In Defense of Cruelty

NightOfTheHunterIncluded below is part of the Hostis Journal presentation that we gave at the Seattle Anarchist Bookfair last weekend. Expect audio of that talk to made available soon.

“The Night of the Hunter” (1955) fits the bloody mold of a southern gothic family drama in which an eccentric cheat exploits a small West Virginia community stricken by the Great Depression. Self-anointed Reverend Harry Powell is a serial killer that goes town-to-town ‘doing God’s work.’ The film tells the story of Powell’s ill-fated attempt to insinuate himself into the family of an ex-cellmate to find the hidden loot from a bank robbery. On the one hand, Powell’s fiery public sermons win him the respect of the townsfolk, who are eager to be assured that they are on the righteous path. While on the other, young, fatherless John is an unrelenting critic of authority.

Yet “The Night of the Hunter” is just as much a noir as it is a gothic in that it fits the formal definition of film noir as oneiric, strange, ambivalent, erotic, and cruel. Even if does not present any debased detectives walking grimy streets, the film descends into the same bleak sense of doom. The film sees through the false virtues of holy light, and the character’s salvation is achieved only when they inhabit the hell the Reverend preaches against with fire and brimstone. John launches his conspiracy from the attic, lurking in the shadows, staring at the moon. He sews suspicion, but his mother remains blinded by Powell’s promise of God’s holy light. It arrives, but only through the glint of a switchblade.

The mother Willa Harper thus stands in as goodness – pure of heart, full of honest intentions, but ultimately dead. Her fate sealed perfectly by praying to God at the very moment she is killed. Her grace is symbolized by the beautiful white dress that adorns her still body, dumped in a river to sink to its murky depths. It is tempting to associate preacher Powell with evil, but there is a far more powerful source of wickedness – the townspeople. They are pleased to watch John’s dad hang for accidentally killing two men while robbing a bank to feed his starving family. When Powell arrives to pick up where he left off, the townsfolk are all-too-excited to excuse his blatant misogyny because he spoons out religious flattery. Yet when his deception is laid bare, they watch his hanging just as fervently. The moral here is that in the battle between love and hate, a recoding for good and evil, the false preacher promises love. The true path through is altogether different: John’s path depends on obscurity, deviance, uncertainty, coldness, and malice. Neither good nor evil, populism or opportunism, he succeeds by finding another way.

Flash forward to Spike Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” While “Night of the Hunter” painted a world of good and evil, “Do the Right Thing” asks the question of ‘what does it mean to ‘do the right thing,’ especially when that thing is sparking a riot. In the film, Spike Lee re-stages the famous knuckle scene to demonstrate this new world.

Radio Raheem re-tells the story of righthand lefthand, but in it, the conclusion is not a false prophet telling us that good prevailing over evil. There is no golden rule that applies equally to everyone. Instead, Raheem tells us that he divides the world in two: those who loves, he loves; those he hates, he hates. This lesson is at the core of Hostis – we believe that we are in the midst of a civil war. There are two sides: are friends and our enemies. To out friends, we promise our undying conviction. To our enemies, we have nothing but cruelty.

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