Devil in a Blue Dress: Crossing the Line

<em>Devil in a Blue Dress:</em> Crossing the Line

The American dream has always been a spectacular lie. Not everyone is afforded equal rights or opportunity—and that’s by design. America is a dream seller that has gone out of its way to show Black people in particular that they can chase the carrot should they choose, but it will be to no avail. Throughout Devil in a Blue Dress, Carl Franklin’s sharp 1995 noir thriller, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is confronted with the boundaries he must respect as a Black man in 1948 Los Angeles, as he tries to build a life for himself after serving in World War II. Out of work and needing to pay his mortgage, he finds those barriers magnified when he is tasked with locating Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), a woman who appears to be white, enjoys “jazz, pigs’ feet, and dark meat,” and used to be engaged to former mayoral candidate Todd Carter (Terry Kinney). Devil in a Blue Dress takes Easy on a journey through Black Los Angeles and into the shadows of the city’s white aristocracy, showing how much race informs the ways the power brokers play their hands.

Based on Walter Mosley’s 1990 novel, Devil in a Blue Dress is told through the eyes of people whose perspectives are usually ignored. That in itself places the movie in direct conversation with classic film noir, whose main characters often inhabited the margins of society. Alienation, political malaise, and a dim view of human nature were central to the sensibility of those postwar films. They were a middle finger to the idea of American exceptionalism, pulling back the curtain to reveal inconvenient truths about this supposedly great country. But where the genre was subversive in its audacity to assess society with such cynicism, it nearly always exposed its own blind spots by reinforcing the white supremacy of the broader culture and failing to address racism head-on, or at all. (The 1950 film No Way Out, in which Sidney Poitier plays a hospital’s first Black doctor, who is forced to treat a racist criminal, was a rare exception to this tendency.)

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