Blind Man’s Bluff
by Sarah Stegall
copyright 1995 by Sarah Stegall
Surely it is no coincidence that right after the OJ Simpson “not guilty” verdict electrifies America, we get an episode of “Strange Luck” built around a racially charged trial, an Eastern Jewish defense lawyer, and a white supremacist cop. There’s a fine line between being topical and being exploitative, and I am not sure but what Strange Luck has crossed it.
Chance Harper is mistaken for a hitman and finds himself very briefly in possession of ten thousand dollars in cash–before a pickpocket steals it. His attempts to enlist police help fail, and he must raise the cash in case the real hitman’s employers come looking for it. The real hitman is killed in an auto accident, and Harper is determined to find out who the target is. All this takes place against a background of a political trial in which three black youths are being tried for the murder of a white boy, and three white supremacist “skinheads” are arraigned for desecrating a Jewish cemetary. Underscoring the theme, just in case we missed it somehow, is a Rush Limbaugh caricature talk-radio lout, spouting every cliche ever attributed to the reactionary right.
I don’t mind the injection of politics into what otherwise is usually mindless escapism on television. An honest look at sensitive issues sometimes allows us an insight into human affairs a straight-ahead documentary cannot. The classical play “Antigone”, either the original by Sophocles or the modern re-working by Jean Anouilh, has eloquent and important things to say about the relation of politics to
personal life, of the obligations of the individual to the State, and of the different meanings justice has in different contexts. But “Antigone” succeeds because it honestly portrays both sides of the debate; it does not paint one side as all white and the other as all black. And forcing us to look at events solely through the eyes of one man–Chance Harper–is to force us to look through his convictions, as well. This is not art, it is propaganda, and I resent it.
I am perfectly capable of rejecting racism without being led by the hand. I don’t need my emotional buttons pushed to get me to root for justice over injustice. I am particularly angry when I am deliberately manipulated like this–how stupid does writer Melinda Snodgrass think I am? And the story is not even internally consistent. What message, for example, am I supposed to derive from the fact that the three black youths on trial, who have confessed to the murders, are acquitted? This is reverse racism at its worst.
There was potential for great tragedy and catharsis in this show, if the writers had bothered to address it honestly. The white supremacist father, for example, might have been shown agonizing over the fate of his son, caught in the toils of a legal system he does not trust. Instead, we get a heartless one-track fanatic who offers up his son on the altar of his political beliefs. While I believe such people do exist, they do not make for good drama. One-dimensional fanatics are boring, regardless of their politics. The villain who acts out of admirable motives but whose choices are disastrously misguided is considerably more interesting than someone who apparently exists merely as a foil to the hero’s nobility. Good drama does not emerge from the conflict of good and evil, but the conflict of good and good.
Race is a complicated issue, and to oversimplify it in this manner is dishonest. My sympathies lie generally with Chance Harper’s, which is why it is even more distasteful to have my own views spoon-fed to me this clumsily. We didn’t even get much of the dry wit and self-deprecating humility that make this show so interesting. Harper walked through this episode without doing much–he was mostly reacting to
events like a pinball in a machine. Instead, we got long, not very interesting, highly predictable, and deadly earnest conversations between the shrink (Cynthia Martells) and Daniel (Devin Oatway) in the jailhouse. Even the art direction was cliched. Come on–dressing the bad guys in black leather? Why not just tattoo “villain” on their foreheads and be done with it?
This story, with its echoes of Oklahoma City and OJ Simpson, of Waco and Ruby Ridge, could have had important or thought-provoking things to say about where Americans stand on issues like race, responsibility, and freedom. Instead, it used these elements almost as sight gags, to yank our chains
for a knee-jerk reaction that involves us but does not enlighten us, or even challenge us.
Predictability will kill a show that depends on unpredictability. Preachiness will kill any show, period. I give this episode one lucky charm out of five.