Just about everyone who was alive in 1991 remembers the racially polarizing beating of Rodney King, an African-American, by several white cops in the Lake View Terrace section of Los Angeles. In the seventeen years since, how far have we come—or not come—in race relations? A new film by Neil LaBute examines this question in a miniature racial microcosm of two houses on a residential street in LA.
The movie begins when Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington), an interracial couple formerly of Berkeley, move next door to Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), an African-American LAPD cop. Abel immediately takes a disliking to his two neighbors and tensions begin to grow.
At first, they quarrel over minor things such as security spotlights shining into each other’s windows, a late-night pool christening, or the flicking of cigarette butts. But as they get to know each other better, deeper underlying beliefs such as politics and corporal punishment for children deepen the divide between the two households. The interracial couple tends to see the world and their lives as a complex celebration of multiculturalism whereas the blue-collar cop tends to see the world in—excuse the expression—black and white.
As you might imagine, the man who is not afraid to use force, and has the police on his side since he is a policeman, always seems to have the upper hand. And whenever Chris attempts to solve the problem by rushing in and demanding Abel stop harassing them, you can hear the conflict-resolution voice inside your head saying, “Stop, Chris; this is not the best way to handle this.” Direct confrontations tend to escalate rather than ease tensions.
Strong racial attitudes simmer just beneath the surface throughout the film, and at times boil over. Even between Chris and Lisa. We get the sense that long before we met them they dealt with their racial issues and thought they had solved them by pushing them beneath the surface. But the growing neighbor vs. neighbor conflict, which eventually turns quite violent, brings them back and now tests their relationship.
All the while, the California wildfires slowly encroach to their Lakeview Terrace neighborhood. It’s an excellent device for building tension in the film, but it also serves as an incredible metaphor. Besides representing the real threat LA faces today, the fire evokes memories of LA burning in 1992 during the riots that resulted from the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King.
Neil LaBute does an excellent job as director not only in creating the increasing tension of the film but in getting his actors to represent realistic people influenced by contrasting world-views. Chris and Lisa may be liberal and tolerant and act as if skin color doesn’t matter, but they are learning—as Barack Obama is about to learn next month—that out in the real world there are still many people, such as Abel and his friends on the force, who don’t see it that way. I know that LaBute’s depiction is accurate because I myself was once in an interracial relationship and I still remember all too well the snickers from “friends” and looks of disgust from strangers.
At one point in the film, Chris attempts a reconciliation with Abel by begging Rodney King’s famous line, “Can’t we all just get along?” In many places in this world, including Lakeview Terrace, the answer is unfortunately no.