The B-Movie Power of “Bushwick” in the Wake of Charlottesville

This article originally appeared on this site.

Some films have all the luck. The première of “Casablanca” took place on November 26, 1942. Less than three weeks before, as part of Operation Torch, Allied forces commanded by George S. Patton had landed on the Western beaches of French North Africa, and the city of Casablanca had surrendered to Patton by November 11th. With the movie already in the can, nobody at Warner Bros. was going to let the opportunity slip; hence the one-off screening, at the Hollywood Theatre, in New York. Not until January 23, 1943, did “Casablanca” go on general release, and guess what? It just so happened to dovetail with the conclusion of the Casablanca Conference, which brought together Churchill, Roosevelt, and de Gaulle and resulted in the Casablanca Declaration, demanding unconditional surrender from the Allies’ foes. Imagine working in the publicity department at Warners during that blessed period, as the word “Casablanca” kept springing forth like magic. You could put your feet up, pour another drink, and let the great world do your job.

“Bushwick,” a new film directed by Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott, is no “Casablanca.” Instead of Ingrid Bergman, it has Brittany Snow. For Humphrey Bogart, read Dave Bautista. There is no Claude Rains figure to patrol the margins of the action, pricking the romance with drollery. Not once does anybody bellow out the “Marseillaise.” And yet “Bushwick” shares one solid advantage with the story of Rick and Ilse: both movies have timing on their side. In the wake of the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12th, and of the unrest that ensued, many feared that the strife could be repeated elsewhere, and that the conditions may be in place for a wider conflict. My colleague Robin Wright wrote a sobering article titled “Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?,” in which one expert, at the State Department, estimates that “the United States faces a sixty-per-cent chance of civil war over the next ten to fifteen years.” Right on cue, as if in response to that forewarning, here comes “Bushwick.”

Snow plays Lucy, who takes the subway to Bushwick with her boyfriend. When they arrive, the station seems oddly deserted. They talk about the prospect of his meeting her family, then they kiss. At this point, if you’re like me, you automatically adopt the Brooklyn Brace Position, refined in the course of many movies and TV series, and essential if one is to survive any lightly amusing yet acutely perceptive drama about relationships and personal growth. Whereupon, as Lucy and her beau approach the stairway to exit the station, a man staggers toward them, screaming, and wreathed in flames. Oh, it’s that kind of movie. Panic over.

Soon, we are on the street. The boyfriend is out of the picture. Lucy is on her own—dressed in a red coat, and off to visit her grandmother, though this is a hectic breed of fairy tale. People are being shot at in public. Snipers fire from the rooftops. Men in black uniforms approach Lucy, pin her down, and cuff her, only to be gunned down from a passing car. Who were they? If they were law enforcement, what has she done? If they were criminals, what was their plan, and how many of them are still out there? One virtue of “Bushwick” is how long it takes to explain the situation, content to leave us in befuddled suspense; we’re not even sure who the good guys are, or whom we should be rooting for. Lucy takes refuge in a basement, only to be cornered by a couple of thugs, yet they are not the enemy, it seems, so much as opportunists cashing in on the chaos that the enemy has unleashed. And they, in turn, are neutralized by the owner of the basement—a janitor named Stupe (Dave Bautista), who was once a marine and is as mystified as Lucy is by the rumpus outside. On the basis that he has a weapon, a range of medical skills, and the constitution of a well-nourished rhino, Lucy decides to tag along with Stupe, as they beat a path, block by block, to what they hope is a zone of safety. And that, pretty much, is the story of “Bushwick.”

Not until fifty minutes have elapsed, past the halfway point of the film, is any light shed on the nature of the battle. Stupe, Lucy, and her sister Belinda (Angelic Zambrana), who is almost too stoned to notice that there is a battle, capture one of the men in black, rough him up, pull off his hood, and put the obvious questions to him. Stupe, to start:

“You speak English? Where are you from?

“Kentucky, Sir.”

“You’re an American. What the fuck is going on?”

“Texas is seceding from the United States.”

“Bullshit.”

“By the order of the Fathers of the New American Coalition, we are a united force with the goal of establishing an independent nation, free from government tyranny, and the right to live our lives the true American way.”

“Yeah, that makes perfect fucking sense.”

“Sir?”

“Who’s we?”

“Texas, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Georgia are with us. Parts of Maryland and Pennsylvania are on the brink.”

There follows a gratifying exchange, as the man in black admits that Bushwick has been a problem for him and his fellow-combatants: “We didn’t anticipate so much resistance,” he says. And why? “Ethnic diversity,” he suggests. Belinda, fully awake by now, is on his case. “You think that because there’s so many minorities in Brooklyn that we won’t fight back? How’s that working out for you?” she asks. This is one of the rare spots of comedy in the film, matched by the unusual sight of Orthodox Jews toting rifles and throwing Molotov cocktails in an alleyway: something you might expect to witness in a Mel Brooks movie, but seldom elsewhere. The levity doesn’t last, however, because we learn that the invaders, riled by the resistance, have been issued a fresh command: shoot to kill.

To sum up, the man in black—a pale redhead, barely more than a kid—is not an alien species, a Russian, or an ISIS recruit; he just wants to take back America. Asked about the next stage in the rebels’ plans, he says that they will “force Congress to ratify the secession,” and—you’ll love this—“wait for the President to fold.” When the movie was first dreamed up and scripted, did anyone pause to wonder if the occupant of the White House, in August, 2017, might not need to fold? Might he not, perhaps, prefer to argue that the Fathers of the New American Coalition are “not all bad,” and point out that, to be fair, there has been violence on both sides? In short, would it be chastening to make Donald Trump sit down with a bucket of popcorn and watch “Bushwick,” by way of a cautionary tale? Or would it only give him ideas?

All of which, many viewers will feel, is far too heavy a burden to lay on a movie like this, with its so-so acting, its cruddy special effects, and the daftness that threatens the narrative at every turn. Yet B-movies (and that is what “Bushwick” is, without a doubt) have a peculiar habit of worming under the cultural skin. They stick around and fester, and the best of them can, over the years, reveal something of the lurking anxieties with which a given era is infected—a revelation often denied to grander spectacles. For a prime example, wait for October 13th, when a restored version of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” opens at Film Forum and then rolls out, like a zombie invasion, across the land. (Again, right movie, right time.) That gnawing film, first released in 1968, with an African-American actor, Duane Jones, in the leading role, does not end with anything resembling happiness, and the same is true of “Bushwick,” which—not to give away the plot—succumbs to a kind of exhausted desperation. I saw it a few months back, and again this week, and despite its shortcomings it has stayed with me in a way that “Detroit,” say, with its impeccable research and its earnest moral intent, has not. Sometimes you want to go to the movies for a midnight buzz, and for the smack of cheap thrills. And sometimes, as with “Bushwick,” the thrills cut close to home.