Nothing busts canons quite like living in interesting times. In our ongoing Inflection Point series, we look back at the films that have taken on new relevance due to our ongoing cultural and political upheaval. Some beloved, some undiscovered, these titles deserve newfound consideration as film criticism evolves to meet the moment.
As cities across the country seriously consider a future where defunding the police is a populist platform, conversations regarding structural racism in police departments have begun to take traction. Even that ever-popular newspaper USA Today has published a lengthy expose on the “400-year history of racism” found in police departments across the country. And while many police films are willing to soft-peddle a kind of acceptable racism to audiences, one movie of the modern era stands out for its depiction of police departments as spaces of unapologetic white supremacy. That film is Ron Shelton’s “Dark Blue,” a police thriller set in the weeks leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the acquittal of Rodney King’s assailants.
For weeks, the City of Los Angeles has held its breath as four police officers stand trial for the violent beating of Rodney King. Against this backdrop of public unease, police business continues as usual. For example, veteran cop Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) continues to bludgeon his way across the streets of Los Angeles. The latest in a long line of Perry law enforcement officers, his uneven rise through the LAPD has been marked by a gunslinger mentality that has left more than a few men dead at his hand. Perry is tasked with keeping tabs on Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman), the rookie nephew of department commander Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson).
Perry is meant to toughen Keough up, to strip away any sentimentality the rookie may harbor for reform and shape him into a useful weapon for Van Meter on his rise through the ranks. But when a local liquor store is the target of a violent robbery, Perry is pushed by his boss to pursue justice away from the most likely shooters. Choosing in a moment of weakness to pull his trigger against an unarmed suspect, Keough begins to struggle with the burden of guilt as Perry’s home life falls to piece. And then, the verdict in the Rodney King trial is delivered, and all hell breaks loose.
On the first watch, it’s hard to pinpoint what makes “Dark Blue” feel different from many other cop films of its era. Many of its major story elements – corrupt cops, moral equivocation, and the push towards generational reform – are present in the works of James Ellroy and David Ayer. However, there’s an ugliness to “Dark Blue” that feels out-of-sync with its contemporaries. The men of “Dark Blue” operate with an alarming degree of cruelty and hatred for the very people they are meant to serve. It should come as no surprise that the Los Angeles Police Department “refused to cooperate in the making” of a film with multiple professional hits ordered by the head of the Special Investigations Squad.
There may not be a police film in the modern era that so candidly shows the racism of an entire police force. “Dark Blue” does not attempt to water down its racist language with coded rhetoric or a double-standard applied to cops and criminals. Van Meter and Perry are explicit in their use of racist epithets, hurling them indiscriminately at criminals, civilians, and fellow police officers alike. The worst is reserved for their private spaces, the unguarded conversations around whiskey and cigars that occur in Van Meter’s office. Here is where their language verges on the expression of warfare, with every Black body – in uniform and out – an obstacle on their path to a safer, white Los Angeles.
Given its trio of white creators – Ellroy, Ayer, and director Shelton – the film elects to spend more time on its white police officers than the Black communities they serve. This allows “Dark Blue” to operate through a lens of white supremacy that refutes the argument that the police force is home to a “few bad apples.” Those officials who are not actively engaging in the murder of Black men are still vested in the success of men like Perry, a fact that becomes all-too-clear in an opening sequence where Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) serves as the only Black member of Bobby Keough’s review board. When Holland begins a line of questioning around the circumstances leading to the shooting – asking why Keough and Perry would waste 680 staff hours tailing a parolee they would ultimately end up murdering – he is quickly cut off by his commanding officer.
But nowhere is the issue of race more prominent than in the looming Rodney King trial. The trial’s media coverage serves as a second backing track for the film, with radios, television sets, and idle conversation offering a constant thrum of commentary about the four police defendants. Activists have described the relationship between the police and the Black community of Los Angels as “an open campaign to suppress and contain,” and while “Dark Blue” adopts a specific police perspective, even the most hardened enlisted officers understand the tipping point the community is approaching. “If they get off,” Perry tells his young partner,” this city burns.”
Given the script’s ambitious nature, it’s hard to imagine a character like Eldon Perry in the hands of anyone other than Kurt Russell. While Russell has proven himself capable of incredible acts of emotional depth onscreen, few can match his knack for finding audience appeal in the most violent of idiots. His willingness to play below his capabilities as an actor – to revel in the crude depths of characters like Jack Burton or John Ruth – is part of what made such Perry a well-received role within the film community. Only Russell could simultaneously make Perry captivating and beyond redemption.
And Russell is well-matched with Scott Speedman, an actor who at times bears a striking resemblance to Russell’s real-life actor sun Wyatt. Perry views Keough as his surrogate son, a confidant (and accomplice) who will mimic Perry’s relationship with his gunslinger father. Keough’s baptism in violence is essential to Perry because it carries with it the weight of history. If Perry accepts planting evidence or the murder of innocent ex-convicts as a necessary tradeoff for the department, then Perry can abdicate his moral responsibility to change the department around him. In some films, Keough might serve as the soul of the modern police department. In this one, he ends up dead.
But if “Dark Blue” is unique in its depiction of systemic racism in the police department, it fails to find deeper meaning in the protests themselves. Scenes of Perry driving through the hazy streets of South Los Angeles are striking, but “Dark Blue” never goes beyond the surface of the protests themselves. Once the city erupts in violence, the stakes change, but the players remain constant. We may have the benefit of hindsight when it comes to the direction of the LAPD, but the police-centric approach taken by “Dark Blue” means that we are never encouraged to link external protests to internal change. Instead, the film perpetuates the notion that a better police officer – in this case, Rhames’ reenergized Arthur Holland – holds the key to future reform.
Still, there’s value in seeing a police movie stripped of its smoothed edges. “Dark Blue” may be swimming in intellectual waters beyond its depth, but there is value in its unflinching depiction of institutional racism from the perspective of white police officers. In those final moments, as Perry reflects on his impending arrest while looking out of the fires of South Los Angeles, “Dark Blue” finds an apt metaphor for the future of policing in America. To paraphrase Perry’s now ex-wife, this is the fate of a police department that cares more about the people it hates.
“Dark Blue” is available on VOD.