Can L.A. Finally Forget the Fatalism of Chinatown?

A UCLA Historian Offers a New Narrative for a City That’s Defined Itself by Its Injustice, Violence, and Corruption

Can L.A. Finally Forget the Fatalism of Chinatown? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

UCLA historian Kelly Lytle Hernández writes a path to a post-Chinatown Los Angeles. Screenshot from Chinatown (1974).

A mother, seeking to protect her daughter and herself, fires a gunshot toward her abusive father, and then flees by car. Los Angeles police, on the scene but in no danger, open fire on the departing vehicle, killing the mother.

Her unnecessary death is more than a tragedy, or another instance of bad judgment by the cops. Her shooting has become an all-but-official emblem of California’s most populous city.

That’s because it’s the celebrated final scene of the 1974 film Chinatown.

Every American municipality has suffered from police or state violence, and most cities cope by ignoring or forgetting such sins against their own citizens. But Los Angeles’ relationship with such violence is entirely different. Our city has long embraced, through culture and image, its own history of police corruption and official violence.

While examples of this perverse embrace are legion, from the fictions of films like L.A. Confidential to the reality of the Rodney King video, few documents have maintained so long a hold on Angelenos as Chinatown. In the latest chapter, this month Ben Affleck was tapped to direct a film version of author Sam Wasson’s latest book, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, about the making of Chinatown and especially, the filming of that ending.

That final scene’s famous coda—“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”—warned private detective Jake Gittes, the victim’s lover, not to protest the police execution he’d just witnessed. Ever since, that same phrase has been aimed at Angelenos naïve enough to seek justice in a town so thoroughly unjust.

But after months of protests for social justice and against police misconduct across Southern California and around the world, that cinematic warning needs reconsideration. By constantly reproducing our official horrors as news and entertainment, have we Angelenos shed the light on police abuses, or merely embedded them more deeply in our region’s collective sense of identity? When you cling so long to the most toxic of your local realities, can you ever let them go?

That’s why achieving true justice will be so much harder here. For Los Angeles, ending racism and police abuse demands more than the transformation of governance systems—it requires forging a new sense of identity, free of the cynicism and powerlessness embodied in that Chinatown ending.

That, in turn, requires a new narrative of Los Angeles. And the best attempt at such a narrative comes courtesy of the best L.A. book of the 21st century to date, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging (1771-1965), by the UCLA historian Kelly Lytle Hernández.

Her brutal and revisionist 2017 history reveals L.A. as a pioneer in the caging and incarcerating of people for more than two centuries. (The first act of governance in L.A. when it became part of the U.S. was not a public vote but the hiring of a jailer.) Such a book, with such a title, may not sound like a beacon of hope, but it does show a path to a post-Chinatown Los Angeles.

That path starts with understanding that Los Angeles’s creativity has often been expressed through its cruelty. In the 19th century, the city used public order charges to justify incarcerating native peoples, and auctioning off their labor to employers. Between the 1880s and 1910, the city exploited the concept of vagrancy to incarcerate poor white men labeled “hoboes” and assign them to chain gangs to cut roads, including Sunset Boulevard.

Every American municipality has suffered from police or state violence, and most cities cope by ignoring or forgetting such sins against their own citizens. But Los Angeles’ relationship with such violence is entirely different. Our city has long embraced, through culture and image, its own history of police corruption and official violence.

Lytle Hernández recounts how L.A.—with an assist from other Californians, notably Congressman Thomas Geary of Santa Rosa—helped invent the concept of immigration detention, in the service of incarcerating and deporting L.A.’s Chinese laborers. In the early 20th century, L.A. was an innovator in incarcerating Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans, and in criminalizing unauthorized border crossings.

In the middle of the 20th century, L.A. used legal tools to confine much of the largest African American population west of the Mississippi to South L.A., and to exploit vice laws to incarcerate Black people, thus creating America’s largest jail system by the early 1950s. Lytle Hernández shows how the 1965 Watts riots were really a rebellion against this systematic caging, and also how they inspired a backlash and the mass incarceration of the late 20th century.

L.A.’s craze for caging is rooted in the fact that we are from other places, and thus a society of settlers, argues Lytle Hernández. Such societies practice “settler colonialism [and] strive to block, erase, or remove racialized outsiders from their claimed territory.” Settler societies, she adds, also create fantasies to justify their needs to exploit or remove these outsiders.

All this may sound very Chinatown. Indeed, Wasson, in his new book on the film, writes that the concluding scene creates a “temporal Sisyphean circle” that implies “the failure to mitigate incomprehensible trauma” and “emotional incarceration.” He then recounts how the director Roman Polanski rejected screenwriter Robert Towne’s original ending, in which the mother, Evelyn Mulwray (played by Faye Dunaway), would kill her abusive father, earning herself a prison sentence but protecting her daughter.

“I felt this was too romantic,” Polanski recounts in Wasson’s book. “Too much of a happy ending.”

Polanski insisted that the ending be a “total tragedy.” The Polish director was an expert on the subject—his pregnant mother had been killed by the Nazis, and his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, had been murdered in Los Angeles in 1969. In real life, the bad guys win, and catastrophe and violence triumph, Polanski told Towne. The ending ultimately represented the director’s fatalism, and his distrust of Los Angeles. (Four years after the film, Polanski would be indicted for raping a 13-year-old girl in L.A., and would flee to Europe, where he remains to this day, a fugitive from the caging-mad city he helped define.)

What makes Lytle Hernández’s work groundbreaking is that she rejects the fatalism of Polanski and so many other L.A. chroniclers. Digging deep, she unearths a “rebel archive” of Angelenos who resisted caging and violence—and even triumphed over it. Among the most compelling is Pedro J. González, host of one of Southern California’s first Spanish radio broadcasts, who advocated for justice and immigrants despite his own unjust incarceration.

Her book suggests that L.A.’s elite reforms of criminal justice have never been enough to counter L.A.’s obsession with controlling people through incarceration. The LAPD was one of the nation’s most racially diverse police forces by the 1930s, she notes, but no less brutal. And L.A. County’s first African American deputy sheriff, Julius Boyd Loving, was also one of its most dedicated practitioners of unjust incarceration.

Instead, Los Angeles needs a deeper change in its culture and mindset, a determination that it can change its identity, and in the process stop police violence and the caging of people.

“In Los Angeles today, many rebels are hard at work dismantling the nation’s penal core,” Lytle Hernández wrote back in 2017. “They are talking about land. They are refusing removal. They are resisting deportation. They are rejecting erasure. They are fighting the beatings and killings. What will come of their fierce and dedicated labors, no one knows.”

Perhaps now, finally, we can escape the cage of Chinatown.


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