José Vadi on Race and Class Politics in The Fugitive
In Conversation with Mychal Denzel Smith on the Open Form Podcast
Welcome to Open Form, a new weekly film podcast hosted by award-winning writer Mychal Denzel Smith. Each week, a different author chooses a movie: a movie they love, a movie they hate, a movie they hate to love. Something nostalgic from their childhood. A brand-new obsession. Something they’ve been dying to talk about for ages and their friends are constantly annoyed by them bringing it up.
In this episode, Mychal talks to José Vadi about the 1993 film The Fugitive, directed by Andrew Davis and starring Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sela Ward.
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From the episode:
José: The benefit of the doubt between [the other fugitive] Coleman and Richard Kimble, even though they end up in the same place, is totally different. It’s insane how much class clouds the local police department’s eyes. It’s just this overwhelmingly driving force that totally precedes race in the case of Richard Kimble. That was always wild to me. There’s also a lot of white-passing elements that Richard Kimble does in the movie. It’s funny, when after he goes through that cave, he dyes his hair black, and on the carton is a Black man. It’s like this odd almost appropriation but not. It’s like he’s going undercover. And like, did he have to go into a weave store to get that product? What did Richard Kimble do? How did he come up on the dye? I really don’t know. But he found it, he did it, and his navigation of space is totally different than someone like Coleman. Coleman goes back to his old neighborhood, get shots, pretty much. Richard Kimble goes back to downtown Chicago and can kind of lurk around for a little bit.
It’s a huge part of the film that is really interesting to think about when you can think about the world of the early 90s. This was released in the summer of 93. You have blockbusters like Jurassic Park coming out around the same time, which is wild to think about. And the next year is O.J., a wealthy black athlete-celebrity accused of murdering two people, one of which is his wife. I’m curious if any of the think pieces at the time came out connecting some of these cultural dots, not that there needed to be one. The LA riots are happening and there’s all this stuff happening in the world that, in the context of a movie, you can kind of forget about.
Mychal: That’s such a good point about the timing of this and what was going on culturally. I didn’t make that connection until you did that for us. And I was like, oh shit, I do wonder how people were thinking about this film and looking at white Richard Kimble/Harrison Ford being a fugitive portrayed on the big screen for millions of people to watch, and then millions of people tuning in to watch the downfall of this celebrated Black athlete in a very similar situation. Though O.J. definitely did it.
José Vadi is an award-winning essayist, poet, playwright, and film producer. Vadi received the San Francisco Foundation’s Shenson Performing Arts Award for his debut play, a eulogy for three, produced by Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Living Word Project. He is the author of SoMa Lurk, a collection of photos and poems published by Project Kalahati / Pro Arts Commons. His work has been featured by the PBS NewsHour, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Daily Beast, while his writing has appeared in Catapult, McSweeney’s, New Life Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review of Books, SFMOMA’s Open Space, and Pop-Up Magazine.