Sleeping Dogs: A Hong Kong Movie Homage That Keeps It Real About Race

September 17th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I’ve been playing Square Enix & United Front’s Sleeping Dogs off and on over the past week. (Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is taking up some time, too, as is Papa & Yo.) It’s the latest game in the True Crime series, sort of. Those games have generally been pretty okay, but not spectacular. This one isn’t spectacular, but I think it might be genuinely good, bordering on great. The story isn’t special — an undercover cop in too deep? with a grudge? and an attitude?! whoa!– and the gameplay isn’t particularly innovative, but the combination of a faithful recreation of the Hong Kong we see in movies and some pretty smart writing elevates it above most other sandbox games. It’s not on Saints Row the Third‘s level, but it’s definitely beating the pants off that last GTA.

Sleeping Dogs juggles a lot of disparate gameplay elements (cars, counter-centric combat, good/evil alignment, two upgrade systems, several types of unlocks, etc) very well, and the pacing is sharp enough to keep you from getting bored. But more than anything, it’s the writing that’s keeping me going. The script is predictable, almost to a fault, but it’s a script that is emulating one of the types of movies that I like best. I mean, I’ve had speedboat chases and a shootout in a hospital with an AI partner. United Front knows their target audience, and it looks like we’re running through all the greatest hits. Which is cool; a nice cocktail of nostalgia and imminent danger.

There was one moment that leapt out at me, and it has nothing to do with John Woo or Johnnie To or Tsui Hark or people getting shot at all, really. It was during the mission Bride to Be, when you’re escorting Peggy Li to go pick out things for her wedding. You play Wei Shen, an undercover cop who has infiltrated Winston’s gang. Peggy’s marrying Winston, and by this point, you’re trusted enough to be alone with her and escort her around town. I was expecting some type of goofy infidelity plot, when they got in the car together and she started talking about dating. Half of it was because one girl I was seeing in-game had just blown up on me about cheating on her (which I hadn’t realized I was doing because Sleeping Dogs loves ambiguous fadeouts) and the other half was that crime movies love plots like that.

But that didn’t happen. She didn’t hit on Wei, and Wei didn’t hit on her. Instead, Peggy and Wei talked about dating, finding a nice girl, the importance of family, and knowing the value of trading your hardness for softness. Peggy shared a story about her mother-in-law, and explains that she learned, despite being a huge grump, her mother-in-law really cares about her. Wei offhandedly mentions his mother’s disappointment in his choice of girlfriends, and how that was a point of contention between them.

Quickie transcript, which is unfortunately devoid of inflection:

Wei: You’re lucky. My mother never liked my girlfriends.
Peggy: I guess it’s hard for the moms.
Wei: Well… I mean, you know I used to have a thing for blondes too, and that drove her crazy. Bad enough if I went out with a Chinese-American girl, but… but a whitey?
Peggy: [laughs] Well, it’s good to know she was loyal to her people.
Wei: No, she’s loyal to her prejudices, more like.
Peggy: That too.

I’m not sure what the term for this is, there might not be a proper word for it, but I dig it every time I come across it. I feel like it’s so rare in entertainment these days. It’s an admission that races and cultures are different, and that that fact affects our lives on a day-to-day basis in a way beyond just “one group oppresses another group.” It’s the type of conversation that you’d actually have in real life, and the kind of conversation you only see in fiction when you have an author who is talented and brave enough to just go in and damn the consequences. It’s prickly and it’s tough, but when done right, it really adds to stories.

I saw a preview screening of End of Watch with a friend a few weeks back. (It was good, and the Q&A after with Michael Peña and Natalie Martinez was especially good.) There was a lot of dialogue in there that explicitly addressed the fact that the two main characters were a white guy (Jake Gyllenhall) and a Mexican dude (Michael Peña). Gyllenhall asks what the heck chonies are and makes jokes about how Peña is always inviting him to quinceañeras. Peña is like, “Yeah, but if you marry one of my cousins, you’ll always have a party to go to! ;)” There were a few more exchanges of a similar vein, too.

We all practice this kind of cultural exchange on a minor scale on a regular basis (“Here’s a song my parents grew up with,” for one, “Here’s a home-cooked meal the way my family taught me” for another), and all too often in movies and games, that’s either played for wholly comedic effect or ignored altogether. Rush Hour, the Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker joint, was actually really good about being both funny and pointed, especially when Don Cheadle showed up.

This concept seems small, but it really isn’t. I dunno, I feel like there’s this tendency to sand down the uncomfortable parts of race in entertainment in favor of everyone always treating everyone else as… I don’t know. Normal. But you lose a lot in that. Normal isn’t interesting. Normal isn’t true. You avoid the terrible physical or emotional violence that makes race one of the dumbest concepts on the planet, but you also lose the beautiful cultural differences that make race one of the most amazing things in the world.

Real people have real conversations about how Wes Anderson makes white people movies and how so-and-so is too bougie to hang with you and whether shark fin soup or chitlins are grosser, or whatever whatever. We regularly talk about how our races affect our lives, and not in a pontificating or divisive sort of way, either. I’m talking about in a normal and most likely unexamined sort of way, a matter of fact sort of way. It’s like how people use the word “ghetto” in normal conversation and never address the subtext. It’s knowing that white music is one thing and black music is another, but not letting that stop you from enjoying either.

There’s a fine line to walk here, since you’re going to inevitably be dealing in stereotypes, but stereotypes aren’t bad in and of themselves. It’s how and why they’re applied. Here, Sleeping Dogs applied a stereotype to Wei’s mother, and more importantly, they didn’t condemn that stereotype. There’s an implicit critique in there, yeah — Wei is our character, we’re supposed to identify with him and assume that he’s right and moral. But not a condemnation. More of a “It is what it is,” I think, and an acknowledgement that that was then and this is now.

I’d like to stop being surprised when this happens in casual entertainment, too. I remember when Fred Van Lente & Mahmud Asrar tackled the unspoken complexities of interracial dating in Shadowland: Power Man. It was such a surprise because cape comics have a history of depicting more interracial relationships than intraracial ones, and any comment on interracial relationships was masked and fictionalized by the fact that one person had blue skin or wings or whatever fake thing they had. But, FVL and Asrar’s story was straight up “Yo, people feel some type of way about dating outside your race,” a subject that could easily get you slapped.

You know who’s really, really good at this? At this sort of honesty? Howard Victor Chaykin. For the most part, everyone in his books actually has a race that is acknowledged in the text. His books are filled with blacks, Jews, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Germans, and more, and that factors into their personalities, setbacks, and lives. Chaykin loves playing with cultures and culture in his work, whether via someone simply mentioning their background or people getting into arguments over things and it coming up. It adds a lot to his work. More people should be willing to shake things up like that.

Anyway, the car chases and bullet time in Sleeping Dogs are on point, too, so give that a look if you get curious. Personally, I’m rolling through the game while wearing the Mr. Black outfit: black suit, untucked white shirt, dirty tie, black sunglasses, and a hope for a better tomorrow. Portrait of the killer as a young man.

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The Experience [Shadowland: Power Man 02]

September 17th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Verisimilitude is what makes stories work. It’s a measure of how true the story is and how closely it sticks to believability. Do characters speak, behave, and dress as they should? It’s a tough thing to nail and even tougher to describe. Verisimilitude requires a lot of intangibles to get right, the sort of things that you can only really judge via gut reactions. One man’s dead-on is another man’s completely wrong.

Creating believable white characters is relatively easy. White’s the default ethnicity for Americans, and we’re positively drowning in white culture, for whatever definition of white culture you choose to subscribe to, so you don’t need a lot of reference. Non-white characters, or white European characters, are something exceptional. They’re black or Mexican or Japanese or Scottish characters, rather than just characters. You have to put some sauce on them to get them right.

The black experience is one of those things that exists, but is different for every single person. It’s just real life–some things are common, other things are rare, and the full experience is something unique. The key to verisimilitude is capturing those common aspects so that people reading it can grab onto them. They provide a touchstone, or something to relate to. The more of the story that is true for you, the more of it that you’re willing to buy into. It’s a con. You get someone to believe one thing and they’re much more likely to believe the next thing you tell them.

Chris Claremont’s method was to layer on the shtick and hope for the best. It worked well enough at the time, but it comes off corny now. Attempts to make Luke Cage a believable black character resulted in what feels like parody today. If you look closely at your non-white character of choice, you can probably see these tics or traits clear as day. They’re an attempt to lend verisimilitude.

What I liked about Fred Van Lente and Mahmud Asrar’s Shadowland: Power Man 2 is that it’s one of the few cape comics in ages that actually felt like it reflected the black experience. It’s not corny, it’s not ironic, and it’s not self-conscious. It just feels natural. The next closest candidate would be Jeff Parker and Kev Walker’s Thunderbolts, but Power Man surpasses even that. It’s all due to verisimilitude.

It’s the little things. It’s the way Victor’s mom uses his whole name when she gets mad at him. A quick survey of my friends suggests that this happens in black and latino houses, but not so much in white ones. Or the way the white kids talk about how down they are because they listen to black music, clearly one beer and half a blunt away from hitting their black friends with a “my nigga” like it’s all good. It’s how the dialogue has subtle shifts away from the Queen’s English without dropping into a white impression of jivetalk.

Victor spends the entire issue calling Luke Cage “Carl,” a reference to “Carl Lucas,” his government name. It’s the sort of thing that’s just a diss in and of itself–he’s calling Cage out of his name as a show of disrespect. More than anything else, it puts me in mind of Cam’Ron’s 50 Cent diss “Curtis”, where he turned 50’s real name into a sing-songy diss. It’s both basic disrespect and a reference to the fact that Victor knows who Cage is and doesn’t buy into his hype.

Interracial dating is touchy, too. Every young black male, at least the ones where I’m from, knows to tiptoe around white girls, just in case. There’s nothing that people like better than a chance to paint a black dude as a victimizer of white virginity (see also: Kanye West/Taylor Swift and the out of proportion reaction), and you don’t want to get caught slipping. On the black side of things, a black guy with a white girl is a sell-out. Strong black men (there’s about eight, total) need to stick by their sisters, blah blah blah.

So yeah, when Victor is airing out Cage for leaving the hood and deserting his people, he’s definitely going to get at Cage for marrying a white girl. And yep, Cage is definitely gonna be extremely pissed, because I guarantee almost every black girl he knows (with the exception of Storm) has been giving him the side-eye. That kind of nagging is senseless, but it happens, and people cope. Some people laugh it off. Others get up in your face and dare you to say some ☠☠☠☠ about their wife. Victor’s apology even rings true–it’s an unfair accusation, rooted in centuries old brainwashing, and everyone knows it. But, we still do it.

It is what it is.

There are other parts that rang true, too. A distrust of altruism and a trust of money. The only people who’ll work for you for free is family, and they’ll only do it under duress. But if you put money in someone’s pocket? That’s a contract. The emphasis on staying where you’re from as an indicator of your realness. Commanche’s implication that getting clean money is less than making brown paper bag money. Most especially, though, is the way that Victor can’t escape his dad’s shadow. He’s going to end up paying for his father’s sins even as he’s busy atoning for something he said to his father by wrapping himself up in his father’s past. He’s stuck in his orbit and he really can’t escape it.

I like that Van Lente is actually using Cage’s past beyond someone talking about how he did time. My main man DW Griffith is still MIA, but Shades & Commanche make an appearance, amongst several other old Cage villains of varying levels of competence. Cage’s past actually has a direct connection to the current story, but not to the point where you have to have read all of his old appearances (though marvel makes it easy on you). I like how it implicitly sets up a road less traveled dichotomy between Cage and Victor’s father. If Cage had chosen differently or stayed with his gang, things could have been very different.

I really enjoyed that Van Lente and Asrar brought back a bunch of Cage’s old villains. They look silly, and they’re treated like jokes, but not like blaxploitation jokes. Ha ha afros and platform shoes! Cage and his comic tend to get summarized as “Where’s my money, honey?” over and over again, which is both a disservice to the character and needlessly reductive. Jokes about how blaxploitation is soooo wacky are trite.

But really, it’s the verisimilitude that did it. I know the FBB4l! axis found it to be a very strong book, and that includes a black guy from the south, a different black guy from New York, a white guy from Kansas, and a Dominican dude from Queens. It isn’t a black book in that it’s constantly screaming at you about how black it is and look at this this is like The Wire, this is the hood, man. No, Power Man builds a world around Victor Alvarez that is just intensely believable. I want more like this.

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On Shadowland: Power Man 2

September 15th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Shadowland: Power Man 2
Words by Fred Van Lente, art by Mahmud Asrar.

I think it’s fair that I speak for both myself and Gavin and say that this is our review of the issue:

I look forward to this being used as a pull quote for the trade.

(More on this later, as I think that the way this book approaches black life in the Marvel U is super interesting, and ties into something else I’ve been meaning to talk about [Aqualad]. I just wanted to put this out there. Get up on it.)



Hey, folks. Gavin here, totally horning in on David’s wonderful post. For those of you who are reading Shadowland: Power Man and you need a retro who’s who, check out my twoparter on Luke Cage’s early villains. Also helps if you read the Luke Cage miniseries from a couple months ago and wondered who the hell Lionfang is.

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Shades & Comanche: Don’t Make Me Take Off My Stunners

May 11th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Newsarama has an interview with Fred Van Lente about Shadowland: Power Man. A new Power Man is spinning out of Shadowland, the big crossover where Daredevil turns into Donald Rumsfeld and waterboards and then kills Bullseye, or something. I’m kinda ehhh on Daredevil at the moment (hey how much worse can his life get oh is that so), so I was gonna skip Shadowland. But, Fred Van Lente has a good track record, and I liked the Scorpion he introduced in addition to several dozen of his comics, so I read the interview to see what was up.

And I mean, I’m still sorta skeptical. Daredevil is a Debbie Downer, Shadowland sounds kinda silly, and do we really need a new Power Man? But FVL has done stories with Scorpion and the Savage She-Hulk that I dug a lot, he wrote the best story to come out of Marvel last year, and he included Rocket Racer in Modok’s 11. I’m not too fond of Incredible Herc, but FVL’s overall track record seems to be “Writes comics specifically for David Brothers.”

So it sounds interesting, but I’m kinda like “Maybe I’ll catch the trade.” Except:
Van Lente: One of the things I love about this series is, to me it proves that you can have “street characters” where it’s not dark and foreboding. It can be fun. And “urban setting” doesn’t mean it has to be a grim, noir sort of setting.

Yes, it does have a very youthful feel to it. You have a kid acquiring superpowers and donning a costume and going out there and kicking ass, and making some good money for it. It certainly beats delivering pizzas as an after-school job. His powers, like all classic Marvel characters, are rooted in tragedy. And what that tragedy is, and how it’s affected his family, and how it connects to Bullseye will be explicated as the series goes along.
If you were looking for the return of Comanche and Shades, you need go no further than Shadowland: Power Man. And Cottonmouth, another one of my Luke Cage faves, is coming back. I have an inexplicable fondness for Discus and Stiletto, and let us not forget the greatest Luke Cage villain of all time, Cockroach Hamilton, with his six barrel shotgun.

Shades & Comanche in comics again after all these years?

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