute manages to keep the viewer morally off balance as the tension between the neighbors escalates. Abel is consistently unpleasant with Chris, a genial preppie who attended Berkeley on a lacrosse scholarship, but he always seems to have a point. One night he comes home, catches his kids wrestling by the window, and discovers they’ve been gawking at Chris and Lisa as they make love in their swimming pool below. “I’m trying to raise my kids to respect themselves and the people they come from,” Abel tells Chris when he finally confronts him. The conflict worsens when Abel’s daughter, Celia (Regine Nehy), accepts Lisa’s invitation to come over for a swim. After Abel catches his daughter dancing around the neighbor’s backyard in her bikini, he goes ballistic, slapping the girl and terrorizing Lisa. His reaction seems completely over the top, yet he has good reason to protect his child from what he perceives as the couple’s licentiousness. When you have money and opportunity, that kind of behavior may seem open-minded, but when you’re one step out of the ghetto, that same permissiveness can be the first step back.
Considering what he’s just been through, his rage isn’t hard to understand either. In the previous scene, Abel and his partner have responded to a domestic disturbance and find a man menacing his wife and baby with a shotgun. After barely dodging a blast, Abel charges through the door, chases the man into the back alley, disarms him, and puts the gun to his head. “You be a man, understand?” he bellows as the gunman weeps. “You be a father to that baby!” For all his bullying and psychotic behavior, Abel has a much better idea than his privileged neighbors what it means to grow up in a home like this one. Now that he’s got his hand on the baton, he’ll never loosen his grip as long as he lives.v
Care to comment? Find this review at chicagoreader.com. And for more on movies, see our blog On Film.