Much has been made of the violence in the film, particularly as it relates to minorities. A common complaint was that D-Fens / Bill Foster was simply espousing racist, White male paranoia. More than one reviewer hinted that Falling Down has xenophobic fantasy elements to it. Let’s examine the violence in the film, organized by action, victim, provocation, and perpetrator:
|Lee’s grocery*||Grocery abuse||Bread, chips||Squashed sundries||Foster|
|Gangster hill||Threat by knife||Foster||None||Gang thugs|
|Gangster hill*||Bat attack||Gang thug||Shoulder injury||Foster|
|Market street||Drive-by shooting||Intended: Foster; actual: innocent bystanders||At least two people shot||Gang thugs|
|Car crash||Shooting||Gang thugs||Bullet in leg||Foster|
|Surplus store||Threat by knife||Foster||None||Nick|
|Surplus store*||Knife||Nick||Shoulder stab||Foster|
|Surplus store||Gun||Nick||Shot in chest||Foster|
|Beth’s house||Gun||Sandra||Hip wound||Foster|
|Pier||Gun||Foster||Shot in chest||Prendergas|
I have put an asterisk next to the violent actions that were immediately preceded by a violent provocation. I make the distinction because a violent act following a rude comment should be judged differently than one following a physical threat or violence. Of the ten violent acts listed above, only 60% were committed by Foster, and in half of those cases, he was threatened, so the act could justifiably be seen as self-defense. Discounting his attack on Mr. Lee’s overpriced inventory (and note that Mr. Lee introduced the bat as a weapon), that leaves only two instances in the entire film where Foster showed unjustified violence, once against someone who had just tried to kill him, and the other, more seriously, against a police officer trying to arrest him.
Compared to the body count in many films, Foster’s crimes are minor. All he did was wound a police officer; the cholo thugs killed several people, and Prendergast killed Foster. So why was he portrayed by some critics as a racist killing machine? Apparently a New York screening led to Korean and Hispanic protests outside the theaters. I have been unable to find original news reports of the specific grievances, but they centered around minorities’ portrayals. So let’s examine that.
Portrayal of Minorities in Falling Down
Much has been made of the role of minorities in the film, usually contending that they are portrayed negatively. This would include not only Foster’s view of them, but also the overall tone of the film. Aside from how the main character views minorities, how does the filmmaker (and, by extension, the audience) feel toward them? Is Foster’s rampage an exercise in ethnic cleansing and minority-bashing?
Here’s the list of minorities portrayed in the film, followed by the Caucasians, and how they are seen:
Mr. Lee, shopkeeper (Korean): negative
Brian, police officer (Japanese): neutral or positive
Detective Sanchez (Hispanic): positive
Officer Sandra Torrez (Hispanic): positive
Not Economically Viable man (Black): positive
Unnamed shopkeeper (East Indian): neutral or positive
Gang Thugs (Hispanic): negative
Two Gays (Gay): positive
Kid on Street on bike (Black): positive
Construction guy (White): negative
Seedy Guy in Park (White): negative
Rick, Whammyburger (White): negative
Man at Phone Booth (White): negative
Street Worker (White): negative
Construction Worker (White): negative
Nick, racist surplus owner (White): negative
Frank, golfer (White): negative
Of the eleven minority characters, only three are portrayed negatively, the two gangster thugs and the Korean shopkeeper, Mr. Lee. The rest are shown either neutrally or positively. I have included sympathetic treatments (such as for the gay men and the Not Economically Viable Man) in the Positive category. When you consider the racial breakdown of Foster’s antagonists, the claim of minority bashing becomes even more clearly inaccurate. Along with the total of three minority antagonists, we have another seven White males who abuse Foster. In fact, there is not a single White male that he meets that day who does not abuse or irritate him in some way. By contrast, there are several minorities he talks and jokes with. And if you view the minorities quantitatively—i.e. the two Hispanic police (positive portrayals) “cancel out” the two thugs (negative portrayals)—then we are left with only one “unanswered” negative minority character in the whole film.
I would not go to such lengths to make this point were it not for many people’s mistaken view that Falling Down is in some way a racist revenge fantasy. Aside from the protesters, at least four reviews termed it “racist.” This perception probably comes from the scene in Mr. Lee’s shop where Foster mocks Mr. Lee’s accent by asking “Don’t you have V’s in China?” The conversation that follows has tinges of racism, but nothing else of that sort is seen in the rest of the film; he certainly does not spend the next ten hours shooting minorities.
While Foster’s comment about Lee’s accent could be interpreted as racist, a closer look reveals that it is actually less about Lee’s race than his language abilities; in fact Foster states this explicitly by pointing out that minorities like Lee don’t “even have the grace” to learn English. The same issues are heard today in some areas where critics complain about immigrants (sometimes even third-and fourth-generation American citizen immigrants) who don’t speak English (or don’t speak it very well). They believe that it is respectful and courteous to adopt the dominant language of a person’s adopted country. (I’m not offering an opinion about the validity of the argument, simply pointing out that it’s a common topic subject to legitimate debate.)
In fact Foster’s complaint about Mr. Lee’s accent (and indeed not being able to understand what he says) is symbolic of the film’s larger themes of alienation and miscommunication. Note that another miscommunication occurs soon after the encounter with Mr. Lee, when Foster pauses on a concrete slab, and two thugs point to what they see as a posted warning:
Gang Member: “You’re trespassing on private property.”
Bill Foster: “Trespassing?”
Gang Member #2: “You’re loitering too, man.”
Gang Member #1: “That’s right, you’re loitering too.”
Bill Foster: “I didn’t see any signs.”
Gang Member #1: [points at a graffiti skull] “What you call that?”
Bill Foster: “Graffiti?”
Gang Member #1: “No man, that’s not fucking graffiti. That’s a sign….I’ll read it for you. It says ‘This is fucking private property. No fucking trespassing. This means fucking you.’
Bill Foster: “It says all that?”
Gang Member #1: “Yeah.”
Bill Foster: “Well, maybe if you wrote it in fucking English, I could fucking understand it.”
This exchange shows people from different worldviews and cultures not speaking the same language. What one person sees as meaningless graffiti, another person sees as a clear sign or message. What one person takes for granted is lost on another; the thugs think it should have been obvious to the out-of-place nerdy office worker that he shouldn’t be there; Foster was looking for something clear and obvious that he’d recognize—something in “fucking English” so he “could fucking understand it.” (The class and race hositilities cut both ways: the thugs don’t want him there, and as Foster quaintly admits, “I wouldn’t want you people in my back yard either.”)
Of course the dialogue is exaggerated a bit for effect, but the meaning is clear and direct and true to life; often graffiti tags and gang signs mean little or nothing to the average person of a particular social class, but may convey a lot of information to those who know how to decipher the signs and symbols (for example a gang member or a police detective working the gang squad could identify the tagger, his gang affiliation, areas of drug sale control, and so on).
In his walking journey Foster meets Angelino characters he’d rarely or never encounter in everyday life, from Mr. Lee to the gangster thugs to cranky golfers. Each have their different ways of communicating, and that’s partly what the film is about: miscommunication and misunderstanding.
Mr. Lee misunderstands Foster, thinking he’s a thief. Foster misunderstands Mr. Lee, at times literally not understanding what he’s saying. Nick the racist surplus store owner misunderstands Foster, believing him to be a racist vigilante. Det. Prendergast’s captain and police co-workers misunderstand why he retired from street duty, thinking it was because he was injured instead of because of his wife’s mental instability. Foster’s mother misunderstands where her son goes every morning, believing him to be employed. The family vacationing at the plastic surgeon’s house misunderstand Foster’s intentions, thinking he wants to take them hostage. And so on. Other misunderstandings are less clear: Does Prendergast truly understand Foster’s motives? Does Beth really understand her ex-husband’s intentions?