This blu-ray release includes a wonderfully telling interview with the film’s writer Michael Schiffer in which he talks about being summoned to a producer’s office in order to talk about doing a re-write on a vehicle for the young Sean Penn. Penn explained that he didn’t so much want a re-write as a completely new project, something that would talk about the gangs of Los Angeles in the style of Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic The Battle of Algiers. Despite not having seen The Battle of Algiers in over twenty years and having absolutely no idea about LA’s gang culture, Michael Schiffer decided to bluff his way into the job by rephrasing exactly what it was that he had just been told. Penn and the producer were reportedly impressed and so was born Colors; a film that presents itself as being about the lives of the inner city poor while actually being all about White Dudes, made by White Dudes and for White Dudes.
The influence of The Battle of Algiers is most obvious in the film’s somewhat impressionistic structure. Rather than sticking to genre conventions and presenting the audience with either a mystery to solve or a villain to defeat, Colors is content to nibble away at the edges of a massive social problem, slowly building up an impression of what it might be like to grow up in and around gang culture.
The image the film assembles is as limited as it is unambitious. Having introduced us to the rivalry between the Bloods and the Crips, the film focuses on a small Crip set featuring a young Damon Wayans and a shockingly young Don Cheadle. Rather than trying to engage or humanise the Blood/Crips rivalry, the film swiftly shifts its attention to a much smaller and implausibly multicultural gang lead by Trinidad Silva’s Frog. Frog is the film’s mouthpiece for gang culture and he presents it primarily as a form of civic pride and a means of protecting your neighbourhood from other gangs. In fairness to the character, we do not see Frog’s gang doing much in the way of crime but then (aside from the odd drive-by shooting) the film seems to be labouring under the impression that being in a gang mostly boils down to dancing in alleyways and smoking weed. This film is about fifteen years and a thousand miles from The Wire’s forensic investigation of the drugs trade and while it may have felt ‘clued in’ back in 1988, the release of John Singleton’s Boys n the Hood three years later showed quite how far Hollywood had to go before being able to handle inner city gangs in anything approaching a credible fashion.
Thrust into the middle of this rising tide of listless bouncing up and down to vintage hip hop are Robert Duvall’s nineteen year veteran and Sean Penn’s hot-headed rookie. The film was made at a time when Penn was still trying to establish himself as a serious actor and the decision to cast him opposite a respected veteran like Duvall seems to have been designed to make it look as though Penn were picking up the professional baton. Duvall plays his veteran as a sympathetic but frustrated man who tries to work with communities and make a difference only to wind up threatening children in alleyways. Penn’s performance is technically impressive but completely unbelievable, his character is a thug who revels in his toxic masculinity but while Penn has always been able to convey men of furious intensity, his cop comes across as more of a neurotic oaf than the insecure tough guy he was so obviously aiming for. The film ends with Penn’s character picking up the baton and declaring his commitment to proper community policing but Penn’s character spent the entire film treating Duvall’s with outright contempt and so the conclusion feels overwrought, underserved and cynically careerist in its heavy-handed meta-textual symbolism.
As shocking as Schiffer’s script might have been, much of the blame for the film’s many shortfalls must be laid at the feet of its director, the late Dennis Hopper. Though principally remembered as the Hollywood hell-raiser who created such memorable cinematic monsters as Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth and Speed’s Howard Payne, Hopper was also the writer/director of Easy Rider and one of the most revered figures of the American New Wave up until a ballooning ego and substance abuse problem forced him out of Hollywood and into the relative wilderness of acting in low-budget films that paid him just enough to sustain his ‘heroic’ lifestyle.
Hopper eventually cleaned up his act and worked his way back for another shot at mainstream Hollywood respectability but while he may have been hoping for a conventional film with which to prove his new-found conventional attitudes, Colors’ blend of genre conceit, social conscience and character focus inspired Hopper to create a discordant mess that tries to follow the strictures of several incompatible genres at same time. This is why we have a film with a non-linear plot structure that feeds unconvincingly into a moment of pathos that would have been better served by a traditional three act structure, a film about the horrors of gang violence that includes a number of ridiculously over-the-top action sequences, and a socially conscious message film that side-lines its own message in order to focus on the poorly developed man-pain of two White cops. The Dennis Hopper of Easy Rider might have been able to turn this sprawling mess into something coherent but the Hopper of the late 1980s was simply not up to the task and the films that followed in the wake of Colors were similarly uninspired and unimpressive.
The most frustrating thing about Colors is that when it ceases to be a vehicle for White actors, it actually manages to hit on some really interesting ideas. For example, there is a lovely scene when the local cops meet with the community in order to encourage them to speak out against the violence on their streets and the locals react with amazingly articulate anger about the lack of jobs, the lack of things to do and the lack of viable alternatives for kids who are contemplating joining a gang. Nothing comes of this scene and the cops react as though the locals are being completely unreasonable but listen to what the locals are actually saying and you will hear a critique of American policing that was as relevant then as it is today in the wake of events in both Ferguson and Baltimore. Also impressive is the film’s willingness to depersonalise gang culture by presenting Don Cheadle’s shot-calling Rocket as a totally expendable presence with nothing much to say for himself. When Rocket goes down, he will be replaced and the same will be true of his replacement because gang culture is not the result of a few bad apples but of a society grown so dysfunctional that it cannot help but perpetuate gang-like structures along with the sociopathic individuals required to lend them agency. Poised on the brink of an epiphany, Colors is simply a project that arrived too early and fell into the wrong set of hands.