By Alan Bean
In an illuminating weekend piece, Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday addresses America’s love affair with the lone wolf vigilante. “Of the countless stories we tell ourselves,” she writes, “the American myth of the solitary enforcer of justice may be the most tenacious, beloved and — as the story of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin has so grievously demonstrated — distorting.”
In the movies, the vigilante takes the law into his (occasionally her) own hands because “the system” has dropped the ball. If they can’t get me some justice, the vigilante thinks, I’ll make my own. This stark sentiment drives the narrative arc of dozens of blockbuster Hollywood films every year. “Do you feel lucky, punk?” Dirty Harry asked forty years ago, and thousands of films are resolved in similar fashion.
For every lone wolf hero there must be a corresponding villain, a punk, a thug, a gang of thugs, or the favorite of prime time television dramas, the pathological serial killer. In this sense, Hornaday writes, “the fatal encounter” in a gated community in Florida, “played out like an all-too-real clash of iconographies: Zimmerman’s idea of the property-defending hero Standing His Ground vs. the hoodie-wearing youth who has symbolized menace and urban violence in everything from “The Wire” to last year’s comic teen-thugs-battle-aliens satire “Attack the Block.””
The racial dynamics shift from plot to plot, but the man who takes the law into his own hands is normally white and middle class while the punks and thugs, regardless of race, are heartless incarnations of evil. We can’t know if Zimmerman’s pursuit of Martin was racially motivated, Hornaday says, but he clearly saw himself as a stand your ground vigilante protecting his neighborhood from the forces of evil.
The American gun culture is inspired by a similar iconography. Charlton Heston’s “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!” applause line worked because his audience identified with the man-against-the-world hero trapped between human evil and an unresponsive and bureaucratic system. This may explain why Zimmerman ignored the request to remain in his vehicle. “If you want the job done right . . .”
But, as Hornaday points out, the real world never adapts to the cathartic demands of a Hollywood script:
It’s easy to understand the enduring appeal of the vigilante archetype, whose hard-charging moral certainty jibes perfectly with this country’s sense of exceptionalism, not to mention the narrative constraints of a 90-minute action movie. It’s far more difficult to reconcile complicated reality with the simplistic, comforting fictions we crave.
Here’s the big problem. American’s on both sides of the black-white color line are traumatized. A sober reading of American racial history does little to enhance the self-esteem of white people, and this is particularly true of the civil rights narrative. White Americans can face the simple facts of our national history, or we can feel good about ourselves. There’s no third alternative.
Maybe that’s why Hollywood has a hard time telling civil rights stories that don’t involve white protagonists. White people want to feel good about themselves, but history keeps getting in the way.
At the same time, it’s hard for black Americans to reckon with history and come away feeling good about their country. Whether we’re talking about the era of slavery or the Jim Crow period, the same question arises: Do I want to be part of this country? An affirmative answer is possible, but only with conditions attached. At the very least, the truth of the historical record must be acknowledged.
So here’s the problem. Black America has a therapeutic need to tell a story that white America needs to ignore. That was then, white folks say. “That is now,” black Americans reply.
Which explains why the Trayvon Martin case divides public opinion along racial lines.
Hollywood’s vigilante myth gives white Americans (the majority of movie goers) a therapeutic myth they can live with. If we can’t talk about us, let’s talk about me. How we explain the dramatic spike in gun sales following the election of Barack Obama. Why did a black man who avoids the race issue whenever possible stir such profound emotion in so many white people? “I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure,” our black president says, “that it will prevail, that the dream of our founders will live on in our time.” What could possibly be threatening about that?
America is a nation with two foundational dreams. There is the Manifest Destiny dream of steadily expanding white hegemony, and there is the Nation of Immigrants and Opportunity dream of radical inclusion. From the beginning, these two conflicting narratives have been fighting for the upper hand. The Civil War was simply the most bloody encounter in an ongoing war.
Even when the president talks about American greatness, everybody knows he’s evoking the Nation of Immigrants narrative. Obama doesn’t denigrate the myth of white hegemony; he doesn’t have to. His mere existence constitutes a ringing denial of an old, old story that dare not speak its name.
We are drawn to the Americam vigilante myth because we can’t talk about who we are as a nation.
The demands of the 90-minute movie plot and the therapeutic needs of the majority of movie fans combine to give us a narrative that celebrates radical individualism. We can’t talk about who we are as a people without making everybody uncomfortable. So Dirty Harry singlehandedly rids Los Angeles of punks and Mr. Heston dares the government to pry his firearm from his cold, dead hands.
George Zimmerman is the product and the victim of the American vigilante myth. We can’t escape his fate unless we decide what makes America exceptional. Is it the ability of white patriots to enforce their will on inferior races; or is it our ability to move from apartheid to radical inclusion? So long as we avoid the “us” question, the lone wolf vigilante will fill the void.