“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. ”
— James Baldwin
Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant sh*t to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Motherf*ck him and John Wayne
— Public Enemy
Spoilers for the film They Live.
If there’s one tangible benefit of living in the 21st century it has been living through the near universal reevaluation of director, writer, producer and composer John Carpenter’s work. Reading old reviews and commentaries of his work from critics of the time you can get the sense that Carpenter occupied a space as something between low budget journeymen and elevated schlockmeister. It wouldn’t be until Gen X critics and directors (people who grew up with this stuff and recognized it as more than pop cinema puff) started having a voice in the media landscape that he eventually got his due as a left-of-center auteur and innovator not only in film scoring but in the minimalist music movement.
While each of his films have been uncovered and had their day in the sun as hidden gems and undervalued masterpieces (only within the past couple of years have people widely accepted In the Mouth of Madness as an essential piece of his oeuvre and of Lovecraftian canon), I’d say that They Live has fallen somewhere right in the middle. At the time of its release in 1988 the film was actually a minor hit. It was #1 at the box office for a brief period and made $13 million on a $3 million budget. It instantly became a cult classic due to its casting of wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper as the film’s working man hero protagonist (amusing for two reasons: Piper was known as a heel/antagonist in the WWF, and Carpenter thought someone like his regular collaborator Kurt Russell was too polished to play someone on the poverty line); his incredible and thickheaded one-liners (everyone knows and loves “I have come here to kick ass and chew bubblegum” but I’m also pretty partial to “Brother, life’s a bitch and she’s back in heat”); and its simultaneously mocked and praised showcase of a drag-out knockdown fist fight between Keith David and Piper.
Yet, it’s also best known as a transparent indictment of ’80s class disparity and Reaganomics masquerading as low-budget kitsch. As Carpenter himself said introducing the film at a 25th anniversary screening of the film, “By the end of the ’70s there was a backlash against everything in the 1960s and that’s what the ’80s were and Ronald Reagan became president and Reaganomics came in… I just love that it was giving the finger to Reagan when nobody else would.” Not to pull an Anne-Hathaway-on-Oprah but I don’t even think you need that much context to understand that the film on the most basic level is about the haves and have-nots and the systems of control put in place to keep that dichotomy in place. It’s about a subtle as a giant black and white billboard that reads “OBEY.”
However, if you delve a little deeper past those themes and look at the film through our modern eyes the films starts to reveal layer after layer of subtext. For instance, if we take the film for its basic reading, it’s about a poverty-stricken but working white male protagonist strolling into L.A. for a job but instead finds enlightenment about class dynamics and the truth about “the other.” He then enlightens his black acquaintance-turned-partner and proceeds to lead a revolution he accidentally stumbles into, ending with the death of his black comrade but the mental liberation of the entire planet (or at the very least Los Angeles). Now that’s all fine and good if a little college freshman is awakening to ideas existing outside themselves, but this reading unfortunately leaves out the more interesting arc of the film.
The arc of Frank played by the indelible Keith David.
My problem with the basic reading comes in a few places. First it promotes the idea that all issues of systematic racial bigotry and inequality stem purely from the issues of corrupt class discrepancy. Smarter people than I have written in depth about that fallacy, but to be succinct: Google any interview with a rich or wealthy person of color talking about playing by the same rules as their white contemporaries and you’ll find that the class argument breaks down pretty quickly. Next, that reading puts Frank in the disposable sidekick role, likable and charming enough that you feel bad when he bites it in the third act. That would basically rob Frank of any inherent subtext he carries by being a black man in a movie about a society and its hierarchical systems of control.
So let me offer a read from a different perspective. A working class drifter rolls into town the same way John Wayne or any old Hollywood gunslinger would. He fully buys into the idea that hard work alone is enough to get you to where you want to be. He says things like “I deliver a hard day’s work for my money, I just want the chance. It’ll come. I believe in America. I follow the rules.” Meanwhile a black man of similar stature who sees the reality of it all sits and plays by the rules for completely different reasons. He walks a “white line” because if he doesn’t, it could all come tumbling down for him and the ones he cares for (his wife and child back in Detroit). He understands how it’s all played, letting the drifter know, “The whole deal is like some kind of crazy game. They put you at the starting line. And the name of the game is make it through life. Only, everyone’s out for themselves and looking to do you in at the same time. OK, man, here we are. You do what you can, but remember, I’m going to do my best to blow your ass away. So how are you going to make it?”
At a pivotal moment in the film, once our drifter has become woke and wants to spread his gospel to all those still asleep, like a 15-year-old boy who has just watched Fight Club for the first time, he takes his black acquaintance and essentially tries and pounds the revelation into him.
Now, there are two ways you can read that scene. You can see it as Nada (his name is never spoken in the film but it’s how Piper’s character is credited) simply trying to save his friend with knowledge and Frank being skeptical and stubborn to such knowledge. Or since we as an audience know that Frank already knows how the whole system works anyway, you can read it as something much more tragic: the confirmation of a system so much more heavily stacked against him and knowledge that will get him killed.
Because for Frank, being enlightened doesn’t automatically make him a hero. Because if history has proven anything, being an educated black man with any sort of subversive agenda makes you a target. Which makes his ability to provide for his family that much harder. Jonathan Lethem, author of “They Live (Deep Focus),” points this very thing out: “If we’re not utterly race blind, there’s a special poignancy at the lengths of Frank’s resistance to the wake-up call. ‘No white outlaw is going to tell this black worker how to protect his family!’” Lethem also points out that “Frank defends a middle-class definition against a lower-order point of view.” This is particularly interesting when you consider that for a long time in America there was a large contingent of black folks who were Democrats for their rights and self-interest but fiscally conservative due to a distrust of any system set in place to control their money for services that they may never see any benefit from. Those benefits always fall through a hierarchy reformation, a hierarchy that puts Nada in line before Frank.
I mentioned earlier that Nada as a protagonist draws comparisons to John Wayne and his ilk of old, which is by Carpenter’s design. Carpenter essentially spent part of his career making Howard Hawks-influenced genre pieces. Both directors carry a cynical bite to their work (They Live is one of the few sci-fi/horror films of Carpenter’s that doesn’t end with a likelihood of the apocalypse) and Carpenter never shied away from his heroes carrying on the traits of the leading men of that bygone era. He (and Kurt Russell) even subverted it to great effect in Big Trouble in Little China by having Russell play the character Jack Burton as a bloated, obnoxious caricature of John Wayne that is heralded as the protagonist only to be slowly revealed as the bumbling sidekick and comic relief to the much more competent Asian cast of characters (see what they did there?). Carpenter is doing something kind of similar here casting Piper because he’s playing the everyman as the unidealized version of that archetype. Yes, he is a man in a rough spot trying to do the right thing but he’s also prone to selfishness, misogyny (I can never tell how intentional it is but Nada ESPECIALLY hates the female “ghouls” in this film) and a lack of understanding for those in a different standing than him.
Because he stands as this symbol and hero of the downtrodden, people who look like him will take precedence over people who look like Frank. It’s the reality of what happens when we have conversations about class without considering race, i.e. “It’s my (poor white men) turn to get mine. You (poor white women, poor black men, poor black women) wait your turn!”
Which brings me back to a point from earlier about the tragedy of Frank’s character. When he put on those glasses it not only made him a target, it drilled into his mind that even when he gets to peer behind the curtain of the simulation it wouldn’t change much for him. Even with the sunglasses on he’ll still be a black man. Lethem puts this beautifully: “African-Americans might find that the view through Hoffman lenses offers an unbearable degree of indignity: Still a slave, fool. Still a fool, slave.” That’s what makes his death so sad to me at the end of the film. Even when he decided to take the risk and fight for the freedom of the people, he ends up dead. A hero, but a dead one that very few people will ever know the name of. Another casualty to the cause. Another dead black man. Another statistic.
If you ask me, I find that second read a little more interesting.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.