The stories of Dr. King Schultz, Irving Rosenfeld, and Nick Carver contain a critique of American society deeper than just “white guys always get the benefit of the doubt.” These men exploit the finely printed details of American contract law. What seems like the most gossamer thread – the same type of throwaway language under which we tap “I agree” without even reading – turns out to be, with enough chutzpah, the foundation for a semi-legal business enterprise, a wellspring of white privilege.
* * *
In this second decade of the 21st century, three successful feature films focused on middle-aged white males who get away with murder and grand theft. All three films had release dates before the summer 2014 street protests following the deadly police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, from which Black Lives Matter emerged as a potent force. It is tempting to explain these three white male felons as species of white privilege – aggressive exploiters of an exploitative system. But the stories of Dr. King Schultz, Irving Rosenfeld, and Nick Carver contain a critique of American society deeper than just “white guys always get the benefit of the doubt.” These men exploit the finely printed details of American contract law. What seems like the most gossamer thread – the same type of throwaway language under which we tap “I agree” without even reading – turns out to be, with enough chutzpah, the foundation for a semi-legal business enterprise, a wellspring of white privilege. In the films, being white isn’t enough. All three characters are surrounded by whites who have failed, gone to jail, or joined a lynch mob. The characters’ success comes from manipulating contractual fine print.
Dr. King Schultz is the antagonist of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), a spaghetti-western homage whose protagonist is a freed slave seeking to free his wife from slavery. Dr. Schultz is not yet a white guy. In the 1850s, German immigrants were not considered white by the Anglo-Saxon establishment. They were lumped in with the Irish as irredeemably low-class, mostly Catholic, usually intemperate, and criminally inclined. Dr. Schultz is criminally inclined, but not a criminal. He murders according to law. As a bounty hunter, he hunts convicts and fugitives, carefully folding legal orders for their capture in his leather portfolio, a metaphorical shield in his breast pocket. On two occasions, he waves his papers in the face of stunned mobs assembled to kill him after he shot a sheriff and a slave overseer in broad daylight. To great comic effect, Dr. Schultz eloquently defends his homicides as regular features of the justice system. What stops the mobs from lynching this strangely accented interloper who waltzed in and shot dead their boss-man? Only the knowledge that he has played by the same rules they do: get an officer of the Court to sign a warrant, then follow the rule of law.
Dr. Schultz plays his hand masterfully until the end of the film, when his conscience leads to his sudden death. His downward spiral begins with a lengthy contract negotiation between Schultz and Calvin Candie, the slaveowner he tries to dupe into signing over a prized slave, Django’s wife Broomhilda. The plan goes wrong, but the contract is signed anyway at great expense to Dr. Schultz. It is not the exorbitant price of Broomhilda’s freedom that galls him. It is Candie’s insistence on shaking hands (above) with Schultz to seal the deal. The handshake means nothing legally, but everything to Candie, who like many slaveowners kept one foot firmly in the medieval past where personal honor outweighed silly scrawls on a piece of paper. But Candie’s other foot was squarely in the speculative present, squeezing every cent out of his privileged status. Dr. Schultz’s ethical crisis arose when he realized he was not as modern as he thought he was. Athough legal, he was still a body merchant, doing business just as sordid as any medieval lord or early-modern slave trader. Slavery was no aberration in American history. It was the essence of the American market system, buttressed by the rule of law and the sanctity of contract. Fugitive slaves, like fugitive outlaws, were fixable with a court order. Contracts and laws are just words on paper. But in order to get to the point where words that immiserated Django and Broomhilda could be changed, the U.S. paid a steep price in blood and treasure – 700,000 lives’ worth from 1861 to 1865. Django Unchained ends with a famously splattery shootout that foreshadowed the American carnage of Shiloh, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg.
Like many a Tarantino flick, director David O. Russell’s American Hustle (2013) is steeped in 1970s music, fashion, milieu. Our protagonist, Irving Rosenfeld, compartmentalizes his business and personal life until the two intersect in the person of Sydney Prosser, the perfect accomplice for his fake-loan operation. Tarantino shows us Dr. Schultz waving contracts and Calvin Candie applying his seal to them. Russell never shows us the papers but they are a constant presence underneath the montage of cons that Irving and Sydney pull off. “Five thousand gets me fifty, right?” the suckers say. In the fine print lurks Irving’s $5,000 fee, which is non-refundable – “Just like my time!” he smirks.
Like Dr. Schultz, Irving suffers a crisis of conscience. The FBI arrests him and Sydney and gives them the chance to cut their sentences by going undercover to entice bigger fish to take bribes. FBI agent Richie DiMaso serves as the epitome of the “Abscam” investigations of the late 1970s, in which seven congressmen were convicted for taking bribes from fictional Arab investors. All the President’s Men this is not. Russell is not writing the first draft of history. His view is from inside the sting. As the opening disclaimer says, “Some of this actually happened.” Whether or not the mayor of Camden, NJ was really named Carmine Polito doesn’t matter to Russell.
Russell is not interested in procedural details, but in the conflicted loyalties of the cops and their informants. Irving’s motivation is complex. He wants to stay out of prison, keep Sydney out of prison and in love with him, keep his second family ensconced on Long Island, and also – quixotically – keep Americans from losing their faith in elected officials. Irving’s comments seem like merely time-and-place marking by the script writers. For example, he criticizes DiMaso for going after Mayor Polito, who is just trying to attract capital to his deindustrialized city. Irving worries that once Polito goes down in Abscam, Americans will learn to regard every elected official as a crook, worsening the legacy of Watergate. The con man tells the G-man, “You’re ruining this country!” His comment does more work than merely orienting the audience. It reveals Irving’s concern with contracts, in this case the social contract. His voice-over explains that a con man survives on the sucker’s willingness to believe a lie. The implication is that democratic governance relies on the same mass delusion. Voters want to trust their leaders, Irving implies.
For Irving, small-time frauds do not threaten the future of the Republic, but entrapment of congressmen for the sake of Agent DiMaso’s career advancement carries that threat. Irving finds a way to escape the FBI’s clutches by turning the con against DiMaso, freeing himself and Sydney from legal peril, providing his second family with stability, and embarking on a second career as an art dealer – no more fakes and forgeries. A pat ending where the hero wins out? For sure, but the point here is that like Dr. Schultz, Irving gets away with theft by playing within the rules of the market system. Caveat emptor for the contract signer. His marks’ desperation and financial ruin weigh on Irving’s soul not one bit. If they can’t realize his offer and Sydney’s charm are too good to be true, it’s their fault for trusting him. But Carmine Polito’s perp walk brings him to tears. In Carmine he recognized a kindred spirit, playing the rules of the market masterfully but getting nailed for it. “Always take a favor over money,” they agree. In a final voice-over, Irving admits that betraying Carmine “haunted me the rest of my life.”
Dr. King Schultz skillfully manipulated contract law, but betrayed himself in the process. Irving Rosenfeld’s manipulation was cruder, and his betrayals did not bother him until the FBI forced him to betray Carmine. He worried openly, however, that there was a limit to how much betrayal the public could abide. Nick Carver, the third exploiter extraordinaire, pushes the system over the legal limit. Unlike Dr. Schultz, who chose death over becoming a slave trader, and unlike Irving Rosenfeld, who believed in keeping his cons “just small enough” to avoid a systemic meltdown, Nick Carver aggressively drags the country into the mortgage-default debacle that began in 2007. Carver enters villainously, evicting hero Dennis Nash’s family with pitiless disregard for their pleas for time, vaping on a mechanical cigarette and talking into a flip-phone.
Audiences for Django Unchained and American Hustle required orientation because the action took place decades ago. But 2014 audiences for 99 Homes (2014) knew exactly where they were – seven years earlier in the midst of the foreclosure crisis. Like Schultz’s and Rosenfeld’s, Carver’s scam had all the necessary legal papers and sheriff’s deputies to enforce them. The fine print of the mortgage documents warned this would happen to owners who could not afford monthly payments after the rates “adjusted” upward. But as Nash discovers when he starts working for Carver, foreclosures and evictions opened wide avenues for outright fraud. Nash’s face clearly shows the workings of a conscience. He has no late-in-the-film realization. From the moment he agrees to work for Carver, by shoveling human waste out of an abandoned house, Nash knows he is working for a ruthless trader. “Only one in a hundred are getting on that ark,” Carver tells him, flipping Occupy Wall Street’s “we are the 99 percent” slogan into a justification for helping the banks take advantage of troubled assets – i.e., underwater mortgages with people still living on the premises.
For most of the film’s middle section, we follow Nash on his rounds, serving papers, changing door locks, and removing air-conditioning units and pool pumps. Carver discovers that it’s not difficult to scam the federal government while evicting residents. In steamy Central Florida, there’s no quicker way to make a distressed property look even more distressed than to truck away the A/C. Nash’s family members criticize him for aiding and abetting Carver. At first, he justifies it on the grounds of survival. But he often recognizes himself in Carver’s victims. When Carver goes too far by sending Nash to court with falsified eviction papers, Nash bolts from his new boss for the first and last time. As befitting the film’s grim tone, at the end it is Nash sitting in the back of a police car, not Carver. Schultz’s kidnappings and murders are perfectly legal. Rosenfeld’s scams are sordid, but hey, the poor suckers knew what they were signing. Carver dispenses with even the patina of legality. Whatever the method, “cash for keys” or a fraudulent court order, just get the people out of the houses. And lest the audience think Carver was a rogue operator, director Ramin Bahrani gives us glimpses of the real movers behind the front-yard dramas. Executives in glass-paneled conference rooms at the tops of tall office towers direct Carver to cut corners and fake documents. They never speak a word of dialogue, but they are clearly the ones giving Carver his order to evict, evict, evict.
The con men in Django Unchained, American Hustle, and 99 Homes describe an arc of diminishing idealism over the course of Market Revolution. We are unaware of Dr. Schultz’s circumstances before he immigrated, but he clearly has done well for himself. He gains the money and social graces of a 19th-century gentleman. He profits from working the margins of the land and slavery booms. By the 1970s, those two great booms had fizzled, and the subsequent one – the industrial boom – was shuddering to a halt. Irving Rosenfeld’s mumbly inconspicuousness was the exact opposite of Schultz’s grandiloquence, but it fit the times perfectly. Caught up in scam upon scam, Irving’s best hope was to remain an unindicted co-conspirator. In the Watergate Era, you could do worse. By the 2000s, just keeping his family from homelessness was Dennis Nash’s driving goal. Momentarily seduced by Nick Carver’s Darwinian logic, he stayed afloat by drowning others, telling himself that this was the law working as it should. When he decided it was not working, after his fateful decision at the courthouse, Nash defied Carver and wound up indicted. We never find out if he was convicted. We don’t know if the law ever caught up with Carver’s fraud. But those guys back at the glass-paneled conference room are presumably still there.
Should Nash and Carver wind up in jail, the executives will find someone else to execute the contracts in their files and carry out the evictions for them. 99 Homes is a personal story, so it does not dwell on the macroeconomic aspects of the 2007 mortgage crisis. But when you place it in the context of the damage the crisis wrought on middle-income Americans, shattering the accumulated wealth of millions and disproportionately shattering non-white households just beginning to build intergenerational wealth, 99 Homes tells a devastating story of white privilege. Beyond white supremacist torch parades, the racially disparate use of deadly force by police officers, and microaggressions on college campuses, white privilege abides and grows stronger in the fine print of property deeds, loan documents, and court orders. Dr. King Schultz, Irving Rosenfeld, and Nick Carver recognized the profitability of mastering and exploiting the fine print. These three films urge us to pay attention to the fine print as a source of the conflicts that make large-print headlines.
* * *
All images are screenshots from the films.