Ethics & Public Policy Center

National Security

Published in EPPC Online on January 21, 2003



Like Barbershop, National Security, directed by Dennis Dugan, is worth seeing if only because of the insight it provides for those who are not black into the current state of thinking on racial matters by those who are. Its most memorable scene is not any of the too-often repeated shots of various motor vehicles being launched precipitately into the air, often twirling on their axes on the way back to a jolting re-encounter with the earth, but a parodic version of the Rodney King beating which caused such hilarity among the predominantly black audience on the night I saw it that subsequent dialogue was inaudible for a minute or more.

In this scene, Patrolman Hank Rafferty (Steve Zahn) of the LAPD, takes exception to being called a Nazi by Earl Montgomery (Martin Lawrence), whom he has apparently “profiled” as a potential car thief when he sees him trying to get into a locked car that he claims is his own. As he moves to arrest him, however, a bee flies between the two men and Montgomery, proclaiming an allergy to bee-stings, frantically tries to avoid it as Rafferty, equally frantically tries to hit it with his stick. As a passer-by turns his video-camera on the proceedings we see through the view-finder what looks like a savage beating — which seems all the more likely as the bee stings him and Montgomery’s face swells up.

Naturally, the police department decides that Patrolman Rafferty must be made an example of. “We can’t go through this again,” says a police official. “If you don’t prosecute, I guarantee there’ll be a riot.” And so, even after it becomes clear to the authorities that Montgomery has not been beaten at all, the patrolman is prosecuted and tried before an all black jury. Found guilty, he is sentenced to six months in prison, where he assaults a guard in order to get himself put into solitary confinement — his only refuge from black fellow prisoners who assume he is a racist cop.

The audience’s mirth was not appreciably diminished by this treatment of an innocent man, nor by the courtroom antics of Montgomery in refusing to exculpate Rafferty as he seeks to sustain the impression of himself as a victim of police brutality. Yet both men are meant to be sympathetic and, after meeting again as security guards working for the same company, they team up in a routine odd-couple buddy caper to expose police corruption while avenging Rafferty’s dead partner. Rafferty is reinstated as a cop and Montgomery is himself offered a place on the force, so fulfilling a lifelong dream.

The key to understanding the film-makers’ intentions, and the black audience’s enjoyment, comes as the two men are waiting together on a stake-out and Montgomery says to Rafferty: “You lost your job, were wrongly convicted, went to prison, your girlfriend walked and now you’re a security guard making $182 a week. You know what you are? You’re a black man.” The black humor, in more senses than one, comes from the idea of a white guy learning the hard way to see the world through the eyes of a black man.

Thus too, when Montgomery obtains the ocular evidence of the involvement of a “dirty cop” (Colm Feore) in an elaborate, ill-explained and incomprehensible plot to smuggle a space-age metal — well, somewhere — in the shape of faux beer barrels, he says: “Well, what do you know. It’s the white guy. A sad day in Caucasian history.” This is another version of the same comic dislocation, as the film asks us to imagine whites with a black sense of racial identity, capable of producing both pride and shame. The comic absurdity of the idea is evident.

It is encouraging to think that blacks are aware, better aware than whites perhaps, of the theatrical element in the politics of racial “outrage” in America. But this does not mean that they are not prepared to take advantage of the opportunities for self-dramatization afforded them by white liberal guilt. If National Security is anything to go by, they believe that there is hope for racial reconciliation and comity — that we all can, as Rodney King said, “just get along” — but maybe not before they have had a chance to get a little of their own back first.

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