Strange Days: I loved it, and now I don’t love it

Have you ever watched a movie and thought “What’s a good character like you doing in a movie like this?” Welcome to how I feel about Angela Bassett’s character in Strange Days. The movie as a whole isn’t really an action movie per se, but there’s this potentially great action heroine character trapped in it, and she deserves so much better.

I started out liking the movie. I loved it when I saw it in the theater, I rented it multiple times, and then I bought it on DVD. Then I watched it once to review it. Then I waited too long and had to watch it again. Then I wrote a review and sat on it for a while. Then I rewrote it. Each time my opinion of the movie sank lower. Now, just thinking about the movie as a whole, and Bassett’s character within it, makes me feel icky.

The plot of Strange Days allegedly centers around a murder mystery. Who killed one of the most important African-American men in America? But here’s what I finally realized: like Blood Diamond, the Last King of Scotland, and others, it isn’t really about that. It’s about how a white guy is affected by the event.

The white guy in question is Lenny, played by Ralph Fiennes. Several of his friends get murdered. His ex-girlfriend’s life is in danger. He gets beaten up and stabbed. All of this is terrible, I agree. It’s dramatic, it’s gripping, it’s a good story. I don’t think that it’s automatically racist to tell a story about a white character during an event that would be incredibly important to the African-American community – except for the fact that we almost always do it that way, as if the story wouldn’t be interesting without a white perspective. What pushed me over the edge with this movie was realizing how the easily the race issues raised by the murder are dismissed.

For much of the movie, the characters believe that there is a conspiracy on the part of the LAPD that planned the assassination of musician Jeriko One, who was becoming a revolutionary voice in the African-American community. The story appears to be about systemic racism and oppression, corruption, and the racial tension in Los Angeles that all the characters fear will explode into violence if this conspiracy becomes public.

Near the end of the movie, it’s revealed that the perpetrators were “just” two bad cops who were pissed off and power mad. Once they’re dead, everything’s fine.

Excuse me?

How is it fine that the LAPD employed two police officers who felt free to execute Jeriko One during a traffic stop that was obviously a “driving while black” situation? How is it fine that the evidence of the crime has been given to the only non-corrupt police officer the characters can think of, presumably so it won’t hit the evening news badly and start a riot over conditions that all the characters admit are really, really bad?

Oh right, it’s fine because the white guy’s personal life is fine. Sorry. My mistake. I forgot that it’s just fine to use race as a plot device for a movie about white people, then sweep it into the dust bin when it’s no longer needed. That doesn’t trivialize people of color at all.

Just like the plot, Angela Bassett’s character revolves around the white guy. Lornette “Mace” Mason is in love with Lenny. Mace seems to have been a waitress (?) when her husband was arrested several years ago and went to jail, leaving her to support herself and her son. By the time the movie takes place, she is a security professional with hand-to-hand combat and weapons training, working as a limo driver and personal security guard. For years, she’s been pining after Lenny, who is always broke, hustles his friends, and deals virtual reality porn for a living.

It’s disappointing because Mace has so much potential. She is an African-American woman with an action role in a movie full of white people, but she is not a parody or a stereotype. Mace is a single mom with a husband in prison, but the filmmakers don’t seem to paint her or her family with any other stereotypes of African-Americans. They just seem like a nice group of people who help each other out and throw a fun New Year’s Eve party with sparklers for the kids. The film’s creators do give Mace some of the flattest lines of dialogue ever written (“This is real time, Lenny!”) and a badly over-dramatized scene near the end, but Bassett still gets the job done. Her physical condition is amazing. Mace is cool under pressure and her fight scenes are so much fun.

However, all the filmmakers let Mace do is follow Lenny around, acting as his conscience when he lets her. The resolution to the movie is that Lenny finally realizes that Mace loves him, and that he loves her too. That’s what makes it all better. Forget any systemic issues, love is the most important thing, la la la.

Like Lenny, the movie itself is not great to women. Lenny’s ex-girlfriend Faith spends a LOT of time running around half naked for no apparent reason. Women are routinely hit and dragged around by the hair. Anyone who doesn’t tolerate rape scenes should avoid this film, since there are two and they’re both disturbing.

I imagine the alternate version of Strange Days where the race issues are acknowledged instead of used as plot devices and then discarded. In that version, Mace gets to rock. I can see it buried in there, but it just can’t escape the garbage.

No stars.

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.