“You know what I learned today? I’m not like you.”
The controversial, Oscar-winning Hollywood production Training Day is a metaphor for the Iraq Invasion. And not deliberately (which would be impossible, since the movie, released in the U.S. in October 2001, predates that event by so far), but not coincidentally either. Because what this is fundamentally about is the resilience of Good, in the shape of white American values, in the face of multiethnic confusion. It is unbelievably moralistic. It is also quite racist, but, as we shall see, in an interesting way, unlike the straightforward, and therefore uninteresting, racism of, say, recent movies Blackhawk Down and (the much less recognisedly racist) Kill Bill, in which white people kill large numbers of non-white people and are valorised for it. It is an irony that Training Day garnered an Oscar in the Academy Awards’ 2002 drive to acknowledge African-American talent in the movies.
In Training Day, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), a rookie detective on his first day at work on a trial basis in a Field Enforcement Section of the Narcotics Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, is paired with the head of said section, the vastly more experienced Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington). Hoyt is a young white man, with a young family, a wife and little girl. Alonzo is an older black male, who affects many of the memes of the street and, as it transpires, is desperately corrupt to the point where it is unclear whether he has any detrimental effect on drugs crime whatsoever (although he claims, with some plausibility, that he does — moreover, we must remember that the effectiveness of the entire war on drugs is an open question, even when conducted impeccably). On this, his first day, Hoyt is lured into the corruption of the unit, by degrees, but with an exceptional rapidity: by the end he is called upon to murder a man in cold blood, and to take $250,000 in blood-money, to the surprise and chagrin of more experienced unit-members. This slide follows a progression: smoking marijuana — which unbeknownst to him contains PCP — with a gun pointed at his head by Alonzo; a use of excessive force to detain suspects (although this is in fact at his own instigation, and incidental to the work he is doing with Alonzo, intimating the level of rule-bending that Hoyt is already used to as a uniformed cop); an illegal house search with a fake warrant; and from here the sudden leap to being asked to kill and embezzle, which he in fact balks at, rather turning his gun on Alonzo. Alonzo orders his men not to kill Hoyt and Hoyt, cognisant that killing Alonzo would mean his own death, decides not to kill him, ultimately deciding that, rather than report Alonzo for his criminality, he will simply walk away, back to his old life as an unglamorous but honest uniformed cop. This option is denied him, however, when Alonzo, fearing Hoyt’s capacity to make trouble for him, pays some Latinos to kill the white boy. Hoyt escapes death because, at the moment they are due to blast him, his captors discover that Hoyt had earlier in the day, against Alonzo’s orders, saved their boss’s cousin from being raped. Hoyt then tracks down Alonzo, and on finding him tries to arrest him. After a pat punch-up-cum-shootout, Alonzo is eventually brought to bear, but he points out to Hoyt that Hoyt does not have the evidence to prosecute him. Alonzo leaves, but due to Hoyt’s intervention misses the deadline he was on course to make, to pay off the powerful friends of a man he clubbed to death. The deadline missed, Alonzo is shot to death in his car as punishment, having died by the sword he lived by, with Hoyt’s hands ultimately unsullied, as white as snow.
Metaphor: America and Saddam Hussein
This story is a metaphor for America’s involvement with Iraq over the last thirty years. Hoyt is America, of course; Alonzo is Saddam Hussein. Alonzo dwells in a neighbourhood where he has the “golden pass. ” He is apparently a king, but in fact he is hated, secretly. America comes to work with him. Our man is like the military advisor who naïvely tries to help Saddam fight against Iranian Islamic fundamentalism. He is like the ambassador who inadvertently gives Saddam the green light to invade Kuwait, just like Hoyt plays into the hands of his tormentor so many times in his naïveté. But nothing too bad. He never gets pulled in too far. No. I mean, he goes on some illegal search, uses an illegal choke hold on a perp, takes fucking drugs, drinks on duty, but he ultimately knows where to draw the line (in the sand). I mean, he’s not perfect. He foolishly gives Alonzo a second chance, again and again — he is too good, too trusting. He credulously goes with Alonzo to his death (like America nearly goes to its death with September 11, the early warning of some other putative anthrax-and-A-bombs Armageddon that might have been unleashed on America if the Republicans hadn’t had the moral fortitude to go into Iraq and wipe Saddam out). Escaping by a miracle, produced by the fruits of his own forthrightness, from the double-crossing, dark-skinned Alonzo. Alonzo’s supposed people, even his own son, his concubine, actually allow Hoyt to walk into Baghdad, just as the Republican Guard melted away in 2003, because really Saddam never cared for any of them. Right to the end Alonzo’s dirty tricks threaten to overwhelm our hero.
“They’re not like you. You know what I learned today? I’m not like you,” says Hoyt, referring to the natives’ unwillingness to do Alonzo’s bidding and kill Hoyt, and then to his own unwillingness to terminate Alonzo at the critical moment. The natives have the guns but they don’t kill Hoyt. And he won’t kill Alonzo; my God he’s deserved it, but Hoyt holds off till the last minute and shoots only when Alonzo reaches for the gun (WMD) to shoot Hoyt. But even then he only wounds Alonzo to stop him, leaving him for his own people to deal with, who themselves offer to watch Alonzo while Hoyt implements an exit strategy. Hoyt doesn’t get Alonzo’s blood on his white skin. But he does walk off to allow Alonzo’s own people to do what he won’t. (Here, it’s more like Britain and Australia, who consider capital punishment anathema, but who would nevertheless be satisfied if Saddam were to be executed under Iraqi justice). They actually let Alonzo go, but he gets finished off by a third party of international enforcers, the Russians, no less. There’s still time for that to happen in real life.
This is a metaphor. Metaphors are imperfect — see Derrida’s “White Mythology.” I especially mean that there are plenty of elements of this film that don’t match American-Iraqi relations — after all it’s a movie about cops in L.A. that is designed to entertain, not a documentary about geopolitics. How does this metaphor function? The truth about U.S. involvement with Iraq doesn’t correspond to the metaphor I have given at all. Really they were in it to the hilt, not just Saddam’s innocent dupes. And protectors of the Iraqis! If this film were a metaphor for the real Iraqi Invasion, our hero would have descended on Alonzo’s cul-de-sac with a SWAT team and shot everyone who moved just for having the same skin-colour as Alonzo. No, this is a metaphor for the official version of American involvement in Iraq, for the nonsense that says that Anglo-Saxon motivations are freedom and justice, not rape and pillage.
So the connection is based around the American conception of moral Realpolitik. The police are not whiter-than-white (they’re just plain white). They have to contend with significant grey areas (whether this be a bit of torture or collateral damage, or overriding International Law). But they ultimately do what’s Right. This is, I submit, even with this level of ambiguity, significantly inaccurate. Rather it is simply the mythos which serves as a mask for American imperialism. This movie, then, is implicated in the ideological preparation for the latest wave of American aggression.
Alterity and Ethics
The scene where they go to the Latino house is like the Heart of Darkness ambience of Apocalypse Now. This is how we present alterity? What does it say? It is scary, but fundamentally, as it turns out, they have values too. This movie is a step beyond the Heart of Darkness portrayal of pure alterity. These natives are merely in a different material position, one that in fact subsumes their values under the weight of their poverty and the struggle to survive. But our values can provide the catalyst for their values to come to the fore. The good act of saving a young girl from a rape (perpetrated with some degree of moral ambiguity, but nevertheless so purely good that even Alonzo seems moved to acknowledge it), ultimately bears unexpected fruit in making cold-blooded killers turn back from their intent in the recognition of their victim’s righteousness. And later, with the black crowd, he wins them over (although I’m not really sure how he manages this — perhaps his righteousness by this point is just shining through without him having to do anything specifically righteous. Well, perhaps it is his wondrous mercy in sparing Alonzo that shows the natives that there is some other way than savage dog-eat-doggery of life under Alonzo’s regime).
What enables Hoyt to be moral when everyone else in LA is mired in vice, even though they may be moral deep down? It is because he is white and middle class, of course. That is what he has that no-one else in this movie does: the purity that he brings with him from the suburbs. There are other whites in the film: the so-called “wise men,” powerful men who call the shots. They sit aloof from the moral ambiguity of what they ask Alonzo to do. It is a virtue of the film that it does show the corruption not only of the urban ghetto, but of the (Anglo-Saxon) law enforcement apparatus itself. This is also the case in the portrayal of Alonzo’s own drug enforcement unit, mostly composed of whites. These people’s class provenance is more doubtful, however. The essential difference between them and Hoyt is that they have been in the organisation long enough to have become tainted. The point that is beaten time and again, an overarching theme of the piece, the source of its title, is that Hoyt is a rookie, fresh from the regular police, and moreover relatively fresh even then, young and inexperienced. His lack of experience causes him to make mistakes, failures of judgments, which in themselves are his virtuous acts. His naïveté comes directly from the pure ethical goodness of American suburban upbringing.
It is not merely a childhood innocence, because the children in the slums have no innocence: they already see the police as deeply ambiguous figures. This is displayed forcefully in the two incidents in the film involving black children. In the first, the child involved is caught up in an illegal house raid by Alonzo and Hoyt, has guns pointed at him, and then is painfully patronised by Hoyt in an attempt to put him at ease which he evidently does not accept. The second involves Alonzo’s illegitimate son, whose father is evidently a stranger to him, who visits the house merely to fornicate with his mother, and who is left to his own devices, both before and during the visit, playing video games or watching television. The absence of (nuclear [white]) family life is evident in both cases: in the first, the child lives with his aunt and up to two (this figure is in itself uncertain) other children; in the second, the boy apparently lives alone with his single mother. In the second case, the child recognises the goodness of Hoyt (and implicitly therefore the superiority of his white values). Hoyt spends time with the child where his parents will not. He falls asleep with the child on the sofa, which one cannot imagine his father doing (his father having four legitimate children in what would seem to be a conventional family unit, though we do not see this side of his life). In the end, the child helps Hoyt to come and arrest his father. His father shows no consideration for the child in his struggle to defend himself, a savage contrast to Hoyt’s concern for the boy’s well-being.
So, we have the myth of American suburban ethical fortitude as a cure for the world’s ills (as perceived from the same American suburbia). This vision holds both within America and internationally. This vision has been a necessary, central part of the mobilization of American sentiment for the investment of Iraq. It asserts on the one hand the universality of ethical values, of liberty, free enterprise and the rule of law in particular. But at the same time, it valorises America above other nations, as the source of the concrete manifestation of these lurking universal values, and the only possible agent for their realisation, as a beacon of freedom that must, in fact, be defended at all costs, since if it were to be extinguished, all light in the world would go out, since all free nations owe their freedom to America’s hegemony.