Microcosm of Racial Tensions

Cultures clash and writers come to blows in “The Tenants”

There’s nothing quite like the unmistakable sound of the typewriter. So when Harry Lesser (Dylan McDermott), a Jewish writer and sole remaining tenant in an apartment building, hears another typewriter clacking away somewhere in the building, he starts to think maybe he’s losing his mind.

Upon further investigation, he discovers Willie Spearmint (Snoop Dog), a black writer who is squatting in one of the building’s many deserted, filthy flats. Both are writing novels, and know it can be a solitary, miserable business, so to some degree, both men are glad to have some company.

The film is set in the racially charged world of New York City in the early 1970s. While both men might have writing in common, they are from two different worlds, and race is the great divide. Lesser has been lucky––he’s had two novels published. While money is starting to run out, he is happily cocooned in a nice apartment while he writes about finding love, even though he doesn’t have a love interest. The landlord is anxious to get rid of him, but has some respect for his talent, and Lesser keeps putting him off with “when I finish the book.”

Willie, however, is destitute and unpublished. Luckily, he has a girlfriend who helps keep him fed and sheltered. He uses the empty apartment as a writer’s studio. Eventually, he seeks out Lesser and asks him to look after his typewriter. Then, he asks Lesser to read his work. This begins a slippery slope for both men. Lesser seems to give him an honest evaluation without being nasty, and Willie’s typical answer is to get angry, often ending a diatribe by calling Lesser a “Jew motherfucker.”

The uneasy association is offset, though, when Willie brings some of his friends over to Lesser’s for a party. He also brings his girlfriend, Irene (Rose Byrne), and another woman, Mary (Niki Crawford). Mary immediately comes on to Lesser, and later, when Lesser is brought to a mostly black party at Mary’s house, he winds up sleeping with her. But Mary already has a boyfriend, and the already testosterone-fueled territoriality gets some gasoline thrown on it because Lesser is white and Mary and her boyfriend are black.

Not having learned anything from this lesson, it turns out that even though he has only met her a few times, Lesser is in love with Irene, and they embark on a clandestine affair at her apartment. When Willie finds out, anger and violence ensue.

Director Danny Green underscores the racial tensions in “The Tenants” with bleak interiors and haunting sound. The camera roams the deserted building accompanied by mournful cellos punctuated by the typing. While Lesser’s apartment is fully functional, it is underlit and features drab earth-toned furnishings. Even so, it’s a contrast to the filthy, empty hallways, full of debris and graffiti. Even the outdoor scenes in New York are gray and dull. Green creates what seems like an endless winter for these two writers. Only Irene’s apartment seems to have any vivid colors to it.

As Lesser, the usually polished and buff McDermott—best know as the lawyer Bobby Donnell from “The Practice”—is almost unrecognizable here. Big glasses and an unflattering haircut disguise him as the drab Lesser, who seems to only have one set of clothes. Snoop Dog as Willie wears an angry countenance through the film, even during times he’s supposedly having a good time.

“The Tenants” is based on a Bernard Malamud novel from 1971, and this is its first adaptation. Bringing it to the big screen has been discussed over the years, and seeing the final result, you can see why it’s been difficult to realize this effort. It’s hard to make a crowd-pleasing story of two writers fighting in an abandoned building.

What complicates the film’s appeal further is the racial tension. While Lesser spends most of the movie trying to avoid the taunts of the race-baiting Willie, who is quick to call him any epithet he can think of, it becomes clear that his attitude toward Willie is condescending. He is also rather ignorant of race relations. When Lesser suggests to Irene, who feels a responsibility toward the penniless Willie, that Willie should get a job “like I did,” Irene has to point out that any job Willie would find would probably pay four times less than anything Lesser would find.

When they first meet, Willie tells Lesser that he wants to “get down to the cold shit truth of it” while Lesser seems to avoid reality. Even when Irene offers him a way out, Lesser uses the “when I finish the book” excuse. To some degree, the race baiting is a device that amplifies the sheltered world Lesser has created.

It’s easy also to see how the issue of race kept this film from being made for three decades. Everything involving Willie involves race. When Irene introduces herself, she says, “I’m Willie’s white chick.” This sort of provocative dialogue is unfamiliar in today’s world of ultra-PC sensibilities, but it certainly realistic in the world of 1971 New York. Just tune into any a re-run of “All in the Family” to discover, or re-discover, just how much race relations were at the forefront of the American consciousness.

“The Tenant” serves as an evocative, uneasy reminder of what was, and probably still is, dividing people who may otherwise have a lot in common.

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