A bottle of “Black & Beautiful” hair dye gives Harrison Ford his ticket to the demimonde
When I saw The Fugitive, I watched it with a particularly critical eye. Earlier, my dad had telephoned me and said, “I have a thought about the film . . . we should talk after you’ve seen it.” I was determined to see for myself whatever it was he saw in the movie.
In The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) begins the movie with a perfect life. He has a happy marriage with a beautiful wife (Sela Ward), an expensive house, and a prestigious position as a surgeon. We first see him wearing a well-fitted tuxedo, as he plays social butterfly at a medical benefit. When he’s wrongly accused of murdering his wife, he’s forced into a marginal role at the bottom of the social strata.
When his wife is killed, there is a series of rather odd processed jump-shots that mimic black & white photos being taken. The last shot is a close-up of her face that dissolves to a negative image. In this shot the world is reversed: white becomes black. This is a key image in the film.
Richard Kimble is forced, metaphorically, through the same transformation. He is convicted of his wife’s murder. Kimble is white and rich, but he is sentenced to death: a penalty that is disproportionately imposed on the poor and marginalized (notably African Americans).
On the way to prison, a bus/train accident allows Kimble and another convict to escape. As the second prisoner helps Kimble out of the wreck, we see an extreme close-up of their black & white hands clasping. When Kimble is pulled out of the ditch, he is simultaneously pulled into the other, African American prisoner’s world. Later, this connection is emphasized when we are led to assume Kimble is about to be captured. In fact, the other prisoner is the U.S. Marshals’ target . . . fatally so.
To disguise himself, Kimble dyes his brown hair black. So ineffective is the disguise that the viewer may wonder why he bothers. On close examination, however, the brand of hair dye is “Black & Beautiful” – a product pitched to African Americans. Similarly, Kimble steals a hospital identification card and uses it to establish a false identity as a Latino.
In one of his comedy routines, Richard Pryor contrasts living in the U.S. with his visit to Africa. In Africa he felt relaxed, though he noticed the white tourists were a little jumpy. In America, however, whenever he hears a police siren he has a moment when he fears they’re coming for him. Not because he is guilty of anything, simply because he is black. This is now Kimble’s state of mind.
The Chicago police are convinced of Kimble’s guilt. U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), however, is less sure. He ridicules the motives the police give for the murder, and gradually comes to suspect that Kimble is trying to prove his innocence. Yet, as the main figure of authority in the film, Gerard is much more disturbing than the inept police.
In Kimble’s first encounter with Gerard, Kimble says, “I didn’t kill her!” Gerard responds, “I don’t care.”
In their second encounter, Gerard proves he really meant what he said. Despite mounting evidence pointing to Kimble’s innocence, Gerard still shoots-to-kill. Kimble’s life is preserved only because bulletproof glass (the front door to the Chicago City Jail) protects him.
At the end of the film, Dr. Kimble regains his social status (and his brown hair). He puts on a suit and confronts the evil Dr. Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbé) at a medical conference. For the film’s finale, the U.S. Marshal Gerard decides that he does care (now that Kimble is upper-middle-class white again?) that Kimble is innocent.
When I got home from the theater, I called my dad back, and outlined how The Fugitive is a metaphor for the minority experience in America. “Was that what you wanted to discuss?” I asked him. “Well, mainly I was just thinking that the woman who played Ford’s wife was cute,” he said, “but your thought is good, too.”