I have immense respect for Denzel Washington and his acting chops. It doesn’t hurt that he is a particularly gorgeous black man.
The last thing I saw him in was August Wilson’s Fences (2016) starring opposite Viola Davis. Then I learned that he had bought the rights to all of Wilson’s plays. So when I saw him speak about the film version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), a masterpiece also starring Davis, my respect for the man and his work only grew.
When I saw that he was starring in a new release, The Little Things (2021), I jumped at the chance to see him in action again.
First, I’ll admit, I haven’t seen much of Washington’s more popular work. So, it’s quite possible that the atrocity that I saw unfold on screen in The Little Things is not an anomaly—perhaps someone can tell me.
The Little Things is a kind of police thriller, centering Washington as the protagonist, Sheriff Joe Deacon, who is seemingly haunted by the unsolved serial murders of several women years before. The film takes place in 1990 when the murders have started again. Deacon joins forces with detective Jim Baxter to solve the crimes.
The two set their sights on a local creep, Albert Sparma, who spends his free time following unsolved crimes, occasionally confessing to them.
The pair are like dogs with a bone, so focused they are on Sparma as the culprit that they ignore any evidence to the contrary.
I couldn’t agree more with Matt Goldberg who, in his review, places the film in a larger context, as it should be. Films are not made in isolation. There are reasons that certain years and places are chosen. Whether the director, John Lee Hancock, was conscious of his decisions or not, his choices are bold slaps in the face to those of us who are all too familiar with the way these kinds of things play out and at whose expense.
As Goldberg observes about the plot, “The problem is that the film is too sympathetic towards Deke and Baxter. Ultimately, they are the film’s heroes, and when they cross that line of doing an evil thing, the film gives them a cop-out by showing that Deke’s shooting was accidental and Sparma basically had it coming by taunting a guy who was already primed to kill him.”
Again, the film is set in 1990. By doing so, perhaps Hancock hoped to avoid dealing with current events, but again, as Goldberg reminds us, “these events have sadly always been current. Rodney King was beaten by LAPD officers in March 1991, five months after the events of The Little Things, and it’s not like King was the first person ever assaulted by the police who then got away with their crimes. Creating a narrative about how cops commit crimes in the name of personal closure and then feel kind of guilty about it afterwards is letting powerful people off the hook. While it is possible to thread this needle of cops melting down in their search for answers…The Little Things comes off as kind of tone-deaf. It’s one thing to ponder the inner lives of your officers, but Hancock ultimately turns a blind eye towards what these cover ups do to a society.”
Reflecting on The Little Things, I was reminded of another cop film that I recently watched: Monsters and Men (2018) which, using the Eric Garner murder as inspiration, explores the fates of three men of color, Manny, Dennis, and Zyrick, who take different paths to resolution in the aftermath of the police murder of a local man, Darius Larsen.
Monsters’ director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, tries to take a nuanced approach to the choices that people make when faced with an impossible situation. The thing that I left that film with, however, was the question of why it is always people of color who must bear the burden of “doing the right thing.”
Manny’s life is pretty much ruined by the two white cops who are responsible for the murder of Darius, and who are free to continue with their “bad apple” behavior of harassing black men who are simply trying to live their lives.
Zyrick is willing to sacrifice his chance at the baseball majors to stand up for justice.
Dennis chooses to place himself squarely behind the blue wall because he has a lot to lose if he decides to do otherwise.
Again, the film attempts some nuance. But again, my question remains. Larsen, who served in the military, is dead and blamed for his own murder, while the “bad apple” trope is trotted out as if the whole freaking bushel is not rotten to the core.
Similarly, in The Little Things, Sparma had it coming. How dare he taunt a cop who has a wife and two girls and who “only wants to do the right thing:” find the depraved murderer of women?
But, it seems clear to me that the only things Sparma’s guilty of are being poor, alone, and morbidly fascinated with unsolved crimes.
Conversely, both Deacon and Baxter are portrayed as good cops who accidentally did bad things.
And since Sparma is white, then it can’t be about race, right?
And since Deacon is black and gets his foible covered up by a white man and a black woman it really can’t be about race, right?
Actually, what this casting does is again, point to the corruption of the whole system while playing into the hands of those who would argue that there is no problem of race in the (in)justice system.
The danger in this kind of move is that, as we have seen again and again, if it is not checked, the truth gets rewritten in the American imagination, while the reality remains ignored.
I’m surprised and really disappointed that Washington let himself be used in this way.