by Kenny Hedges
Before we begin, a preface:
Let’s play a little game. It’s fairly simple, but it asks of you – dear reader – to suspend your disbelief for a brief moment. Take a moment, adjust yourself to your new, unfamiliar surroundings and pretend you live in a world where the majority of the general public believes that racism and bigotry, by their very definition, are inherently vile, awful things that have no basis in science or biology. It is entirely an invention of the human mind unwilling to accept that which is not congruent with what it already accepts, with the possessor of said mind deliberately withholding any facts that might conflict with their irrational, hate-filled emotions. Anyone who wishes to challenge that can just scroll down to the very bottom of this review right now.*
Okay, now we’re back to 2020. George Floyd was buried yesterday and the entire world is but a click away from any number of montages of police on the streets brutalizing nonviolent protesters.
It was complete happenstance, not some algorithm set to appeal to those interested in further exploring racial violence in film, that I stumbled upon Costa-Gavras’ 1988 Ku Klux Klan thriller Betrayed in my queue.
Gavras had his heyday in the 60s, lasting through to the early 80s with the politically charged thrillers like Z and Missing, the latter of which featuring a dynamic performance from Jack Lemmon as a Christian Scientist searching for his son. But he had long fallen by the wayside by the time Joe Eszterhas’ sleazy script oozed onto his desk. By the 90s, things were even more dire, with entertainment almost completely overtaken with the preachy, overzealous Mad City.
Walking into Betrayed blind was probably the best way to see it, as the only way any actions the lead character takes are only explicable if she was in some state of shock or Stockholm Syndrome.
The “She” is Debra Winger, at the height of her fame, playing an up and coming FBI agent investigating the murder of a Jewish shock jock (Fletch’s Richard Libertini). The murder was based on Alan Berg, a talk show host in Texas who was gunned down after a broadcast by white nationalists. The same murder served as the basis for Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio.
Winger gets a lead she assumes is a dead end that leads her to Tom Berenger, who at first seems like a family man disinterested in politics.
That’s until the “coon hunt” which is exactly what you’re afraid it is. Nevertheless, Winger has somehow fallen for Berenger before he starts spouting racial slurs like commas.
Credit Gavras with this: he doesn’t shy away from making his characters repulsive. He even manages to make John Mahoney, the kind-hearted father of Frasier Crane, seem like a monster.
Winger is strangely subservient until the final act, acting as a weapon between Berenger and FBI man John Heard (though the two never meet, stripping the film of any tension there).
But Berenger is the worst of all, which is what makes his performance accidentally interesting. While its by no means a good performance, his lack of chemistry with Winger feels authentic. There’s no question how this relationship is going to end, so having the two leads feel so false with each other while desperately trying to convince themselves otherwise – both as actors and characters – lend the whole indoctrination into the Klan that Winger experiences in her courtship that much more alien.
Given Eszterhas track record, it was the salaciousness of the material that attracted him to write it. Which leads one to question Gavras motivation. And therein lies a problem with films such as Betrayed that Hollywood must remedy immediately if we ever want to take them seriously again.
Hollywood always likes to address issues of race from a safe distance, never admitting to whitewashing casts and setting their most vile, backwater hillbilly racists as far from Los Angeles as you can possibly be while still being considered American. But in doing so, they’re holding up a funhouse mirror to the rest of the country that they aren’t entirely ready to look at. That’s why they always cast “the good racist”. He’s in Imperium, The Chamber, Missippi Burning and, of course, Betrayed. They’re the one character in the brotherhood that has the chance to change.
It’s really no fault of the industry, it’s just a lazy screenwriting tool used to ensure every character has their fitting arc. But ultimately, Hollywood, what are we really going to salvage moving forward, and how many fictional irredeemable shitbags are you going to give a free pass to? I’d argue it’s high time we put a bullet in the good racist at the end of the next movie, too.
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*Kindly fuck yourself