I thought this question – is Inside Man a “Black film”? – that was raised in class on Thursday, is one worth thinking about.
Lee locates the action of Inside Man squarely in a post-9/11 America, and as with Do the Right Thing the wider social reality that the characters live in is signaled by what is in the background.
This environment is also home to the new racial landscape of the 21st century. For a Spike Lee movie that is supposedly not about race, one racially-charged incident in particular stands out. A worker in the bank, Vikram Walia, is one of the earliest hostages to be released. As soon as his mask is removed, however, he is met with instinctive suspicion and fear by the police officer with a rifle trained on him:
“Oh shit, a fucking Arab!” – even as he is a hostage, even as his hands are tied behind his back, even as he is, in fact, a Sikh American, Vikram is visually typed, by his turban and beard, as a Muslim terrorist who inspires fear. Almost immediately, Vikram is tackled to the ground, and his turban, which he wears for religious reasons, is stripped off and taken from him. He later talks with Frazier and the other detectives, and insists on speaking up about his anger at being racially profiled and roughed up, not just in this case, but on a regular basis.
At this point, of course, his turban still has not been returned to him. Frazier makes a joke that despite being the frequently victim in incidents of misidentified Islamophobia, “I bet you can get a cab, though,” a reference to South Asians in New York and other cities who are thought of as stereotypically taxi drivers by occupation.
I think of this critical, overtly racist incident as what makes Inside Man a “Black film,” and more specifically a Black film that is historically placed right in between 9/11 and Ferguson. Vikram Walia’s profiling represents the “new” racism of the post-9/11 era, a signal that this new America might not quite be “post-racial,” but it seems to be a situation that seems to be popularly described as moving “beyond Black and white.”
Lee’s point in Inside Man is that even as we think about how race and racism is different in the 21st century, we should also think about how, in some ways, it has not changed at all. To be sure, Islamophobic violence is an attention-grabbing spectacle, yet at the same time the spectre of anti-Blackness still lurks in the background, in small moments, and in familiar ways that many Americans feel they can simply ignore.
This is still an America in which an unnamed Black security guard is still reasonably terrified of having to get onto a police bus for no apparent reason:
It is still an America where Frazier can suggest to a bank robber that his fate once he’s caught is “taking a shower with two guys named Jamal and Jesus, if you know what I mean” – prison sexual assault where those incarcerated are prototypically Black and brown:
Finally, it is still an America where the real “inside man” might be the man inside the home Frazier returns to at the end of the film, his partner’s “lowlife brother,” a high school dropout who, according to Frazier, seems destined for nothing but life as a criminal. The brother has no lines in the film. He seems unable to speak for himself. But he is still there.