After 40 days, George Zimmerman has finally been arrested for killing Trayvon Martin (no thanks to the local authorities), and the incident has people rethinking the vigilante film. This popular genre looks different when a self-proclaimed neighborhood watch guard shoots an innocent teenager because of the color of his skin.
In a Washington Post article, Ann Hornaday notes that the genre has been around at least since D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), a less than auspicious beginning. There has always been a vigilante strain in the western, but the genre really came into its own in the 1970’s, probably as a response to the rise in urban crime and declining economic conditions after three decades of growth (the two are related). Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films and Charles Bronson’s Death Wish films are the best known. Of course the caped crusader comic book films are also vigilante movies.
Since the Trayvon Martin case involved a gated community, these are also under scrutiny. Another Washington Post article notes how such communities contribute to an us-against-the-world mentality that plays into the vigilante myth. Edward Blakeley points out that, other than reducing auto theft, gated communities do not lower crime. Instead, they eat away at the ideal of civil society:
[In] these controlled spaces, an “us vs. them” mentality festers: Leaders of gated communities need to show that there is value to their rules by creating an external enemy — those people outside the walls.
Not only do the gates breed fear, they also shrink the notion of civic engagement and allow residents to retreat from civic responsibility. Residents of these communities may ask: Why do we need to pass the bond issue for more police? We have police. Why should we pay for the new park downtown? We have a park.
Blakeley goes on to ask,
How can we have a city where some neighborhoods can choose whom to admit? How can we have a social contract when we can reduce or eliminate social contact? How can a democracy function if some of its members develop a private space that operates in isolation?
The vigilante movie operates from a place where people have given up on civil society, or at least are venting their frustrations at how we fall short of the ideal. Hornaday notes,
When we celebrate the vigilante on our screens, we tell ourselves it’s because of our healthy mistrust of corrupt structures, or because we’re genuinely vulnerable — not because of our more shameful tendency to sterotype others based on fear or hatred.
The best vigilante films, rather than just preying on our fears, make this paranoia the subject of the film. John Ford’s The Searchers shows the John Wayne character to be a crazed racist, and in Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver it is only a twist of fate that causes Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) to liberate a child prostitute (Jodi Foster) rather than kill a politician. Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, meanwhile, I view as an apology for (or at least revision of) his Dirty Harry films. (See my post on it here.) In it the racist protagonist bonds with the Laotian immigrants who have moved into his community, but when he turns to vigilante action to protect them, it only leads to an innocent girl getting hurt. It takes his Christ-like sacrifice, an action designed to bring in the established authorities, to cleanse his community of violence. In Dirty Harry, these same authorities were mocked.
We may think that attending a vigilante film is a harmless way to express our frustrations with government. Increasingly, however, Americans are failing to distinguish between their paranoid fantasies and the facts on the ground. Sometimes the paranoia enters legislation, such as the Stand Your Ground law which allows you to claim self defense if you shoot someone you feel threatened by. (Whether or not you have actually been threatened can be irrelevant.) Zimmerman may yet be freed based on that law.
The shooting of Trayvon Martin, in other words, occurred in a dangerous new context. Zimmerman may well have been shaped by both the paranoia of his society and a genre that voices that paranoia. If filmmakers have any integrity, they will start making their vigilante films something more than unquestioning vehicles for venting.