'Sikh, Arab, What's the Difference?' The Sikh Temple Killings and Spike Lee's 'Inside Man'
When I first heard of the Sikh Temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wis., last Sunday, and the identity, such as it is, of the neo-Nazi shooter, my thoughts turned to filmmaker Spike Lee—specifically his 2006 action-film “Inside Man.”
The movie is about hostages and a bank heist, in the manner of “Dog Day Afternoon,” and there's a scene halfway through where a Sikh hostage is released by the robbers only to be ordered by New York cops, with itchy, post-9/11 trigger fingers, onto the ground. They call him an Arab and take away his turban.
Here's a later scene where the cops (Denzel Washingon, Willem Dafoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor) question the Sikh, Vikram, about the hostage situation, while he questions them about his turban situation:
“I bet you can get a cab, though,” is a good line, but it's a shame Vikram didn't get the last word. He deserved it.
I also thought of Anthony Lane, the great critic for The New Yorker, and his review of “Inside Man,” and the way he contrasted Spike Lee's vision of the world with that of Jean Renior in “The Grand Illusion”:
“Inside Man” needs to be seen. The more it sags as a thriller, the more it jabs and jangles as a study of racial abrasion. A hostage is released, and an armed cop shouts, “He’s an Arab!” The hostage replies, “I’m a Sikh,” and you can hear the weariness at the edges of his fear. Another hostage is quizzed by Frazier about his name: “Is that Albanian?” “It’s Armenian,” the man explains. “What’s the difference?” Frazier asks, not that he cares either way. It is these small, peppery incidents of strife—far more than the stridency of recent Lee projects like “Bamboozled” and “She Hate Me”—that show the director at his least abashed and most tuned to current anxieties, and that mark him out, for all the fluency of his camera, as the anti-Renoir of our time. “Grand Illusion” offered the ennobling suggestion that national divisions were delusory, and that our common humanity can throw bridges across any social gulf. To which Lee would reply, Nice idea. Go tell it to the guy who just had his turban pulled off by the cops.
Or to the folks who lost loved ones in south Milwaukee last Sunday.