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Conflicting Blackness in Predator 2

Łukasz Muniowski

Abstract

The movie Predator 2 (1990) came out just two years before the L.A. Riots, and its depiction of Los Angeles as a war zone stems from the tensions within the city in the 1980s, which culminated in the 1992 riots. This article revisits the movie in the times of Black Lives Matter in order to show how 30 years after its release, it provides a complex, more nuanced picture of race in America of that time. As BLM activists demonstrate, the urban African American is a victim of racial and class profiling. Predator 2 focuses on urban Blackness and law enforcement, and it problematizes the binary oppositions between whiteness and blackness, the police and criminals, etc. The hero of Predator 2 is a Black man and a policeman, so he is a part of the system that creates the oppression of fellow Black men, but he also suffers from it, as he is targeted by his bosses, the FBI, gangsters and, most importantly, the Predator.

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1Predator 2 is a work of great cultural and historical significance. This statement may seem controversial (and maybe rightfully so) as the action movie directed at mainstream audiences upon its release met with mostly negative reviews. For example, Janet Maslin of The New York Times called it “the most mindless, mean-spirited action film of the holiday season,” when the movie premiered on the 21st of November, 1990. However, some scholars, such as Yvonne Tasker, recognized that this movie actually offers a surprisingly deep exploration of race in the late 1980s and early 1990s. According to Tasker (35) Predator 2 provides an interpretation of the racial tensions of that time and predicts what they might lead to. The movie also predicted the failure of the police state, which would become evident during the LA Riots of 1992. Most importantly though, as a film with a Black hero and a “Black” antagonist, taking place in an ethnic neighborhood, it offers a voyeuristic perspective on Blackness as something exotic, out of the norm.

2Predator 2 is the sequel to the 1987 blockbuster, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dutch, one of two survivors of the titular Predator’s killing spree in a Central American rainforest. In Predator 2 the antagonist comes to Los Angeles in order to look for trophies. After the sequel premiered, apart from poor reviews, it was met with accusations of racism: the “creature in this movie” was called “a work of subtle racism,” while inner-city crime was connected with African American males (Ebert). Whereas racist undertones in the movie are indeed far from subtle, I want to present race as a far more complex issue in Predator 2 than it might appear. While the first movie is “one example of how whiteness operates in many Schwarzenegger’s films where his white hypermuscular body outperforms all ‘others’” and saves the human race (48), in the sequel it is an African American who is the savior of humanity. The movie was unable to replicate the box office success of its predecessor, but it added depth to the titular antagonist, hence became an important step in establishing one of the most recognizable and successful science-fiction franchises of all time.

3The movie came out just two years before the L.A. Riots, and its depiction of Los Angeles as a war zone stems from the tensions within the city in the 1980s, which culminated in the 1992 riots. This article revisits Predator 2 in the times of Black Lives Matter in order to show how 30 years after its release, it provides a complex, more nuanced picture of race in America of that time. The BLM civil rights movement originated in response to police brutality towards African Americans and the judiciary’s unwillingness to keep them accountable for their violent acts.  As BLM activists demonstrate, the urban African American is a victim of racial and class profiling. Predator 2 focuses on urban Blackness and law enforcement, and it problematizes the binary oppositions between whiteness and blackness, the police and criminals, etc. The hero of Predator 2 is a Black man and a policeman, so he is a part of the system that creates the oppression of fellow Black men, but he also suffers from it, as he is targeted by his bosses, the FBI, gangsters and, most importantly, the Predator. The Predator makes the hero’s oppression literal, while also serving as the source of conflict between two interpretations of Blackness provided by the movie.

4The Predators are a race of alien hunters, who travel from planet to planet in order to collect trophies made from the skulls of their victims. They do not hunt in order to survive, but for the pleasure of it. While this was far from controversial, as it highlighted the hypocrisy of trophy hunting, at the time of the movie’s premiere critics were quick to point out that the way the Predator looked was rooted in racial stereotypes. Kevin Frank argues that the franchise projects “dread and Otherness with the hairstyle associated with Rastafarians: dreadlocks” (46). The Predator’s costume designer Stan Winston said that the creature was supposed to be reminiscent of a “Rastafarian warrior” (quoted in Frank 57) and he provides little reasoning as to why he picked this particular cultural point of reference.

5While there is no point in arguing the stereotypical depiction of certain African American traits in the movie, this article highlights a rather overlooked, almost neglected aspect of Predator 2, that of conflicting Blackness, at the same time “approved” and associated with savageness. This has a lot to do with the actor playing the main character, Lieutenant Harrigan (Danny Glover). Hazel V. Carby saw Glover as capable of resolving “the racial contradictions and crises of the 1980s and 1990s through a revision of the traditional trope of the black male/white male partnership” (3-4). While no such partnership occurs in Predator 2––Harrigan’s crew consists of a white man, a Latina and a Latino––it is the presence of Glover that is crucial in providing a fuller picture of race in the movie. He already established himself as an actor who “reproduced the ideological terms within which the utopian dimensions of Hollywood’s contemporary interracial masculine romance [as] imagined and secured” (Carby 182).

6I will first focus on the setting of Predator 2 and how it corresponds with what was happening in Los Angeles at the time of the movie’s production. The timing of its release is also of significance, as the 1980s and early 1990s were a time of anxiety, here primarily caused by the ongoing process of globalization (Grainge 249). Next I will analyze how Black characters are depicted in the movie, with special focus on Glover as Lt. Harrigan, and how this character alone impacts the discussion of race in Predator 2. As observed by Carby, “in [Glover’s] person Hollywood, in addition to producing the black male as outcast who threatens to undermine the very foundations of America, adopts the black man as a sympathetic cypher, a means for white men to find meaning within themselves and discover the true meaning of their existence” (190). He was not originally intended to play the hero of the movie, with Patrick Swayze and Steven Seagal being considered for the role before him. However, Glover’s presence in Predator 2 influenced the rewrites which added significance and complexity to the movie.

1. To Live and Die in L.A.

7Hazel V. Carby points out that “for contemporary Hollywood filmmakers, the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles have become important sites not just for the representation of death and destruction but for the enactment of racialized social and political confrontations that to them constitute a national crisis” (170). For corporate, white America the minority-dominated districts of the city are “fascinating in their exoticism” (Carby 170), while the bodies of Black males, the inhabitants of these unknown regions, are purposely made unfamiliar through the way they behave and dress. Visiting these districts may be compared to a trip to a safari or any other exotic location.

8Taking place in 1997, Predator 2 reimagines Los Angeles of the near future as being overrun by street gangs. In the years 1989 (when the script for the movie was written) and 1990 (when it was shot) the numbers of total violent crimes per 100,000 population were 1,621 and 1,758, while property crimes were 5,895 and 5,709 (Los Angeles Almanac). The inner-city tensions culminated with the L.A. Riots in 1992––five days of violence in response to the verdict in the Rodney King case. The African American was pulled over by the Los Angeles police on the 3rd of March 1991, while driving under the influence. He was then beaten by four white LAPD officers. The event was caught on tape and presented on television, making the issue public. After four white police officers who had beaten King were declared not guilty of felony assault, despite the video proof showing otherwise, the city’s inhabitants outraged by the verdict went to the streets to express their frustration and search for “justice” on their own. In the end, “more than fifty people were killed, thousands were injured, forty-five-hundred businesses were damaged or destroyed, and $1 billion in property was lost” (Itagaki 2).

9While the science-fiction movie did not predict the riots, its dystopian vision of the near future arose from real-life tensions in the city of Los Angeles. The pessimistic imagining stems from the anxieties associated with globalization by those threatened by the process. Paul Grainge writes that “while raising conditions of possibility for new kinds of democracy and cosmopolitanism, globalization has also, and at the same time, loosened the anchoring effects of territorialized history and identity, linked as they have become to the slow but inexorable erosion of national formations” (249). The nation-state of the future is threatened by the newly-established dynamics of power, with street gangs and police involved in a constant struggle for control. Both do not hesitate to use violence in order to harm and/or kill others. The threat in the movie comes from the outside but also from the inside, leading to a feeling of entrapment in the cycle of violence.

10Police represents the state, trying to bring the law-breaking citizens under its control. Referring to the L.A. Riots, Itagaki writes that “the magnitude of the L.A. Crisis, and arguably the violence itself, was caused by the state’s failure to protect its subjects, thus modifying the social contract between them” (38). The contract in the Los Angeles imagined in the movie is best exemplified in one of the first scenes of Predator 2, when Harrigan and his crew return to the police station after their first encounter with the Predator. With hip-hop music bumping in the background and graffiti painted on the walls, the disorder and the chaos which flood the city are clearly visible. Young people of different races wait in line to the station, which is filled with even more of them. Noisy and colorful, the scene is once again supposed to draw parallels to the jungle, which was the Predator’s hunting ground in the previous movie. The link between the two locations is made later on by the FBI agents, who informs Harrigan that the creature strikes in hot, crowded places.

11In her discussion of the movie, Yvonne Tasker notices that already “the opening sequence of Predator 2 sets up the LA-as-jungle image that is pursued throughout the film” (48). As the camera lens travels upwards, the city emerges as a space similar to the jungle, with the animal sounds merging with the noise from the streets. This world is further defamiliarized when seen through the eyes of the Predator, whose way of perceiving reality––based on shapes and warmth emitted by living organisms, positioning them as potential hunting trophies––is different than typical human vision. The Predator does not distinguish between the jungle and the city, with both serving as perfect hunting grounds for the alien. He presumably picks areas of conflict and/or war in order to remain unnoticeable to the opposing sides. Both the animals and the people in the poor districts of Los Angeles are involved in a struggle for survival.

12The movie presents that struggle very literally, however, the situation in the Los Angeles of the future is inspired by what was happening in the city at the time and ultimately culminated with the 1992 riots. Edward W. Soja writes that “LA in 1992 had what were almost surely the highest levels of economic inequality and social polarization in the United States, which at the time had the widest income gap of any industrialized country” (219). This economic situation strongly influenced the social position of the Black community, whose members historically “found themselves at the bottom in the public imagination when it came to hierarchies of achievement and influence” (Stevenson xxvi). It is precisely this lack of influence which makes hopeless minorities embark on a life of crime. As pointed out by Brenda E. Stevenson, “African Americans… are seven times more likely to be the victims of homicides” (45), which leads to a rather obvious contestation that violence breeds more violence. Those afforded the chance to achieve are however emblematic and become historically significant. A good example of such an individual is Tom Bradley, elected in 1973 and leaving office in 1993. He was the first African American mayor of Los Angeles and his presence alone “underscored the city’s diversity, reigniting old myths of Los Angeles as mecca for the ‘racial other’ that were good for LA’s international profile and for the business that derived from it” (Stevenson 115). This diversity turned out highly influential in the fictionalizations of Los Angeles, as it allowed for exaggerations, both utopian and dystopian. According to Soja, no other city lends itself to blurring the boundaries between the real and the imaginary, serving as the perfect scenery for a movie such as Predator 2.

13The reimagining of the city as untamable, failed by the state, is nothing new in the science-fiction genre, as evidenced by movies released in the decade preceding the premiere of Predator 2, such as Blade Runner (1982), The Running Man (1987) or They Live (1988). The state in these movies is either corrupt or failing, with the lower classes being exploited and lied to by those in the positions of power. In Predator 2 the real-life method of the state policing the citizens through spatiality, a capital-based division which influences police involvement in given spaces, is best exemplified in the opening scene, with police barricades and barbed wire surrounding the Colombian gang’s headquarters. The building which they inhabit is situated in a poor neighborhood, with female immigrants living next door to the gangsters. We learn about that when the police knock down the wrong door and Spanish-speaking women are frightened that they might get hurt. The gangsters next door do not strike fear in them, but the presence of the police does. It is only after the leader of this particular crew, Lt. Harrigan, calms the women down, that they are willing to stay silent and allow the police––unknowingly assisted by the Predator––to take down the Colombian gang.

14The Colombian gang is juxtaposed with two members of Harrigan’s crew, Danny (Ruben Blades, a Panamanian musician) and Leona (Maria Conchita Alonso, a Venezuelan actress and singer), who are both Latino. Similarly to them, Harrigan is the opposite of the Jamaican gangsters led by King Willie (Calvin Lockhart), but also the Predator. The gangsters, regardless of their skin color, are wild, demoralized, while the police are organized, focused on punishing criminals. Whether by sniffing cocaine or participating in voodoo rituals, the gangsters are defamiliarized, their behaviors unacceptable. By positioning characters of the same ethnicity against one another, the movie shows two types of responses to the crisis in the city––one legal and one illegal. Both paths are filled with violence and both require the characters to use it, regardless of what side of the law they are on. That is why when FBI agents pull up Harrigan’s bio on their computer, such information as his affinity for violence and “obsessive/compulsive personality,” does not lead to doubts regarding his status as an unquestionable hero of the movie. Loyal, dignified, and simply likeable, the African American Harrigan has all the tools necessary to survive in the concrete jungle, but unlike the similarly-equipped gangsters, he stands for what is right. At one point he is referred to by the FBI agent as a “lion,” which means not only that he will make a great trophy when/if killed by the Predator. The term also underlines his exceptional status in the concrete jungle.

2. Black John Wayne

15The internal struggle in Predator 2’s Los Angeles is the expression of the fears of the political elites concerned with sustaining U.S. global dominance after the cold war (Itagaki xviii). Itagaki writes that the interracial violence in Los Angeles in 1992 was the consequence of the changing nature of citizenship. With the Other, the enemy, now placed primarily within the society, it was the job of the state to identify and exclude those unwilling to fit in or fall in line. Itagaki writes that “the politics of race and gender shape the expectations for inclusion into the nation and the protections guaranteed by the state; one’s racial and gender identities influence the scope of one’s rights and claims on the state and the formal and informal penalties for violating norms” (2). In Predator 2 the penalty for such actions is death. The Other, understood as the policeman or the member of the rival gang, is murdered on the spot, with no chance of negotiation.

16The two rival gangs, the Colombians and the Jamaicans, involved in the urban power struggle, clearly identify with their cultural heritage, albeit in a very cartoonish way. The Colombians speak mostly Spanish and take huge amounts of cocaine, while the Jamaicans speak patois, have dreadlocks and smoke marihuana. The leader of the Colombians, Scorpio, has long hair and a bewildered look in his eyes. Attacked by the Predator, he and his men do not know what is happening, but their actions look like drug-induced madness and not fear of an unknown threat. The Jamaicans are shown as voodoo practitioners, who are equally interested in taking the souls of their opponents as taking over their territories.

17The only one who gets a pass from the Jamaicans is Harrigan, which is in agreement with how Carby positions the actor who plays him as capable of overcoming the barriers imposed upon Blackness by mainstream Hollywood. In her analysis of Glover’s movie career and its impact on the perception of African American actors, Carby devotes just a few words to Predator 2, even though the period which she considers crucial for Glover’s ascension in Hollywood starts in 1987 and ends in 1992. In the movie, according to Carby, Glover is used to defeat “an aggressive black force” personified by the Predator and the leader of the Jamaicans, King Willie (190). Both are seen as “big game” by the extraterrestrial hunter. When the Jamaican is killed, the Predator is seen carrying his head, which he later cleans until there is only the skull left. The skull is placed in his trophy room.

18King Willie, a voodoo priest, who decided to establish his own gang, refers to Harrigan as “Babylon” or “Mr. Policeman.” The latter shows that a fellow Black man identifies the hero purely on the basis of his occupation, while the former depicts Harrigan as a representative of imperialist evil. As the one tasked with executing control upon the inhabitants of Los Angeles, in the eyes of King Willie Harrigan is no different than any other policeman, regardless of their ethnicity. Harrigan is however atypical, as he is well respected by his peers due to his willingness to go against his superiors. As a result, he is rejected by the same state that he represents. When one of his superiors yells at him: “Get back to your cage!,” the racism inherent in that statement paints Harrigan as an outsider, the Other, whose very presence in the police force is seen as some form of transgression, afforded to him by the state. The fact that such a statement is made to a Black man signifies the toxic environment in which Harrigan tries to serve the community, and makes his violent outbursts all the more understandable. They may be seen as responses to the frustrations caused by the racism LAPD was known for in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Grigsby Bates). When the same superior later on shouts at Harrigan: “this John Wayne shit must stop!,” he once again orders him to fall in line. Harrigan’s unwillingness to do so makes his position on the force threatened, yet he never suffers the consequences of his actions. In fact, he is the one selected to cooperate with agent Keyes (played by Gary Busey) of the FBI. Harrigan responds to the order saying: “cooperation is my middle name,” which makes the fact that it is Glover who utters those words all the more significant.

19Carby points out that “between 1987 and 1992, Danny Glover starred in a number of films which reproduced the ideological terms within which the utopian dimensions of Hollywood’s contemporary interracial masculine romance are imagined and secured” (182). Due to his partnerships with white actors in movies like Lethal Weapon (1987), Glover was able to project a picture of Blackness which was not only unthreatening, but desired from the perspective of the white characters. Similarly to Sidney Poitier in the 1960s, Glover oftentimes portrayed a sympathetic character who could serve as “means for white men to find meaning within themselves and discover the true meaning of their existence” (Carby 190). In other words, he was the background against which white characters were able to define themselves.

20When Harrigan is in his office, we see the members of his crew talking outside its glass walls. The presence of glass makes Harrigan’s position on the force visible, allowing the viewer to experience the systemic exclusion felt by the movie’s hero. This subtle touch allows for a better understanding of Harrigan. In his analysis of the spatiality of Los Angeles, Steve Herbert writes that

spatial strategies are fundamental to police power, but also that they are best understood as arising from the workings of six ‘normative orders’ central to the structure of police organizations: law, which by legislative fiat defines the permissible parameters of police action; bureaucratic regulations, which seek to determine police procedures more finely through a set of rules that establish a chain of command; adventure/machismo, which constitutes the police as courageous individuals who embrace danger as a test of individual ability; safety, which establishes a set of practices to protect the police from undue harm; competence, which suggests that police should be able to control the public areas for which they are responsible; and morality, which infuses police practice with a sense of right and goodness, in essence because it helps protect society from the ‘bad guys.’ (3)

21Clearly not all of these characteristics are understood as positive, as they allow for the use of excessive force by the police and limit the citizens’ ability to avoid unwilling involvement in the struggle for hierarchy. The six normative orders define who Harrigan is, as he is never presented outside of his work, nor is he ever addressed as such by the characters in the movie. Because of his devotion to police work, he falls into the category of a stereotypical movie cop, who neglects his private life in order to serve the community. Harrigan overcomes race and racial divisions. On the flipside, the character might be accused of lacking depth, precisely because of being devoid of any sort of backstory or relationships outside of work. However, the bonds with his co-workers are strong and significant, as he willingly takes on an unknown, extraterrestrial creature to avenge one of them.

22Harrigan is clearly juxtaposed with the Predator, who is also an individualist, as he hunts on his own, yet is also part of a bigger group, as shown in the ending of the movie, when the Predator’s body is taken away by other Predators, who arrive only for that reason. Harrigan and the Predator have a certain sense of belonging, but both are defined solely by their occupations––accordingly, police work and hunting. The name Predator itself is given to the alien by humans, as the real name of the creature’s species is Yautja. The alien figure is closely connected to the setting, whether it’s the city or the jungle. As observed by Tasker, “a set of associative links already exists within Hollywood culture between blackness, Africa and images of the jungle” (49), which only furthers the perception of the Predator as a Black warrior. If the links between the jungle and Blackness were not visible enough, the weapons used by the alien are reminiscent of a savage, who uses primitive knives and spears instead of the high-tech equipment normally associated with invaders from outer space.

23Tasker also points to the links which the movie establishes between the Predator and the Jamaicans. The latter are also presented as jungle creatures not only because of their ability to maneuver the city streets, but also by details such as the leopard print on their clothes or the zebra print on the roof of the car in which they pick up Harrigan in order to take him to King Willie. The leader of the gang practices voodoo and has a deep understanding of what everyone is up against, despite never really encountering any extraterrestrials prior to the Predator. It also must be noted that the encounter is rather brief, as the Predator almost immediately kills the gangster. When King Willie, prior to meeting the Predator, declares that the creature is out of this world, he exhibits another aspect of the primitive––he bases his judgment of the situation on feeling and not experience or any sort of proof. In a true shaman fashion, he is in contact with the spirit world, which is an important constituent of the respect he enjoys among other gangsters, as well as the police.

24It is in contrast to these characters that Harrigan is able to enact what Tasker calls “heroic blackness” (52). The clean-shaven, generically dressed Harrigan, is the very opposite of the Jamaicans or the Predator. Glover’s very presence in the movie allows for the understanding of Blackness as something which even white audiences can react to positively, by rooting for the main character. It is somewhat understandable that the character who is an outsider should rebel against the state, ignoring the directives of his superiors in order to do what is right. Tasker refers to what happens to Harrigan as “institutional blindness” since “not only do Harrigan and his team have to deal with the Predator and the police department, but they are also caught up with a federal team” (49). Even though they stand for what is right, they simply cannot do their work unbothered, although it is hard to say if that is influenced by their ethnicity, since policemen standing up to authority figures are the heroes of other action movies of that time, like Cobra (1986) or Lethal Weapon, starring Glover.

25Harrigan’s Blackness is however emblematic in the struggle for control with the FBI, the members of which are all white. While the federal agents have better equipment and more resources at their disposal, as well as know who the Predator is, Harrigan is the one who is able to survive the battle with the creature. Unlike the whites, he is able to strive in the jungle/city, which is his natural habitat. The link between him and wild animals is made during a single shot when Harrigan is looking at the shopwindow of a taxidermist. Instead of local, American animals, baboons and gazelles take center stage at the exposition, with Harrigan’s reflection being seen in the window, as if he was merging with the animals or simply being one of those animals. The selection of exotic animals, connected with the depiction of the city as a jungle, strengthens the perception of what the Predator is doing as a safari.

3. Conclusion

26When at one of the earlier points in the movie Harrigan enters the crime scene, looking at the dead bodies of criminals, he states: “We’ve got a new player in town.” The use of this particular phrasing makes his Blackness immediately visible. By calling the Predator a “player” Harrigan also acknowledges the Blackness, albeit cartoonish, of his opponent, even though he does not yet know who committed the murders. The conflict of the two is inevitable, as the two perspectives on what it means to be Black cannot be reconciled. Both are on the social margins, yet while the Predator rejects any sort of civility, Harrigan goes out of his way to protect the order, unknowingly serving not only his fellow citizens, but also the establishment. While the FBI agents are ultimately mad at him for killing the creature––they want to have the Predator alive in order to study him––he is still able to save others, showing extraordinary commitment to the status quo. Throughout the movie Harrigan’s skin color is never brought up and his actions are in no way different from a generic movie cop, who sometimes steps outside of the law in order to protect it. This makes it almost impossible to establish if and to what point his “Blackness” is crucial to his survival. Instead, it is his heroism, understood as the qualities associated with being a good policeman, that make him equipped for survival. While the movie clearly depends on stereotypes, it makes use of features associated with Blackness in order to make the characters seem cool. It must not be forgotten that after all Predator 2 is intended to be primarily an entertaining action movie.

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Bibliography

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References

Electronic reference

Łukasz Muniowski, “Conflicting Blackness in Predator 2European journal of American studies [Online], 17-2 | 2022, Online since 04 July 2022, connection on 11 August 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/18185; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.18185

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About the author

Łukasz Muniowski

Łukasz Muniowski holds a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw and works as Assistant Professor at the University of Szczecin. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA's Best Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021), and Turnpike Team: A History of the New Jersey Nets, 1977-2012 (McFarland, 2022).

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