National Security (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Endeavors to complicate the standard black-white buddy dynamic.

National Security

Director: Dennis Dugan
Cast: Martin Lawrence, Steve Zahn, Bill Duke, Colm Feore, Eric Roberts
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Columbia
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-01-17

When Martin Lawrence appeared on Conan O'Brien to promote his new movie, National Security, the interview focused on what you already know about Martin Lawrence. His ears stick out, he wears designer clothes, and he was in a coma three years ago. On the first point, Lawrence underlined that it has never affected his appeal for the ladies. On the last, he said he's stopped smoking weed, because "It's not for me."

When the time came to talk about National Security, they showed the obligatory clip: Lawrence and co-star Steve Zahn appear on screen, playing L.A. cops. When they mistakenly allow a car thief to drive off in a rich lady's Jaguar, Lawrence unveils his "backup plan": he shoots the car until it blows up. The fiery explosion is vintage cop-buddy-action-comedy, all orange and big and exciting. In the foreground, Lawrence and Zahn jump and contort. The studio audience applauds on cue.

That's about all you need to know about National Security. And, for that matter, Martin Lawrence's career to date. From his minute in Do the Right Thing and long run on Martin to his be-sequeled buddydom with Will Smith to his $20,000,000 paycheck for the upcoming Blue Streak 2, Lawrence has made a fine living off his terrifically mobile features. His basic joke is always the same: he calls out racial injustice, even strikes an occasional aggressive pose, but remains resolutely nonthreatening (for a white audience who might otherwise take such scolding seriously), because his ears stick out and his face goes comically paroxysmal.

National Security allows for more of the same. Earl (Lawrence) is introduced trying to pass a series of L.A. police academy tests. When his enthusiastic displays of shooting, cart-wheeling, and driving go wrong and, most importantly, enrage his instructor, Earl's escorted off the academy campus by a couple of burly uniforms. Mad at the bum-rush, he throws up his karate-choppy hands and makes faces: "I got skills, ya bitches!"

At that moment, Earl meets his white buddy-to-be. Hank (Zahn) has been established previously as Earl's match -- angry, traumatized (by the recent death of his partner [Timothy Busfield, on screen for about two minutes]), and spastic-faced. Hank catches Earl trying to get his keys out of his own car and mistakes him for a car thief. Their verbal exchange escalates to awkward wrestling, just as a "big-ass bumblebee" buzzes by. Being allergic, Earl panics, and when Hank swats at the bee with his stick, a helpful bystander videotapes them. The resulting "evidence" resembles the Rodney King beating. Hank is kicked off the force and sent to prison for 6 months. From now on, he holds a grudge against Earl, indicated by his permanent scrunch-face.

Long story (relatively) short: both Hank and Earl end up working as security guards, and both happen to be in the vicinity when Nash (Eric Roberts in tacky blond hair), the smuggler who killed Hank's partner, strikes again. In order that the feuding buddies-to-be might join forces, Nash helpfully calls Earl a "monkey" (as in, "Somebody shoot that monkey!"). Now that the pursuit of justice is suitably "personal" for both partners, the movie can stumble on through to its end, one flamboyant car chase and bruising stunt after another.

National Security (written by the same team who brought you the woeful I Spy, Jay Scherick and David Ronn) endeavors to complicate the standard black-white buddy dynamic, or at least to draw attention to its conventions and presumptions. They exchange witty dialogue (Hank: "Do you know how to hotwire a car?" Earl: "Why? Because I'm black?"), bond as they spend seriously smelly time on a garbage barge, and suffer repeated beat downs by the bad guys. As always in interracial buddy films, such moments lead to eventual mutual understanding, not to mention supposedly riotous physical abuses. And, true to formula, they must decide which of their cop superiors -- Detective McDuff (Colm Feore) or Lieutenant Washington (Bill Duke) -- is the villain. Gee, do you think they'll figure it out in time?

Once they're on the run from the cops as well as the smugglers, the buddies find they only have one another as confidants. This leads to one of those stock stakeout rooftop conversations where one partner confesses his troubles and the other commiserates, while a plinky guitar sounds in the background. Poor Hank. Not only has the bumblebee encounter cost him his job and 6 months of his life, he's also lost his girlfriend, Denise (Robinne Lee), who, because she's black, can't accept that he's beaten a black man. Earl is aghast at such suffering: "You know what you are Hank?" he observes by way of consolation. "You're a black man."

It's a good line, especially when you're looking at Steve Zahn's exceedingly pale face, which is, for a minute, relaxing its scrunch in recognition of this new brotherhood. That is, while it's a ridiculous thing for Earl to say, it's also an effective ground for these guys to bond -- to see themselves as alike, mirrored in their equal oppression, depression, abandonment, and hopelessness. The difference between them is this: Earl is used to being a black man, and so he expects the world of hurt it entails. For Hank, it's a novel and devastating experience, simultaneously exciting (buddy Earl has finally accepted him) and horrifying (what if he has to face these obstacles forever?). It's hard to be a black man, especially when you're white.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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