Rick McGinnis, writing for the Mark Steyn Club, laments the missed opportunity that was the adaptation of Walter Mosley’s “Devil in a Blue Dress” into a successful film franchise. The 1995 neo-noir directed by Carl Franklin and starring Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, and Jennifer Beals is hailed by many as a masterpiece, but it failed to make a significant impact at the box office. McGinnis argues that the film’s failure was a missed opportunity for Hollywood, particularly for African American actors and for the film industry’s more mature audiences who might appreciate the genre’s adult themes and content.
The film is set in 1940s Los Angeles in a predominantly African American community where Easy Rawlins (Washington), a recently unemployed aircraft plant worker, is hired by a tough white guy named Dewitt Albright (Sizemore) to track down a woman named Daphne Monet (Beals), the fiancée of a mayoral candidate, offering him the money that will help Easy keep up his mortgage payments. Easy Rawlins becomes the hero of Mosley’s fifteen novels, a character inspired by Mosley’s father, who reluctantly becomes a private detective over a span of decades that begins in 1948 and continues through the civil rights era and the social upheaval of the ’60s. The film’s plot involves a network of powerful men running the city and state to their own advantage, aided by violent hired hands, and a complete disregard for the needs of the citizenry.
Franklin’s movie had good reviews, but it failed to recoup its budget. The director can vouch for his opinion about the popularity of noir with modern audiences. Even though the studio had optioned all three of Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels in print, the departure of the executives who had overseen the production meant that any chance of sequels was dead in the water. As a result, there should have been at least a half dozen Easy Rawlins films by now if adults spent their money as much as kids.
McGinnis argues that the failure of “Devil in a Blue Dress” was a missed opportunity for African American actors in general and for Denzel Washington, in particular, who had the potential to become DENZEL WASHINGTON. He contends that Washington’s role in the film made him a movie star, but not quite yet a Hollywood icon. By extension, it was a lost opportunity for film adaptations that could have featured African American actors in more prominent roles and for adult-oriented films in general.
The film portrays Easy Rawlins as a reluctant hero, a man whose desire to be left alone by a stacked system is complicated by his ambition for financial comfort and safety for himself and his family. He is admirable and humbly heroic, embodying moral choices even in difficult circumstances. However, Mosley makes it clear that he could not survive the men and the system he was up against without his childhood friend Mouse (Don Cheadle). Mouse is a remorseless killer, but Easy depends on him to eliminate any threat to Easy as long as violence is the solution. As such, he is a hero who embodies moral ambiguity and existential angst.
In conclusion, the missed opportunity of “Devil in a Blue Dress” shows how Hollywood and the film industry continue to miss their mark when it comes to catering to their more mature audiences. Despite its critical acclaim, the failure of the film was a lost opportunity for African American actors to star in adult-oriented movies, a potential additional outlet of powerful storytelling for their unique experiences and perspectives that remains untapped. Similarly, it was a lost opportunity for Hollywood to cater to the tastes of adults who would appreciate the genre’s adult themes and content.
<< photo by Annie Spratt >>
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