Welcome to Flopcorn, where Reader writers and contributors pay tribute to our very favorite bad movies. In this installment, writer Princess McDowell makes the case that Demolition Man is really a black movie.
Ever since black creators started making films and releasing them to mainstream audiences, film studios have struggled to categorize them. The most recent example has been Get Out, which Jordan Peele called a “social thriller” but which the Golden Globes classified as a comedy because circumstances. We usually tag something as a black movie if it has an all-black cast, but it’s not always that simple. Black movies need two key ingredients: iconic performances by our greatest black actors and story lines central to the black experience in America.
Wesley Snipes is one of our best, with a 90s film resumé that includes New Jack City, Sugar Hill, and To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (shout-out to Noxeema Jackson). Folks talk all day about Blade, the 1998 vampire kick-ass fest that was the first Marvel superhero movie even though Blade’s been left behind for the Avengers or whatever, which is why it’s about time we gave Wesley his things, some flowers and some damn respect for Demolition Man‘s deliciously sinister Simon Phoenix.
There’s no question that Demolition Man is a superhero movie—the fan theories id-ing it a Batman movie abound—and in Simon Phoenix, we’ve got a fun bad guy with a hunger for destruction, preferably by dragging his enemies down with him.
What makes Simon unique, though, is that he’s a black man’s villain, talking shit the entire time he shares the screen with Sly Stone’s John Spartan. When he says, “I’ve been dreaming ‘bout killing you for 40 years,” he could’ve easily been talking to an ex-Spades partner who reneged on his birthday. Simon rocks a blond, punk-rock cut and overalls over an orange-mesh shirt, all signals that he’s not to be fucked with. And even as he’s fighting off San Angeles’s neutered police force, beats and drums are timed to match the breaking bones.
I’m not saying that I root for Simon Phoenix when I watch this movie, but I root for Simon Phoenix every time I watch this movie. The setting is as much an adversary to Simon as Spartan, who serves as a way to show how the world has changed in 2032 from 1996. Let’s take a pause here and talk about this world real quick. First off, the movie was released in ’93 but begins in ’96 with California (and the Hollywood sign) on fire. Guess they didn’t have faith that the state would survive the riots? But in three years they thought it believable that a black madman would have taken over a large chunk of the city for his very own, and the authorities would just let him be because he was so dangerous? OK girl, sure. If that’s the case, then yeah, Simon should make it out of this alive then.
Of course he doesn’t. After being convicted and sentenced to a cryo-prison for his crimes, where he’s frozen by the state and rehabilitated by subliminal techniques, Simon escapes at his parole hearing reanimated and equipped with even more skills to kill the bills. Now that he’s out in a nonviolent city governed by social graces, he can rule again, but there’s one problem: the voice in his head says he’s gotta kill Edgar Friendly, some white dude who’s the de facto head of a resistance against this hypersanitized version of America. A dude he’d probably be cool with since they both prefer to do whatever the fuck they want without consequences. You never know.
The only thing missing in this film to solidify its blackness is a black woman. Sandra Bullock plays Lenina Huxley, but that role could’ve been filled by dark-skinned Vanessa Williams, who would’ve been perfect. Alas, black women wouldn’t be that kind of blerd in a movie for a long while.
To summarize, Simon is brought back as an assassin and gets conscripted into a catalyst for chaos. That’s the blackest story they could have written. Also, they should have known you can’t control a man who cuts an arrow tip into the top of his head. v