From the 1930s through the 1950s, Raymond Chandler was the definitive voice of the American crime genre. His work in literature would go on to influence the the golden age of crime films, shaping film noir. The Marlowe Files is a monthly series looking at Chandler’s novels and film adaptations starring his famous detective Philip Marlowe. This month, we look at a lesser known Chandler short story RED WIND and how its adaptation uses race bending.

Being a fan of classic films often means grappling with the backward racial politics of the past. It’s hard to openly accept films like GONE WITH THE WIND and its glamorous, romantic view of the Confederate South. Or even worse, seeing white actors don makeup to play non-white characters (see HOLIDAY INN or BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S).

In 2017, blackface takes on a more innocuous but no less harmful form: whitewashing. Rather than try to disguise white actors with makeup, characters of color are now simply white. 

Worse yet, these characters will sometimes be written with mixed-race heritage but then 100 percent white actors are cast in these roles. 2017 has been a banner year for whitewashing controversies, culminating in the casting of Ed Skrein in the role of Japanese BPRD agent DAIMO in the upcoming HELLBOY reboot. Skrein ultimately chose to step down from the role rather than take it from an actor that would fit the intended race of the character.

So why does this keep happening? Why do studios, time and time again, cast white actors as non-white characters? The Showtime adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind”, FALLEN ANGELS, highlights a problem with race representation in media that we still see today. “Red Wind” elicits a rather simple question: whoever said Philip Marlowe has to be white?

White Washing History

Red Wind

Think about every Philip Marlowe story you’ve ever read. When you imagine Marlowe in your head, how does he look? Don’t imagine Bogart, Mitchum, or Gould. Just picture Marlowe. You probably imagine a man of average height and build. Maybe he’s handsome in that worn down sort of way. He might look like a man with a million stories to tell and just as many secrets to keep. Perhaps he’s just too difficult to really crack.

It’s somewhat tricky to pin down one canonical description of Marlowe purely by the nature of Chandler’s style of prose. Each novel is narrated by Marlowe, and he’s not one to care all that much for personal appearance.

CLICK: For more analysis of race and entertainment, check out our roundtable discussion on Asian representation in media

Here’s the next thing to consider. When asked to picture Marlowe, did you immediately assume he was white? If so, why? No judgments, but why does your imagination often envision characters like Marlowe to be white until otherwise stated?

This is the white default in action. The idea of the white default can be summed up as a cultural brainwashing. So much of our media has had a white-centric perspective. Primarily because so much of our culture has been creatively driven by white voices. As such, we’ve come to associate protagonists with whiteness.

Subconsciously, unless a character is explicitly stated as a non-white ethnicity, readers will assume the character is white. This most recently happened with Rue from THE HUNGER GAMES. Ironically, it’s stated by author Suzanne Collins in the novel that Rue is black. However, the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue in the first Hunger Games film caused a baffling uproar among incredibly ignorant fans.

In FALLEN ANGELS, director Agnieszka Holland cast legendary actor Danny Glover who does an admirable job filling the large shoes of his role. His Marlowe feels wholly his own; to be labored and weary, but cunning and canny. Holland’s choice to cast Glover highlights one of the most glaring problems with the white default. It creates a version of history that sidelines people of color.

CLICK: For more noir, check out our look at the film adaptations of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest

Perhaps the greatest example of this is the Hollywood version of the American West. The canon of cinematic cowboys is a sea of white male actors. The reality could not be further from Hollywood’s version of the Old West. The majority of men who worked as “cowboys” on the American frontier were people of color. According to Atlantic writer Leah Williams:

“Cowboy culture refers to a style of ranching introduced in North America by Spanish colonists in the 16th century—a time when most ranch owners were Spanish and many ranch hands were Native. None of the first cowboys were (non-Hispanic) white. And while historians don’t know exact figures, by the late 19th century roughly one in three cowboys (known as vaqueros) was Mexican. The recognizable cowboy fashions, technologies, and lexicon—hats, bandanas, spurs, stirrups, lariat, lasso—are all Latino inventions.”

So when films like Antwon Fuqua’s THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN cast a majority non-white band of gunslingers (Denzel Washington, Lee Byung-hun, Martin Sensmeier, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, respectively) it’s a reclamation of historical accuracy not a diversion from it.

Holland’s casting of Glover as Marlow in FALLEN ANGELS helps to correct a similar issue. The private eye is an iconic archetype of the American myth and a logical evolution of the lone gunslinger. Glover as Marlowe reminds us that white dudes were not the only ones acting as private eyes in the golden age of gumshoes.

Historian Jess Nevins dug deep into the history of actual African American private detectives from the middle of the 20th century. L.A. Times writer Daniel Miller also wrote this great piece investigating the history of an African American private eye who was actually named Marlowe. In the piece, Miller explores whether this Marlowe could have been Chandler’s inspiration for his most famous creation. These archetypes define the American myth. If we erase the diversity of the past, we fail to appreciate it in the present. Perhaps the question we need to be asking isn’t if Marlowe is black, but rather, why shouldn’t he be?

Red Winds Blowing In

Red Wind

The Showtime series FALLEN ANGELS (1993-1995) was an anthology series where each episode spun a hard-boiled pulp tale. It was a noir answer to THE TWILIGHT ZONE.  In Chandler’s story “Red Wind”, Marlowe happens upon a murder while trying to buy himself a drink in the oppressive LA heat. The killer and the victim are both lead to the trail of Lola (Kelly Lynch), who could be a damsel in distress or a femme fatale. Marlowe decides she’s the former and undergoes a noble quest to find the necklace given to her by her deceased lover.

This is a version of Marlowe that’s more outwardly compassionate. “Red Wind” feels like an anomaly because it originally wasn’t a Marlowe story. Chandler reworked an old story with a detective named John Dalmas and replaced him with Marlowe. Despite these inconsistencies, Danny Glover plays the role quite well. He is a fascinating actor because he can turn on a dime pretty quickly between stern authoritarian and warm father figure. It’s this unique variation on the character that helps Glover’s version to stand out in the crowded pack.

By casting Glover, Holland also highlights the subtle social commentary that Chandler slipped into the story. Investigating the murder are officers Copernik (Dan Hedaya) and Ybarra (Miguel Sandoval). In the story, Copernik openly calls his Italian (in the story) partner a “guinea” as a slur. He is frequently dismissive of his partner and Marlowe, believing that only he can solve the case.

CLICK: Racebending or Whitewashing in DOCTOR STRANGE? You decide!

This thread is brought to its logical conclusion in the FALLEN ANGELS adaptation. Copernik comments to Ybarra (who is Latino in the adaptation) after discovering Marlowe is a private detective “What is this town coming to? A spic cop and a nig private detective.”  Holland pulls no punches in showing the bigotry that has long infected the institutional structures of law enforcement in a way Chandler could not.

Marlowe ultimately proves his superiority as a detective, as he so often does. Inadvertently, his win as a detective becomes a win over the backward ideology of the authorities around him. Marlowe exists in a space that Ybarra does not, but they both share moments of solidarity against Copernik’s ignorance. While “Red Wind” may be a lesser Chandler work, Glover’s performance is a textbook example of how race bending can deepen the thematic significance of a more forgettable piece of pop culture.

Discussions of race bending often contain the same refrain: representation matters. It matters in historical context especially, because our history gives us our modern understanding. If we ignore the roles people of color played in shaping modern society in the past then we make racism easier to take root in the present.

 

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