Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Adapted from a 1964 play by LeRoi Jones (later called Amiri Baraka), 1966's Dutchman is a film so distinctly of its time that it can't help but look hopelessly dated 34 years later. A powder-keg of hot-button issues (interracial relationships, feminism, slavery, lynching, the Holocaust, self-hatred, assimilation) addressed with zero delicacy, Dutchman stars Shirley Knight as an allegorical construct masquerading as an unhinged, sexually bold young white woman. Al Freeman Jr. (Malcolm X) co-stars as Knight's ideological opposite and verbal sparring partner, an uptight, conservative black man who has the misfortune of sharing a subway car with her one doomed night. Knight comes onto Freeman, retreats, berates him, calls his manhood into question, and, in a not-so-subtle bit of symbolism, teasingly offers him an apple. Late in the film, the pair undergoes a predictable role reversal, as a particularly over-the-top Knight tantrum—which involves dry-humping a pole, gyrating like a possessed go-go dancer, and screaming incoherently—prompts Freeman to abandon his carefully crafted veneer of bourgeois respectability and explode into anger and hatred. Written during the height of the Civil Rights movement, Dutchman is a talky, heavy-handed allegory that nevertheless works at times. Never a subtle performer, Knight gives an embarrassingly theatrical performance, a tour-de-force of histrionics that only underlines the pretentious, feverishly overwritten nature of Jones' script. Freeman fares far better, nimbly handling the symbolic baggage of his repressed martyr while delivering rambling, beat-inspired monologues with conviction and authority. The film proves similarly inconsistent, alternating brief stretches of compelling drama with laughable explosions of borderline hysteria, with Knight's marathon freak-out serving as a nadir for a movie full of unintentionally funny moments. Jones/Baraka no doubt conceived Knight's character as a symbol of schizoid white society in all its seductive, cruel duplicity, but she behaves more like a flaky Tennessee Williams vixen after a few hits of bad acid. Dutchman never quite recovers, though its silly, ham-fisted provocation inspires a certain train-wreck fascination.