Inside Man: just a heist movie?

spiked-film: There is racial politics aplenty in Spike Lee's latest.

‘I walked out of this movie thinking: “Wow, I feel no white man guilt! Spike is losing his touch”.’ (1) That was the verdict of one cinemagoer on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) boards, after seeing Spike Lee’s Inside Man, which follows the efforts of a New York police detective (Denzel Washington) to resolve a bank siege.

The IMDB poster is not alone in seeing the film as uncharacteristic of Lee’s work. As one magazine reviewer put it, ‘from a filmmaker with such easy talent and firebrand rep, Inside Man is infuriatingly mediocre’ - because it appears to place the demands of the thriller genre above the exploration of ethnic problems, which is what we have all come to expect from Lee.

However, to say that such concerns are absent from the film is to miss the point of Inside Man entirely. It is no ordinary, by-the-numbers bank robbery, fixated upon intricate planning and exciting gadgets (we’ve already got Ocean’s Eleven for that, thanks). Lee’s favourite topic is constantly present under the ‘generic thriller’ surface.

Admittedly, the theme of cultural discord is not as immediately obvious as it is in earlier Lee films, such as Do The Right Thing (1989) or Malcolm X (1992), where ethnic divisions are crucial to the plot. Still, the cultural diversity of New York looms large. For instance, one key plot point is that ‘in any given street of Manhattan you can broadcast a baffling language and someone is bound to know that language. Someone does’ (2). This ‘someone’ helps Detective Frazier and his colleagues make a major discovery about the bank robbers, through translating Armenian (or was it Albanian?).

Lee’s rose-hued view of cultural variety ends there: racial discrimination runs through the film. None of the police knew the difference between Armenian and Albanian before the translation incident, and none of them cares afterwards. Such ignorance is displayed in the scene where a Sikh bank worker is greeted by the police with cries of ‘Shit! It’s an Arab!’, and is treated accordingly. This is the only point in the film when Washington’s character becomes unlikeable, as he regards the anxious ex-hostage with an unnecessary level of suspicion.

As Lee himself puts it, ‘there’s still a great insensitivity by police departments across America towards people of colour’ (3), and he does not shy away from showing this in Inside Man. The portrayal of the police may not be as damning as it was in Do The Right Thing, but the episode suggests that the general fear of terrorism has also led to bad policing. The conclusion of this intolerant approach is seen in the back-story of the bank owner, Arthur Case. During the Second World War, he acted as an ‘inside man’ for the Nazis - revealing the whereabouts of Jewish families in hiding, then pocketing some of their confiscated possessions afterwards.

The parallel between this long-ago incident and current police paranoia is not made explicit in the film, although it is hard to ignore. Taking into account the fact that the scriptwriter, Russell Gewirtz, is Jewish (4), it becomes clear that Inside Man is rooted in both of its creators’ own ethnic identities, as well as their awareness of cultural attitudes in post-9/11 America.

So, ‘no white man guilt’ this time? Although Inside Man may be easier viewing than Lee’s other films, it is not devoid of racial politics. As Lee is working from someone else’s script, his preoccupations must exist alongside the writer’s. One reviewer argued that it is their combined ‘attention to the clammy quirks of humanity that elevate the film beyond mere genre slumming’ (5). As well as keeping the audience on the edge of their seats, Inside Man prods them into reflecting on provocative matters.

If Inside Man does leave you missing Lee’s usual ‘firebrand’ take on the world, then When The Levees Broke, his Hurricane Katrina documentary, due out on the first anniversary of the disaster this July, will probably fix that.

Suchandrika Chakrabarti is working as an intern at spiked.

(1) IMDB discussion board

(2) Andy Lowe, Inside Man review, Total Film magazine, May 2006 issue 114, p 38

(3) Kirk Honeycutt, Spike Lee finally has a hit with Inside Man, Scotsman, 19 March 2006

(4) Lesley O’Toole, Doing The Right Thing, Guardian, 25 March 2006

(5) Lesley O’Toole, Doing The Right Thing, Guardian, 25 March 2006

(6) Andy Lowe, Inside Man review, Total Film magazine, May 2006 issue 114, p 38

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