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  • TBC
  • Drama
  • 1995
  • 115 mins

Pure Race

Pure Race

Synopsis

Rocco DeVilliers' ultra low-budget feature debut mixes race issues with thrilling action

About

Sometimes, when it comes to evaluating a film, certain allowances need to be made. It would, for example, be all too easy to dismiss Pure Race for its cheesy over-earnestness and its low-grade production values (with the dialogue at times near inaudible in the sound mix) but the latter, at least, can be excused once it's recognised that the film is essentially, as its director-co-writer-DP-editor-co-star-stuntman Rocco DeVilliers puts it "a big home movie".

Budgeted at a mere $15,000, cast largely with the directors' (unpaid) friends, shot with a one or two-man crew over four years on the consumer Super VHS format and edited using two linked VCRs, Pure Race is a true do-it-yourself labour of love from the pre-digital age.

Other relative no-budgeters of the time, like Slacker (1991) and Clerks (1994), compensated for their raw look through the strength of their scripts but DeVilliers' lo-fi feature debut takes the more counterintuitive path cut by El Mariachi (1992), eschewing quality dialogue or even credible plotting (both of which cost nothing) for absurdly ambitious action sequences.

Well choreographed fist-and knife-fights, extended car chases, automatic gunplay and a galloping 25-minute cliff-top climax are all carried off with miraculous aplomb, thanks to some gamely uninsured performers and some very crafty editing (an art in which DeVilliers truly excels). Pure Race sure gets a lot of bang for its buck even if the film's well-intentioned but bumbling examination of racism in America sits rather uneasily with all the Rambo-esque fireworks.

Carl Fields (Haynes) is giving geeky fellow-student Tony Andersen (Hunting, who also co-wrote the screenplay) a lift home from Washington to Colorado. Despite some initial tension, partly of a racial nature, in their relationship, the pair are beginning to bond when, somewhere in rural Idaho, they get a flat tyre. Looking for help, they stumble into a barn full of men sporting swastikas and sieg-heiling before the corpse of a black man they have just hanged. These are the Aryan Freedom Fighters, a well-armed neo-Nazi militia preparing for race war, and black Carl and Jewish Tony are suddenly in a whole heap of trouble and forced to work together and brave great odds in order to survive.

It might begin like Mississippi Burning (1988) and end like Punishment Park (1971) but somehow Pure Race injects both those films with a heroic triumphalism (the victims of oppression fight back, and win) that seems entirely ill-suited to the (supposedly) serious themes. The film's neo-Nazis are for the most part cartoonish in their sneering villainy, while the one black man is elevated to a bland do-no-wrong saintliness. Tony alone travels some sort of development arc but it has more to do with losing the glasses, becoming a man and getting the girl than with confronting his own insidious racism. Accordingly, the dramatic potential of the race issue is diluted by such a black-and-white approach to characterisation. Do The Right Thing this ain't.

The plot, too, is not without its shortcomings. There is an over-reliance here on collisions and coincidences to drive the narrative - not just in the accidental gate-crashing by multicultural liberals of a redneck lynching but before that in the sequence where Carl first meets Tony, running into him, quite literally, with his car.

Paul Haggis could get away with this sort of thing in his race-relations epic Crash (2004) for the sole reason that he had a broad ensemble of players and a tangle of subplots to bring together but DeVilliers is simply taking two characters down one long dark road, where such contrivances stick out like, well, an African American at a Klan meeting. Once the boys have been trapped, their captors insist inexplicably on imprisoning them for several days and then playing a hunting game with them, rather than just stringing them up or shooting them dead from the get-go. Here, one suspects, it is the film's feature length that is being served far more than anything like logic.

Still, Pure Race is a bravura calling card, making up for its many failings through sheer moxie. Though far from perfect, it is certainly better than many films made for 20 times as much.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Katherine Willis, Dan Urness, Fred Hunting, Shauna Thompson, Milo Merrill, Dave Miller, J Todd Adams, Marvin Payne, Derek White, Gregory C Haynes
  • Director: Rocco DeVilliers
  • Screen Writer: Rocco DeVilliers, Fred Hunting
  • Producer: Whitney E Peterson, Rocco DeVilliers, Louis H Asbury
  • Photographer: Rocco DeVilliers
  • Composer: Lisle Moore

In a nutshell

Pure Race is that oddest of entities, a no-budget film whose actions sequences far surpass its drama. A flawed, but fearlessly ambitious debut from a talented multi-hyphenate filmmaker who deserves some proper financing.

by Anton Bitel

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