Home Video Hovel: Colors, by David Bax
Colors opens with some absolutely terrible rap music. It’s only a taste of what’s to come but at least the later instances don’t also include Damon Wayans’ crackhead freestyling over the lame beat. It’s gallingly bad but the true offense comes a few minutes later, when country music plays over the opening titles, making it clear just whose eyes we’re looking through here. We (by which I mean white people like me) have only recently begun to realize how bad we tend to be at telling stories about black Americans. That awareness doesn’t do Colors any favors; this is a movie in which we are clearly meant to be shocked–shocked!–to find that middle class, law abiding black folks might not trust the police. The movie’s heart was probably in the right place but intentions can only go so far toward excusing something this clumsy and misguided.
Our protagonists—inasmuch as that term applies to a movie with no real narrative or even character journeys to speak of—are two members of the LAPD’s gang task force. Hodges (Robert Duvall) is a veteran with connections and relationships all over the streets he patrols. McGavin (Sean Penn) is newly transferred to the task force and eager to make a name for himself, mostly by busting heads and making as many arrests as possible. Director Dennis Hopper also lets us briefly get to know some of the folks on Hodges and McGavin’s beat, from Maria Conchita Alonso’s food service worker to Trinidad Silva’s high-ranking gangbanger. You get the impression, though, that Hopper thinks this is a much more comprehensive survey of the neighborhood and its inhabitants than it really is.
Hopper does have at least one silver arrow in his quill, though. Famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler brings a tactile, heat-and-dust approach to South Los Angeles (making Colors a spiritual, big city sibling to Wexler’s work on In the Heat of the Night nearly twenty years earlier). His establishing shots, which Hopper lets linger and breathe, lend to the film’s intentionally languid formlessness. When needed, though, he can pull an exciting trick like the camera on the car hood reeling and pointing up at the sky when Hodges and McGavin take a hard turn during a high speed chase.
Unfortunately, it’s still Hopper pulling the strings and he was always an unfocused director; one scene, in which McGavin is very upset that his ex-girlfriend is seeing someone else while he’s standing at a crime scene where a young girl was murdered, is howlingly tone deaf. Hopper seems to be paying the most attention when he gets to indulge his pervy preoccupations; the sex scene between Penn and Alonso goes on for an uncomfortable stretch of time. A film about white cops policing black neighborhoods in our racist society should feel blazingly relevant today. Colors misses the mark to an embarrassing degree.
This Shout! Select Blu-ray release includes an extended edition, with the extra material pulled from a different source than the theatrical footage, so expect some inconsistency in image quality. For the most part, though, the colors—as you would hope—are well represented.
In addition to the unrated cut, the Blu-ray includes an interview with screenwriter Michael Schiffer and one with technical advisor Dennis Fanning, a former member of the real life gang task force.