Tuesday, June 6, 2017

An Incident in Portland: The More Things Change, The More They Remain the Same

The city of Portland, Oregon is still reeling from an ugly racial incident that occurred on a light-rail train on Friday, May 26. A white supremacist who’d apparently been drinking began assailing two young women (one wearing a hijab) with anti-Muslim slurs and other barbed taunts.  When some men in the car spoke up in the women’s defense, he pulled out a knife. Suddenly both a recent college graduate, Taliesin Namkai-Meche, and a former Army sergeant, Nick Best, were dead, while young poet Micah Fletcher barely escaped with his life.

It’s a horrible occurrence, and something of a surprise in what’s sometimes called Portlandia, a city with a reputation for the quirky acceptance of differences. And it made me think of a small indie film that came out fifty years ago. A glance at The Incident (1967) reminds me that bigotry and a propensity for violence are still a part of the American scene, even if their targets continue to evolve.

The Incident was directed by Larry Peerce, who’d already made a minor splash with One Potato, Two Potato. (This 1964 drama about interracial marriage was the hit of that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and actually scored an Oscar nomination for its low-key but effective screenplay.) The equally low-budget The Incident was set late at night aboard a New York subway car. Into the car comes an assortment of middle-class local types: a surly penny-pincher (Ed McMahon) with his wife and sleepy child; a young stud trying to make time with a pretty blonde; a recovering alcoholic with a job interview in the morning; a lonely gay man; an old Jewish codger (Jack Gilford) with a nagging wife (Thelma Ritter); a soldier from the Deep South (Beau Bridges), who’s been invited to dinner by his Italian-American buddy. All these people are white, but there’s also a black couple powerfully played by Brock Peters and Ruby Dee. He’s a militant type, angry that his social-worker wife has made him attend a civil rights meeting held by a group he considers overly moderate. Tall and powerful, he’s prone to statements like “We’re in a war, baby, and when you’re in a war you gotta fight. When you want changes, you gotta spill blood.”

Suddenly, the car is invaded by two hopped-up young knife-wielding hoodlums, played by the then-unknown Tony Musante and Martin Sheen. Looking less for money than for kicks, they terrorize the other passengers, finding ways to inflict psychic wounds on one and all. When violence inevitably erupts, it comes from an unlikely quarter. But the racial tension built into the story leads to a powerful twist that is both surprising and absolutely on target.   

 The Incident opened at a time when racial unrest was roiling many American cities. Larry Peerce told me what happened at a screening of the film in a mostly-black neighborhood theatre in New York City.  At a key moment near the end, “they began stamping on the floor, people got up and started hitting the walls. . . . It elicited so much rage in them, because it kind of symbolized everything that was going on.” His response? “I got scared and ran out of the theatre.”

The Incident, powerful though it might have been, was only a movie. What just happened in Portland, alas, is real life, with real blood spilt. Two brave men are dead, and our country now seems ever further from the ideals of its founders: that all of us are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

No comments:

Post a Comment