Kickboxing in Color: The Racial Politics of Angel Town

I would like to wish Karl, Jade, and the entirety of the Fist of B-List interweb movie review site and all that she stands for a Happy 5th Anniversary. But rather than send over chocolates or gift certificates, I'm sending over some rambling thoughts about a film already covered on this here blog: The 1990 Kickboxer vs. Cholos actioner Angel Town, directed by Eric Karson and starring Olivier Gruner. If you haven't read Karl's review, I suggest you do that first, but hey if you wanna read my BS now instead, why not? It's a free country, do whatever you want.

(Unless you're reading this in a not-free country, which in that case -- ¡Viva La RevoluciĆ³n!)

When I first watched this film back during a youth filled with hope and optimism, I was pleased as the proverbial punch to see a movie with so many actors who looked more like me than the usual clean-cut All-American Non-Tans who occupy most of moviedom. Never mind that these actors were portraying evil Latino gang members terrorizing cowardly/helpless Latino innocents (aka The Good Ones) and that it takes the courage and strength of a new neighbor/kickboxing grad student from France -- FRANCE!!! -- to set things white, I mean right.

As you can see, I'm driving down a very familiar neighborhood containing streets with names like Chip On Your Shoulder Blvd., and I'm approaching my destination with a question: Just where is Angel Town coming from, racially speaking?

I mean, if you've seen the film, you might -- maybe -- pick up on what I've not only been getting at, but slamming over your head with during the last couple paragraphs. But if not, read on because somewhere in here will be examples of whatever my point is supposed to be, if I even have one. (Helpful Hint: I don't.)

The film opens with the title song performed by someone with the same last name as the director, but it ain't bad. The vocals have a bit of the Joe Strummer to it, and this dude is singing about what a scary mean place this Angel Town is. This is a place where one must stand his ground because there are "devils all around", but he ain't singing about those White Devils you usually hear the militants go on about -- he's talking about the shaded seraphs that occupy East Los Angeles, California.

We are then introduced to a couple of Black dudes walking down a vacant area and they're wearing bandanas and carry with them the swagger of the Backed Up, but hey I'm not going to straight out call them gang members because that would be profiling and I don't roll like that, bro. But let's just call them gang members.

So these gang members are then accosted by a group of white-ish/brown-ish dudes who I think are supposed to be from a rival gang but they look more like the cover of Rival Turf!, that old SNES Final Fight ripoff that sucked but had the minor saving grace of allowing you to change the names of all the characters, resulting in a game where you and your friend Johnny beat up guys named Jerry, Christian, and David, because screw those guys -- they were invited but didn't show up. Some birthday party, eh?

Anyway, yeah, this group of leather jacket wearers (one featuring a logo for The Clash) start beating up on the darker variables of this human equation and everything is sunshine and overly-loud sound effects until a couple more Black guys show up to punch up the opposition, but then a pick-up truck carrying what appears to be Latino gang members disguised as day laborers screeches into the proceedings and we now have ourselves a good old-fashioned donnybrook.

We have Latinos beating up on Blacks, until one of the Latinos -- the one who looks more like a tanned Anglo than a genuine Brown -- sneaks over to the pick-up truck, pulls out an UZI and proceeds to fire wildly into the crowd. This is the same guy who instigated the fight, so it made me wonder if this was some kind of metaphor from the filmmakers about how the White Man will infiltrate the Black and Hispanic communities and stir shit up among them, getting it to such a fever pitch that they eventually turn on each other, thus allowing Whitey to do his thing -- storming in with militarized weaponry to eliminate the problem with righteous justification in the name of all things Good and Lawful.

And it is at that point that we cut to a gentleman watching all of this from a safe distance in his lowrider. He is the titular Angel, and he smiles while watching the fisticuffs turn into a shoot-em-up. But why? Has he figured out Whitey's plan, and now the gears are turning in his head towards a plan to bring together Brown and Black in peace, and fight the real enemy?

Nope, he's the villain. Later on he shows up flaunting his very own UZI to terrorize the helpless. But because this film takes place in a universe where Chris Rock's routine about charging thousands of dollars for bullets is a reality, he very very very rarely fires it.

I was disappointed in his non-unifying/pro-UZI ownership actions, but then I thought again of everything I just wrote and determined that, No, the filmmakers weren't trying to make a point, they just wanted to get the audience's attention. 

So I continued watching the film looking for examples of...something?...oh yeah, something racial because that's what I said I would write about, right? Oh! OK, I think I have something. This here is a film where maybe maybe MAYBE director Karson and writer S. Warren give us an honest portrayal of racial attitudes exhibited not only by the bad guys/secondary characters (the Black gang leader refers to the Latino gang as "grape pickers"), but even the hero is weak enough to make a questionable statement, if not straight up hate speech.

Por ejemplo, later in the film, our hero Jacques (Gruner) is in class and the professor asks him to point out something wrong with the equation on the chalkboard. Because Jacques is the hero of the film, and therefore an ass-kicker AND a smarty-pants, he answers correctly. The Arab student sitting right next to Jacques says in a non-whisper to another student "Leave it to the fucking frog!" Uh-uh bros, Jacques ain't having that. He grabs the dude's tie and pulls him in with "That's Mister Frog to you, raghead."

And then in the following scene -- OK wait let me set it up for you: There's this kid Martin Ordonez who lives in the neighborhood currently being terrorized by Angel and his gang. See, Angel killed Martin's father a few years ago for standing up to the Brown menace and now Angel wants Martin in his gang. Kinda weird, if you ask me. I mean, why does Angel want/need Martin in his gang so bad that he's now beating up/chasing the poor boy around town? This kid can't fight for shit and he's kind of a self-pity parade -- a real buzzkill, if you ask me. Such is the logic of your average Hispanic gang leader.

Anyway, yeah, so Jacques walks in on weak-ass Martin referring to his neighborhood as being occupied by "dumbass Chicanos". He decides to teach the boy a lesson by explaining to this know-nothing jerkwad that if he (and his late father) live in the same neighborhood then he (and his late father) too is a "dumbass Chicano". What I like about those two scenes is that Jacques is using racially negative language against the offending party. In the case of Martin calling his own people "dumbass Chicanos", I think Jacques was trying to set him straight when it comes to saying stupid things -- think before you speak, young man!

(The final tally for "dumbass Chicanos": THREE)

And while calling the Arab a "raghead" is pretty darn harsh, his point still stands in that words like "raghead" and "frog" hurt. Or at least I hope that's his point. I mean, maybe Jacques (and Karson and Warren) are of the messed-up mindset that Jacques' use of racist language is justified and that the dirty evil terrorist better keep his mouth shut here in 'Murica: The Greatest Country in the World and Don't You Forget It.

It's the last part that kinda bugs me, because maybe that's where Warren & Karson are coming from. Later in the film, Jacques breaks into Angel's house while he's asleep (Angel, not Jacques -- but hell, Jacques is so damn good I can buy him doing some badass sleepwalking type stuff) and puts a knife to his throat, threatening him to leave Martin and his mom alone or else Angel will be "riding with Pancho Villa".

That's a funny line and all, but I do wonder why he had to take it there. If you, the reader, think I'm being too sensitive about this, well maybe I am. But I have to find something to write about here, so give me a break, you butt-hurt bastard. What I'm saying is that let's change Angel to Anfernee and have Jacques say "Leave the Ordonez family alone, or you'll be joining Martin Luther King Jr. in the promised land!" and perhaps you'll see my point. Or you'll miss my point and only notice how clumsy my line would be for an actor to say. "Riding with Pancho Villa" does have a better flow to it, I'll admit.

That Villa line, though, here's the thing with that line -- and even the Frog line -- it kinda feels less like something Jacques would say and something writer S. Warren would say? Like, I don't know who this S. Warren is or why he or she chose to initial his or her first name, or whether these lines were even in his or her original script, but if I had to guess and then put money on the guess, well my bet would be on Warren being Not-A-Dark-Ethnic and maybe these kinds of moments come from the dude or dudette's soul. Which is not to say that only Not-A-Dark-Ethnics can feel a certain way -- certainly not, even those deep into the ranks of Other/Foreign can have political beliefs about their own that would even make Donald Trump clutch his pearls -- but in this case I'm being just as general and unfair as those I accuse of being general and unfair because it helps my argument.

And what is that argument, sir? Hell if I know. OK, wait. Maybe calling an Arab a "raghead" or using Mexican revolutionary historical figures in a threat against a Brown tickled Warren pink. Maybe writing that stuff was less about a fitting line for the character to say and more about an angry middle-class Anglo guy/gal who drives to work everyday listening to Rush Limbaugh while trying his/her best to write a screenplay about a French kickboxer who rents a room in East L.A. and stands up to the Latino gang who won't stop messing with the boy and mother who live in the house. Maybe even in the most impersonal for-hire screenplay gigs, a writer can still leave traces of his/her personality one way or another. Maybe said traces pop up in the dialogue. Maybe I just smoke too much herb.

Haha, "maybe".


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