Of all the people to blame for the Trayvon Martin shooting, Dirty Harry? On Sunday, Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday had an article splashed across the front of the Outlook section. Next to a Dirty Harry photo were the words “America loves a vigilante. Until we meet one.” George Zimmerman has “undercut the mythology of the lone avenger.”
Hornaday began her dismissal of America like this: “Of the countless stories we tell ourselves, the American myth of the solitary enforcer of justice may be the most tenacious, beloved and — as the story of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin has so grievously demonstrated — distorting.”
Bizarrely, Hornaday conflated action heroes from Dirty Harry to Spiderman to Batman (and comedic characters like Ben Stiller in the forthcoming comedy “Neighborhood Watch”) to the KKK:
In fact, Stiller will be spoofing an idea that has been around as long as American cinema itself: D.W. Griffith virtually invented the form with his 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation,” which depicts the white-robed enforcers of the Ku Klux Klan so heroically that the organization used the movie as a recruiting tool.
It’s impossible to know yet if Zimmerman was inspired by Dirty Harry or any other fictional character, but Hornaday felt comfortable imagining a connection. Vigilante films are invariably infected/inflected with racism:
It’s impossible to know whether Zimmerman saw himself in any of these movies as he followed Martin through a gated community in Florida in February. An aspiring police officer who had made nearly 50 calls about suspicious events in his neighborhood over the past eight years, he surely saw himself, like all vigilantes, on the side of right in the battle against crime, decay and disorder.
From Zimmerman’s statements on the taped 911 calls that night, it seems clear that his perception of Martin —an unarmed, 17-year-old African American boy in a hooded sweatshirt — tapped into another piece of symbolism that permeates pop culture. In fact, seen through that lens, their fatal encounter played out like an all-too-real clash of iconographies: Zimmerman’s idea of the property-defending hero Standing His Ground vs. the hoodie-wearing youth who has symbolized menace and urban violence in everything from “The Wire” to last year’s comic teen-thugs-battle-aliens satire “Attack the Block.”
Regardless of whether Zimmerman was motivated by racial animus, that clash and its aftermath have punctured another cherished American story line. Whether through the gauzy melodramatic flourishes of last year’s hit movie “The Help” or the collective self-satisfaction of electing the country’s first black president, many Americans badly want to believe that the nation has gotten past race. 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 stereotype others based on fear or hatred.
You have to be a little amazed when liberals sneer at Obama voters that they chose him for their own “self-satisfaction” and then said it doesn’t matter how badly you want to believe “the nation has gotten past race” – liberals will never let you get “past race.” They were like Lucy and the football in 2008.
Hornaday then trips and falls by comparing Zimmerman to Bernhard Goetz, the real-life subway vigilante. That’s not a good comparison for the late Trayvon Martin, since the four boys Goetz shot at were mugging him (or in their version, badgering him for arcade money). But Hornaday pretends that Goetz was thoroughly exposed as a “self-valorizing” mythical vigilante:
Back in 1984, some New York newspapers dubbed Goetz “The ‘Death Wish’ Gunman,” after Bronson’s architect-turned-urban-hero. This time around, though, we don’t have a ready-made cinematic vernacular for the vexing reality that has pierced the self-valorizing myth of vigilantism and facile assumptions about race and identity.
Hornaday and the Post wrap up this piece by questioning America’s arrogant sense of exceptionalism, insisting she is the wise mind that can accept contradictions and second thoughts, even as she leaps to wild conclusions about Zimmerman and Americans:
It’s easy to understand the enduring appeal of the vigilante archetype, whose hard-charging moral certainty jibes perfectly with this country’s sense of exceptionalism, not to mention the narrative constraints of a 90-minute action movie. It’s far more difficult to reconcile complicated reality with the simplistic, comforting fictions we crave.
After all, contradictions don’t have easy character arcs. Mutual comprehension doesn’t lend itself to ballistic showdowns. Self-examination and second thoughts are notoriously un-telegenic. But as audiences look forward to another summer of vigilante derring-do, whether by way of Bruce Wayne or Ben Stiller, they may want to take a moment to remember George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, and ask whether some of the stories we keep telling ourselves can ever really have a happy ending.