I am not entirely sure what drove me to watch this film, other than a brief recommendation and a strange curiosity to watch a film that I had only known the existence of for about 10 minutes prior to watching it. Perhaps it was the run-time (clocking in at just less than an hour), or the fact that I have an insatiable love for character-driven stories, as well as the fact that this is a micro-budget film, and I adore independent movies made on a shoe-string. I’m not quite sure what to think about Dutchman and its plethora of themes, but I certainly did love it quite a bit.
Dutchman is set in real-time for the most part – two strangers meet on a train, and over the course of their commute, come to know one another. The one passenger is Clay (Al Freeman Jr.), a middle-class African-American man on his way to a party. The other passenger is Lula (Shirley Knight), a young white woman who clearly has her mind set on something or the other. Right from the outset, it becomes clear that Lula is completely and utterly deranged, and over the course of their commute, she constantly attempts to seduce Clay, all the while demeaning him for his “adoption” of white traits, such as his manner of speaking and his way of dressing. What starts out as a pretty quirky film actually descends into a dauntingly serious dark comedy about race relations in an America that was only just starting to come to the end of the period of segregation.
Dutchman is a film that is based on a play – and I am often very reluctant with films that are based on plays because they can sometimes be very good, but often can just seem like they are filmed versions of the play. I can safely say that Dutchman strikes me as something that was well-aware of the challenges of adapting a play to the big screen, and it rises up to the challenge. It may not depart its theatrical roots at all – the action is limited to the train compartment throughout, never changing location – but this is precisely the charm of Dutchman – it fully embraces its theatricality, and while many others films based on plays failed because they didn’t explore the true scope of what is possible in film (looking at you, Denzel Washington’s adaptation of Fences). Dutchman was intended to be a smaller film, and it succeeded in capturing exactly what it intended to.
Perhaps the biggest challenge surrounding a play like Dutchman, in terms of adapting it, is the fact that there are only two characters in the story. It isn’t common in most films to have an entire film take place with only two characters in it – but then again, Dutchman isn’t most films. What worked well in a theater might not work well on film – but somehow, director Anthony Harvey managed to pull it off. The result was a film that explored these two characters and developed them far beyond what we normally see – much like Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy, the focus being on two characters allowed for us to delve deeply into their worlds, and the combination of strong performances and a solid script (which was adapted for the film by Amiri Baraka, who wrote the play) provides us with the necessary characterization to make Dutchman one of the best character-driven films of the 1960s.
It is difficult to differentiate between theater and cinema with a film like Dutchman, but one aspect that this film succeeds in doing as well as a play is how it brings out great performances. A film can sometimes hide a lack of good writing and some lacking performances by directorial prowess and innovation – but there is absolutely none of that here in Dutchman – this film, like a play, relies entirely on the script, but that script means nothing if the actors are not capable of bringing out these characters and making them believable. Luckily, the two leads in Dutchman were absolutely outstanding and carved out characters that were not only scarily believable but also incredibly fascinating.
Shirley Knight was quite an actress, having given a variety of strong performances over the years. While she may not be massively recognizable by today’s standards, she was still very impressive in quite a few films. Dutchman showed the world an entirely new side to the actress. I wonder why Dutchman has not received far more recognition, purely for the fact that if it did, Shirley Knight’s performance as Lula would surely enter into the canon of great villain performances. Unlike most traditional film antagonists, who are outwardly sinister in appearance and personality, Knight plays a very different kind of villain – equally as evil, but coming in the package of being a young and attractive woman with seductive charms and undeniable beauty, which hide her deeply malicious prejudices, and allow her to continue her exploitation of others by using her appearance to gain their trust. The most terrifying thing about Knight’s character is that Lula doesn’t have any motivation at all – she seems to simply enjoy both seducing and demeaning these men who she sees as being below her – and as the end of the film implies, the events between Lula and Clay don’t seem to be a one-time situation, but rather something Lula does constantly as something amusing to her.
Al Freeman Jr, on the other hand, gives an opposing performance, one that is far more subtle, but no less impressive. Pretty much dormant and dignified for most of this film, Freeman plays Clay as a dignified, honest young man who has no intentions in life other than to make it through without causing too much trouble – and we start to feel sorry for Clay, having such a despicable woman as Lula thrust into his life. He doesn’t fall for her charms, as much as he is tempted to. This results in a gradual deterioration of his composure, leading to a breakdown that sent chills down my spine. Freeman brings out the true terror of reality in his final speech, and it was both disturbing and utterly truthful. The final moments between Lula and Clay are some of the tensest I’ve seen, and Clay’s tragic ending is so poignant and dark, it is impossible to ignore the grand scope of his performance.
Dutchman is a film that was made over fifty years ago but somehow remains eerily relevant to this day. It is a film based on a play rooted in anger and disillusionment, and those themes, unfortunately, have remained around the world today. I will not deny that Dutchman is a film that doesn’t once attempt to hide its overly social and political themes – and that is precisely what makes Dutchman such a striking piece of art. It doesn’t try to be politically correct – Baraka clearly had quite a bit to say about the state of race-relations in the United States, and he certainly made sure to make his thoughts heard here. Dutchman is a moving film that does try to make statements that change needs to be made – but rather than being traditionally emotionally moving through sadness, it stirs up feelings of unbridled rage – this is a film that takes the spirit of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers and their ideologies of armed resistance and violence into account, and Baraka makes it clear as to what he believes. This is a form of protest art that needs to be made, and continue to be made – Dutchman is a harsh film that takes on themes that are often fearfully difficult to handle, but rightfully help create some form of awareness as to the plight of many in society. Dutchman is a film that seems far too relevant in the modern age, and I highly suggest it makes a comeback in light of the rising social and political climate around the world today, where these issues are still present.
Dutchman is a very small film with incredible gargantuan intentions. It may appear to be simply an attempt to present a play to a wider audience – and that may be true. But the play that is being presented to the wide audience is a truly important piece of theater that deserves to be experienced. It is only made more impressive by the fact that the only two actors in this film give dedicated, emotionally-rich performances, and interpret these characters as fully-realized creations that the audience can understand as being based on reality, rather than being merely theatrical figures. Dutchman is a very important film, and one that I hope will be discovered and experienced by new audiences today, where issues such as the ones presented in this film are still discussed and the cause of far too much conflict than is really acceptable at this point. I highly suggest Dutchman, not only because it is an important film, but also because it is a great one.