The Dirty Dozen is a 1967 blockbuster that foreshadows the challenge faced by the recent release of Marvel’s Black Panther. How can a film toe the company line while, at the same time, appear to push the cultural envelope?
Directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Lee Marvin, “The Dirty Dozen is a special-mission movie that takes the motley-band-of-antiheroes premise into dark territory,” writes Mark Harris in an essay for Film Comment called Cinema 67. These fictional anti-heroes were recruited for a suicide mission to execute German brass. Rapists and murderers, they were sentenced to either hard labor or the death penalty, a plot detail offensive to both viewers and potential cast members, according to Harris. John Wayne as well as Jack Palance passed on roles for that reason.
Aldrich ended up hiring Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, and Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, among others. “Notably, (Brown is) the only member of the “dirty dozen” who is revealed as essentially innocent, in a piece of dialogue in which he explains that he was convicted for fighting back against some “cracker bastards” who were trying to castrate him,” Harris continues.
“You had considerable justification,” Marvin tells Brown and, also, presumably, the audience.
Critics of the day were shocked by the high level of violence. Pauline Kael of the New Yorker writes, ““I think that the violence in The Dirty Dozen, … should…be legally defensible, however morally questionable.” With the passage of time, however, the violence pales in significance, but two other facts stand out in stark contrast.
First, no black movie hero had ever been allowed to kill as large a number of whites as Brown did when he lobs grenades at German officers, causing a conflagration reminiscent of napalm use in Vietnam. Second, as part of his filmic arc, Brown goes through all the stations of the cross of the Token Black Character.
Hazed by the obligatory racist, played by Cassavetes? Check. Killed the creep, played by Savalas, who abused a German woman, even though said creep is on his side? Check. Wins over his at-first doubtful colleagues with Magic Negro derring-do under fire? Check, check and check.
It’s nearly impossible for a modern viewer to grok just how jarring a black man working toward a common goal in equality with white characters would have seemed to audiences of that period. One textual purpose of the Token Black Character was to create precisely that audience shock, to demonstrate and model what “progress” had been made, and, of course, to a lesser degree, to monetize black moviegoers by giving them someone to whom they could relate, while avoiding making race the center of the narrative.
However, like a tax charged for daring to dream of freedom, thus upsetting The Way Things Are, Token Black Characters always die first.
I should define here what I mean by the term token. Merriam-Webster defines tokenism as “the policy or practice of only making a symbolic effort.” Wikipedia’s entry reads, “Writers also use the token character to pay lip service to the rules … by including a token ethnic-minority character who has no narrative function in the plot.” That is not the sense in which I use the term.
Rather, I consider Brown a token because his mere existence onscreen was a dire threat to the values of expected audiences for a World War II epic circa 1967; and also because, at that time and in that place, he represented the upper possibility space of human potential. Compared to his sedentary cinematic peers, he was a man of uncommon beauty and formidable physical power. Every second he’s on screen, it’s clear that, in reality, he could, at will, defeat his fellow characters as well as most audience members in close quarters combat.
When I was a kid, The Dirty Dozen was standard fare during holiday family gatherings. Brown’s fatal attempt to outrun the German machine guns would always get big laughs from us. We’d cheer him on, yelling, “Make it Jim, make it, make it, make it,” while his white comrades furrowed their brows and tried to look hopeful.
And each time we watched it, Brown would get murked. But we cheered anyway, though we knew he was just going to do the bullet ballet once again. Maybe it was gallows humor. Maybe we knew he had been a track star in college and was one of the best running backs of his generation. Either way, watching him fail at something at which he was stellar seemed so fake as to be funny.
No matter why we laughed, from an esoteric perspective, his athletic provenance made his eventual demise all the more effective as a warning to black people who dare ask too much of this world. Sure, in reality, Brown might slip past defenders on the gridiron with deceptive ease. But in cinematic reality, blacks who dared attempt what he did always got killed.
The Black Dude Who Dies First is such a traditional element in American horror movies of the 70s and 80s that there are numerous studies dedicated to the trope. But the phenomenon was not limited to the horror genre. Early in his career, Dennis Haysbert was the first to die twice. Once, in the Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro actioner Heat, and then again in the Charlie Sheen vehicle, Navy Seals. This was long before he became famous as the black president on the television series 24. In Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Morgan Freeman was the first to go. Jim Kelly was number one to get his ticket punched in Enter The Dragon. Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket saw Dorian Harewood get KIA before anyone else. And let’s not forget Aliens, in which Ricco Frost is the marine who goes up in flames.
Which brings us to Black Panther. In addition to being one of the most profitable movies in history, it’s proof of Disney’s new “woke” status. Preceded by Pocahontas (let’s ignore its whitewashing of history for now), MuLan, Moana, and most notably, Queen of Katwe, about a Ugandan girl with a penchant for chess, the home of the clearly problematic Mickey Mouse has changed its tune from years past.
They used to be known for movies like Fantasia, which featured darker centaurs who worked for the paler ones;
or DUMBO, with its murder of crows who speak what once was called “jive,” but is now described as a subset of African American Vernacular English; and Songs of the South, which just cuts to the chase with a slave who sings and tells stories while “at work.” That was the Disney of yore.
But even the new and woke Disney won’t spend $200 million dollars on a tale about a secret, super-wealthy, fictional African kingdom with superior technology and fearsome, beautiful warriors if said fictional kingdom in the third act plans to liberate the world’s oppressed people via a global revolution. Sure, they’ll drop the megabucks to pay for the secret kingdom sets, the marvelous actors, the dope armored suits and and all the CGI goodness, but even the new and more progressive Disney has its limits.
Which means that even a fictional vision of a radically transformed future in which oppressed people are freed by the direct action of a technologically advanced army of black warriors is too threatening to the values of today’s audience.
That is why, in Black Panther’s final scenes you see the same mandatory concession to The Way Things Are that we saw in Brown’s Dirty Dozen denouement. Brown’s Token Black Character is dispatched to his rightful place as martyred symbol by German bullets. Black Panther’s Token Black Character, Killmonger, is hastened to his final destination by a reluctant T’Challa.
And don’t sleep on the textual bait and switch inherent in the Fabulous Black Universe presented by Black Panther. The bait is that such a Fabulous Black Universe is some kind of subversive challenge. Nothing could be further from the truth. The world has long wanted to see more of the sort of melanated beauty and talent presented on screen, prognostications of Hollywood gatekeepers notwithstanding. Presenting them in such large numbers may seem avant garde, but, as the boffo box office demonstrates, it’s more like preaching to a global choir of eager and repeat customers.
As with The Dirty Dozen, the term token as used here is not so much a function of mere chromatics. Rather, it’s a testament to how threatening Killmonger is to audience values. People all over the world love the galaxy of beautiful blacks of all ages and shades who march across the screen. But they are triggered and threatened by the deeds of Killmonger who would dare use violence to uproot the status quo, no matter how ersatz it may actually be.
Whereas Brown did his stations of the cross as the Token Black Character from the past, Killmonger duels and plots as the Token Black Character from the future. And yet, the same infernal logic dooms both of them.
The Dirty Dozen and the Black Panther, though decades apart, are sculpted from the same possibility space. All the special effects and all the pride moments in the world could not put the artificial display of potential futures back together again.
Killmonger’s brutal practicality and casual violence even across gender lines are his visual indictment, representative of values we might, at best, call revolutionary, values which seal his fate. Brown’s dispatch of rapist Savalas and incineration of over a dozen Wehrmacht brass seals his fate. T’Challa’s reluctant victory over Killmonger, like the furrowed brow of regret on Lee Marvin’s face when Brown gets his high caliber heave ho, is the triumph of another set of values we might call respectability. T’Challa’s win demonstrates that film’s tacit support for a more unity-driven and predictable future. As was true in The Dirty Dozen, in order for The Way Things Are to continue, the Black Dude Who Dared must die.
Killmonger dies for conspiring to free others. Brown dies for conspiring to be free.
In both cases, Forces That Are Bigger Than You and Me lean into the cinematic frame to restore order. The Token Black Character of the past must not be conflated with the fictional end of racism that might be inferred were he to survive, and, presumably, return to the States with his buddies to get the promised pardon for a job well done. Maybe he finds an apartment, perhaps in Chicago, or Brooklyn, and then what? Now you have this super strong black guy who just ghosted over a dozen German high command sitting next to your daughter on the bus? It’s 1967 for chrissakes!
And The Token Black Character of the future must not be mistaken for the eventual end of global oppression that might be implied were he to survive and thus still be able to conspire against the fat cats with his armored suits, ramped up strength, specialized aircraft and super strong metal. Global stability means jobs and security, which is more important than freedom.
Brown’s white comrades are the heralds of The Way Things Are. As they mourn his passing, they grant him, in death, the respect he could never get in life. T’Challa does the honors in Black Panther, dropping noble nostrums, symbolically hopeful, but realistically, about as threatening as a very handsome and yoked poodle.
Whether as the only black character, or as part of a symphony of blacks on screen, the message of both films is the same. Token Black Characters who dare to dream of freedom must die.