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Devil in a Blue Dress (1995); And Race Relations in America

December 31, 2014

dinbldA dame on the run, a secret uncovered, a politician desperate to keep it under wraps, a man looking for extra cash, a warm summer night in 1948. Carl Franklin’s Devil In a Blue Dress perfectly concocts these elements to create a sultry neo-noir filled with thrills and a few laughs on top of brimming social commentary. Franklin forgoes the dark shadows and smoky haze of noir films, substituting vibrant colors and quick cuts that jump through space and time to make Devil in a Blue Dress one of the more impressive neo-noirs in its genre.

Denzel Washington stars as Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins who is propositioned by DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) to find a missing white woman. Not just any white woman, but the fiancée of a famed politician in the mist of running for reelection. Ezekiel is aware of the problems that can ensue from inquiring around town about a white lady, but the seemingly easy money that DeWitt gives him helps ease his mind, especially after just being let go from his job. With the help of an old friend, Mouse (Don Cheadle), Ezekiel begins his detecting and soon finds more trouble than he bargained for. Jennifer Beals emerges as the film’s femme fatale, embellished in powder blue dresses and a thick, smoldering grin that leads to the unraveling of the story.

The relationship between femme fatale and private dick is only momentarily played upon. Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson took insurance salesman Walter Neff for a ride in a world wind romance in which she used her body to lure him to kill her husband. But Beals’s character Daphne is a much different fatale whose tragic nature is rooted in African American tropes throughout cinematic history. The aura of Daphne, as spoken of by characters in the film, plays up her sexuality and mystique so that when we finally meet her we’re almost as breathless as Ezekiel. Yet, Beal takes a different approach to her role as a femme fatale. She exudes a softness and seriousness. She’s a woman in search of something important rather than luring men to get her way thus making her situation and danger all the more tragic.


Noirs are known for their stylized use of guns that pop and hit its targets, who in turn grab at their wounds and dramatically falter to the ground in demise. Franklin allows the shot of gun to do more damage that its gangster film counterparts. Here guns have the power to interrogate foes with a hole in the shoulder or take life through a protrusion in the gut that renders crawling away a near impossible task. Guns have the power to blow a hole in a throat resulting in gurgles for help. Their power is as menacing as they are in real life making miniscule moments in which Mouse drunkenly threatens to use his gun a chill inducing scene.

Devil in a Blue Dress ventures into almost buddy comedy territory with the arrival of Mouse who is brilliantly played by Cheadle. A rough neck, trigger-happy crook looking to make a dollar and take a life at any point, Cheadle gives Mouse’s fearsome role a slapstick humorous side. It’s a pleasure to watch Cheadle and Washington share the screen playing off each other with brilliant ease. Tom Sizemore also does wonders in his role prompting fear at his cold, callous nature and business savvy gumption. Victoria Thomas’ casting calls for great moments of tears, fears, and laughter all throughout Devil in a Blue Dress making for a film that’s enjoyable at every twist and turn.


Through a prism routed in noir, Devil in a Blue Dress produces a variant, colorful spectrum of activity. The undercurrent, yet undeniably most important aspect of Devil in a Blue Dress, is its look at race relations throughout time. Ezekiel is put into a corner when he’s asked to find a white woman, a task that proves deadly being a black man in the 1940s. Franklin takes great pains to showcase the lack of respect administered towards blacks during the time and how social norms advocated racial inequality among the collective consciousness. Though blacks could own their own homes, as Ezekiel so proudly does, or own their own businesses, they still ran the risk of police harassment, unjustified arrests and playing the scapegoat to crimes for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A more telling scene is when Ezekiel awaits the arrival of DeWitt. While looking over a rail a young white woman sparks a conversation with Ezekiel. Through shifty eyes and shuffling feet that attempts to distance himself from the girl, Ezekiel tries to stay friendly but cuts conversation short in fear that he will be seen talking to her. A homeowner who served the country in WWII, Ezekiel must still fear the repercussions of his follow man and does so when the girl’s friends spot the two together and immediately ostracize him for talking to her. He attempts to free himself assuring them that he was only being a gentleman, but of course his words go unheard and the threat of violence soon ensues.


Franklin’s tale came a few years on the heels of the Rodney King beating in which Americans were confronted with the reality of police brutality due to video evidence, an element still present in America. Likewise, though Devil in a Blue Dress tells the story of a society marred by inequality of both race and gender, it’s time of filming still upheld its relevancy coming full circle to almost 10 years later where it’s even more relevant in the wake of issues rising from Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

Ezekiel must battle the ever-present reality of getting brought in by policemen equipped with a barrage of fists and threats of death just because he’s a black man who walked outside of his door. When he walks the streets at night nursing a head wound brought on by cops, a car stops him in his tracks for a talk. Use to the harassment he appears almost immune telling the car he doesn’t have the time and continually shifting his path to walk away. His attitude towards the harassment resembles that of the countless black men in the videos capturing unjust violence against them. Pleas from men who are tired of being harassed by authoritie, further showing how the problems between authorities of the white elite and minorities still has a long way to go before it’s solved.

SEE IT. And contemplate the race issues that still exist and be a part of its change and solution.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2015 8:07 AM

    Great review! Such a slept-on Denzel classic and easily one of my favourites of his! You’d never guess it was a 90’s flick given that it has so many elements of classic noir. Roll on Easy Rawlins!

    • January 2, 2015 9:16 AM

      Thank you so much for the comment and follow! Yeah it’s crazy how underrated it is since its a genuinely well made film. Don Cheadle and Denzel make it a classic too!

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