White-Washing Noir


                 Post-War Los Angeles seems like one the ripest setting for stories imaginable. There’s just so many events, and so many themes important to America that have been crammed into Southern California — and they’ve all been burned into our national imagination. There’s the Black Dahlia murder, countless celebrity scandals and sleaze, organized crime with Mickey Cohen, Howard Hughes, the birth of suburbia and the Baby Boom, Disneyland, the legacy of World War II, the Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklists, and that’s just scratching the surface. Even if it wasn’t Raymond Chandler’s hometown, Los Angeles would probably be at the cornerstone of Noir. However, part of what makes LA in the 40s and 50s such an important, dark and awful chapter of American history, and the center of so many great stories, is how racially charged the city was — and that’s something that some recent depictions of the era have been ignoring, much to their detriment.

                 I’m speaking in particular about TNT’s recent TV show/miniseries Mob City. I just finished watching the second two episodes and overall, I’ve been enjoying it. The acting’s good, Bugsy Siegel is appropriately crazy, the dialogue’s snappy, the fedoras look cool and Simon Pegg even does a great job as the very archetypical Noir character of the Loser with Delusions of Grandeur.  But there’s one thing stopping me from enjoying Mob City and that’s the fact that it’s one of the whitest shows around — and I don’t mean in a moral sense. Two thirds of the way through and the cast is pretty much entirely white, with the only exception of some Black bookies being brutalized as a Mob War subplot. Now, diversity is something that all TV shows should strive for, but for Mob City, it’s particularly important — and that’s all because of the setting.

                Anyone who has done a tiny bit of research into LA’s WWII and Beyond history will know what I mean. 1940s LA is the city of the Zoot Suit Riots, where American sailors and LAPD Cops pretty much declared war on Mexican youths belonging to the Pachuco subculture. It’s also the city where Japanese Internment imprisoned countless American citizens. I don’t really need to discuss the history of the LAPD’s race relations, but it’s not exactly positive and the book on which Mob City is based on even argued that Chief William Parker’s prejudices led to LAPD policies that worsened the Watts and Rodney King riots. You see, there’s still this feeling in America that WWII and the 1950s were our Golden Age, where there were great jobs, comfy suburban houses, strong families and a safe and happy culture.  But if you happened to not belong to that world, because of your race, gender, sexual orientation or political leanings, the Post-War Era was pretty Hellish. That’s what good Noir should do — show the darkness that seethes behind our supposedly great civilization and prove that America is inherently corrupt.

                Mob City had an opportunity to do this and decided not to. The show doesn’t really sweep these issues under the rug or try and push them aside — they just don’t mention them at all. There are a grand total of zero Mexican and Asian characters in the series, so these issues can’t be addressed. I guess there were no Zoot Suit Riots or Japanese Internment in this version of Los Angeles, because Mexican and Japanese people do not exist. And while racial slurs are sometimes thrown around by the mobsters, the cops seem bizarrely politically correct.

                Now, I can sort of understand why the Internment or the Zoot Suit Riots didn’t come up. Mob City only has six episodes and they’ve got a particular story dealing with blackmail, Bugsy Siegel and a Jack Dragna/Mickey Cohen Mob War. However, they should have tried to work the racism of the times  into the atmosphere — have it appear dialogue, bring it up in passing and address it somehow instead of ignoring the issue completely. For an example of how to do this correctly, look no further than the great James Ellroy, who has tackled Post-War Los Angeles in his famous LA Quartet. While he doesn’t have story-lines entirely about racial issues, his cops (even the relatively good ones) spout racial invective all the time and have to contend with their own prejudices. The LA Confidential movie did a great job of this, showing how prejudice led to a bunch of Black hoodlums being fingered for a crime instead of the corrupt police captain who really did it. Ellroy could have had white gangsters or something getting framed, but he chose to use this than as an example of the appallingly racist nature of 1950s LA. He even starts LA Confidential with the Bloody Christmas race riot, where policemen just started beating the crap out of some Mexican prisoners, and used that to show how the three main characters handle themselves in a difficult situation.  It all worked perfectly.

                The racial politics of Mob City reminded me a lot of Gangster Squad, a not-so-great flick from last year that had some fun gunfights and hilariously over-the-top lines, but failed completely on capturing the racism of the era. That one did have a Mexican and Black cop on the ‘Untouchables’-esque super squad assembled by the main character, but they were treated just like everyone else and even showed up at a barbecue at the square main character’s suburban house like that sort of thing happened ever time. Gangster Squad was a forgettable movie, but the way it pretended racism didn’t exist sticks in my craw even today.

                I think this troubling trend — this white-washing of Noir — reflects a desire to have the fun stuff of Noir and the Era (fedoras, snappy dialogue, tommy guns) but not the meaty, important parts (racism, the Red Scare, the corruption at the heart of the American dream).  I still hope that Mob City gets a second season and hopefully, the writers can consider this kind of stuff when they’re sitting down to craft their plots. (Also, could they have more than one major female character? Noir’s gender politics are all kinds of awful and mixing that up would be great.) Luckily, there are plenty of other options — such as James Ellroy’s entire body of work. His next book, Perfidia, will be entirely about the Japanese Internment during WWII. I’m looking forward to it like nothing else.

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