I just saw "48 Hours" and I can't decide who I'm more disenchanted with: the white director, that scene-stealing Eddie Murphy, or the black audience I saw it with that guffawed throughout this senseless, bloody little number that's raking in megabucks at the box office.
For its black-white insults, the film reached back at least two decades. "48 Hours" favors us with blacks who are no more authentic than whites--and that can perhaps be seen as a grim progress of sorts--equality of distortion. But the problem is, whites can see themselves in a variety of other films in this and other towns. Blacks have Eddie Murphy and not much else (thank God for Lou Gossett Jr. in "An Officer and a Gentleman") unless you count Richard Pryor in his current role as a white man's toy. Some male friends liked Eddie Murphy's macho symbolism, although they too quickly labeled it fantasy. And kids I've talked to admired the touches of style that struck authentic--Murphy wore designer suits and drove a Porsche, not the cliched big hat and pink Caddy. But it is just such touches that make this film dangerous.
The film costars Nick Nolte playing a foul-mouthed San Francisco cop, Jack Cates, who arranges a 48-hour parole for an aggressive convict, Reggie Hammond, played by "Saturday Night Live" comedian Murphy, in his movie debut. Hammond's job is to locate members of his former gang who have escaped from a chain gang and killed several people.
Film critics, even the few who didn't like the movie, agree that Murphy steals the show, with Nolte generously portraying Cates as an Archie Bunker-type white authority figure foil upon whom Eddie Murphy can fire off his witty responses. Pauline Kael, writing in The New Yorker magazine, observes that "the white actors in the cast, including . . . Nolte, have been turned into rabid honkies so that he can be the black underdog hero and deliver the zingers." But the problem is, Eddie Murphy delivers the zingers by zanging black folks.
One major scene with Murphy in a red-neck bar is reminiscent of the blaxploitation films of the 1970s with their illusion of blacks triumphing over fantastically difficult odds, which is so different from what blacks really experience, especially in these difficult economic times. Blacks are unemployed at twice the rate of whites, the national jail population is predominantly black, and the median black income is half that of whites.
Instead of dealing sensitively with this reality, the movie gives blacks a vicarious way to deal with their frustrations. But that's fraudulent. While moviemakers are entitled to present fantasy, it is irresponsible for them to so turn reality upside down that they leave both the black and white moviegoer with a distorted perception of what could be.
Black women in the film were so cheapened they were made to look like whores.
Director Walter Hill set up this so-called action comedy within a shabby racist framework that has the Nolte character referring to blacks as "spearchuckers" and "niggers." And the later apology of Nolte's character fell on my deaf ear.
Kael feels Murphy is "playing black all the time." What he is really doing is playing a caricatured black all the time. Has he thought about the history and the meaning of what he is doing, about its effect on millions of black people of all ages?
In his book, "Urban Blues," Charles Keil says entertainers, comedians and preachers are unconscious ritual heroes for many blacks. "These entertainers are the ablest representatives of a long cultural tradition--what might be called the soul tradition--and they are all identity experts . . . specialists in changing the joke and slipping the yoke." Blacks tend to ritualize and institutionalize comedians like Murphy as heroes. But artists like Murphy must, in turn, be responsible and not hide totally behind the veil of artistic freedom.
Black people in the audience laughed because they did not seem to realize they were being insulted. But chuckling is a far cry from where they should be--garnering the power to control their own images.
Eddie Murphy is playing black the way he thinks white people want to see black people. In this flick, he joined hands with the writers' and director's blatant exploitation of racism to take black rage, dress it up in an Armani suit and put it behind the wheel of a Porsche.