48 Hours

I just watched 48 hrs., one of the supposedly “best” movies of 1982. I think this movie is a must-watch for someone like me, since it originates the buddy-cop genre of movies, which I actually really like (though of course not for their artistic merit. I like them on a duller, more reptilian level). More importantly, and more universally, this movie has some great lessons about race relations in the U.S. around this time period.

It’s hard to pick out all the parts of this movie that make the point I want, but there are so many examples. Nick Nolte, the white cop who brings a black prisoner (Eddie Murphy) out of jail and they go try to catch a criminal in 48 hours (or something, I think everything takes at least 72 hours).

One fantastic and hard to grasp point that this movie illustrates is that things that seem natural, unproblematic and perfectly reasonable to us at a certain time and in a certain setting, can appear strange, unacceptable, and irrational to us at other moments.

It’s often sad and disturbing to me to see some people who cannot, as it were “step outside” the situation and see things from another direction. Of course, the blame is not on them necessarily. There is a skill to seeing the subtexts and absurdities of a situation. In manifests in humorous and witty people, but it can be trained by reading novels. People with vivid imaginations often have this skill as well. Watching 48 hours, will help train this skill.

Here are some examples. First, when Nolte picks up Murphy, the analogies to slave ownership is unbelievable. He even says “I own you” as they walk out the door. Me comparing this to slavery is not my overactive imagination. Throughout the movie, Nolte asserts his authority in various way, controlling and heckling Murphy, and just generally being snide and mean without even being a badass about it. He calls Murphy a watermelon (and a nigger at another point), and there are other unbelievable striking themes. The two learn to “cooperate” after having a fistfight.

But even after that, there are moments in which the white superiority of Nolte is asserted and emphasized. Again, I can’t name them all, but there’s a scene in which Nolte tells Murphy that he can’t buy class.

Jack: Class isn’t something you buy. Look at you, you’ve got on a 500-dollar suit and you’re still a low-life.
Reggie: Yeah, but I look good.

The dialogue before that exchange might as well have been a confession of white anxiety about the growing wealth of black people in America. One can easily imagine Nolte saying to Murphy “you’re still BLACK’ the message being that money will never be able to buy black people the acceptance they deserve. Interestingly, this is the insight of some black philosophers who point out that Marxism is flawed for the exact reason that it reduces all conflict to economic conflict when in fact racial conflict is heavily involved in repressing marginalized groups of people.

Other themes are played out, such as white anxiety about black sexuality, and in the end, of course, white cop Nolte, saves black criminal Murphy.

Through it all though, there ARE moment of genuine friendship between the two, and even moments of forward thinking on race. Eddie Murphy destroys a bar under the pretenses that he is a cop and he mocks a bunch of white “rednecks” and hillbillies (interesting how moving away from racism requires deploying another stereotype about southern life  that I think is injurious, though obviously less so than racism). He revels in his position as a black person (man?) with complete power while Nolte looks on and condones his power trip. Is this a symbol of a subtle accommodation, that maybe white America was ready to let blacks be in charge, or is just a kind of fake moment of emancipation when the white power structure lets blacks merely PRETEND to be in charge?

It’s not clear, but this movie is followed up by MANY other such movies, and the permutations are endlessly fascinating. First take Beverly Hills Cop. The movie is much less racist and the friendship that develops between Rosewood, Taggart, and Murphy seems quite genuine. More importantly, it is initiated and LED by the black man (the opposite is true with Nolte). Did the 80s result in real racial progress; racial progress that was mirrored in cop movies?

The trend even continues further into the future. In Lethal Weapon, the black/white cop duo concept is taken even further and played with in various ways. STILL FURTHER, there is the RUSH HOUR series in which black and ASIAN are paired for laughs, cultural miscues, and faux racial redemption. What does this tell us about our racial world and what will future movies be able to tell us? I hope I made the point that they might say a lot.


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