Going to Atlanta: Women in the Films of the Hughes Brothers

Who is and who isn’t an auteur is a surprisingly testy subject among critics at all levels, from the aging newspaper jockeys to the cowboy elite of the internet. The entire auteur theory is out of favor these days as the other gajillion crew members behind the scenes stand up against it, and it’s becoming a lot harder to get the critical support it takes to be considered a true film author. As we’ve discussed here before, I tend to think of the auteur theory as basically correct, albeit in a backwards way, because the auteur theory actually created the auteur system, and in that system, I would certainly call the Hughes Brothers auteurs. They have a strong, recognizable visual aesthetic that carries from film to film, and a consistent theme to their work. The Hughes Brothers make films about class war from the point of view of the people who lost, the people who live in urban poverty and turn to crime to survive. But it takes more than that to make the canon these days. For example, one of the requirements of a true auteur, at least as far as the theory goes, is that their personal history factors into the formula somehow. Movies, the theory goes, are about the person making them.

(Digression: I’m not totally on board with this. Of course directors choose films because something in the script speaks to them, and so you may follow a director’s interests by following their work, but there’s a huge difference in making a film that’s about your passions and making a film about yourself. It can happen—Fellini, Woody Allen—but it’s by no means a requirement. Having said that, critics love narratives and that’s a popular one.)

It would be easy to slam the Hughes Brothers as macho filmmakers who make movies for adolescent males. Their two biggest financial successes are a Jack the Ripper fantasy and a post-apocalyptic beat-‘em-up featuring big stars and high concepts. The women of their films are often marginalized or occasionally objectified as a pretty object to save (Mary Kelly in From Hell; Solara and her mother in The Book of Eli), an unfortunate symptom of genre filmmaking aimed at a demographic that’s particularly sensitive to emasculation and reacts positively to the lionizing of male roles. A deeper look at how the Hughes Brothers position the female characters in their films, however, suggests a truth that’s a bit more complicated and ties directly to their background to strengthen the case for the Hughes Brothers as auteurs.

The Hughes Brothers storyline is well-known. Aida, their mother, moved them from Detroit to Pomona, California, to escape their street hustler father, but the Brothers fell in with a rough crowd in their new home. Aida bought them a secondhand film camera, which changed their course and set them onto a different path. The brothers had a choice and chose to follow their mother’s advice. It saved them, and It’s this exact narrative that appears in their films again and again, playing out in slightly modified ways, beginning with their very first feature, Menace II Society.

At first look, Ronnie, played by Jada Pinkett-Smith, is a troubling character. A single mother forced to survive alone in the hood when her baby’s father is sent to prison, she begins a friendship with Caine more or less on the absent father’s orders. Caine and Ronnie don’t initiate their friendship, and they fall sort of sideways into a romantic relationship of their own. There’s no shocking reveal, no conflicted loyalty for Caine. Ronnie and Caine’s relationship is passionless, and the uncomfortable implication is that she was basically gifted to Caine. For her part, Ronnie accepts the arrangement and genuinely likes Caine, but she might simply be choosing survival. When Ronnie tells her child’s father that she’ll be leaving with Caine, it’s more of a business transaction than an apology or a request for a blessing. After all, he’s in prison and Ronnie must do what she must do.

It’s hard not to draw a line from Ronnie to Aida, who left the father of her twins to move across the country to seek a better life. Ronnie also seeks a fresh start in Atlanta, a city with a majority African-American population, and where discrimination is (in theory, at least) less of an everyday problem. Ronnie seeks a chance for her son, and she invites Caine to move with her as the child’s father figure. Atlanta is the promised land that she sees, but that Caine is too blind and dug-in to accept. If the Hughes Brothers were saved by their mother’s intervention, Caine represents the other side of the coin, the kid who turns away the boat because he doesn’t know he’s drowning. Atlanta is a gateway to another life, provided by Ronnie, and swung shut by Caine’s decisions. When Caine dies, he does so defending Ronnie’s baby so that at least one bright light can make it out of Watts.

A pair of sisters drive the action in Dead Presidents, offering two paths to salvation for Anthony (Larenz Tate), the damaged Vietnam veteran at the story’s center. Before he leaves for action in Vietnam, Anthony courts and wins the heart of Juanita (Rose Jackson), the older of two sisters from his poverty-stricken neighborhood. While in the jungle, Anthony learns that Juanita has given birth to his child, and when he returns to the States, Anthony faces his responsibilities and marries Juanita despite his battle with nightmares and depression. The path Juanita offers is traditional and safe, but collapses as Anthony struggles to adjust to married life. Juanita disappears into the shadow of another man who had come around to “protect” her while Anthony was gone (a nightmare version of the noble Caine and his inherited responsibility).When his family falls apart, Anthony becomes truly lost and, without a clear path of salvation, turns to crime, represented by Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), Juanita’s radicalized sister. Through the planning and execution of the botched robbery, Anthony loses everything he has, but finds his moral center, speaking out loudly and strongly against the government system that, as he sees it, forced him into a criminal act. Delilah’s path is a dark mirror of Juanita’s; Delilah’s is a path of dignity with loss, while Juanita offers stability with humiliation. A sucker’s choice, but one that Anthony must face head on before being destroyed.

When women are present at all in American Pimp, it’s from a position of weakness. The pimps hold total sway over the proceedings, and the women who work for them exist primarily to corroborate their legends. Only occasionally does a woman speak out against the system. It’s a winner’s game, and yet—without digging too deeply into the balance of power between pimps and prostitutes, because that’s a subject to itself—if we analyze the pimps in this piece as characters in a story being constructed by the Hughes Brothers, we see that the position of the women in the film is one of relative power. Yes, there is a lot of ugly talk about the proper way to beat your hos, but the pimps universally tell a story about growing up poor and ultimately deciding that pimping was a path out of the hood and into wealth, success, and status.

One pimp tells a story about how he suggested pimping to a girl he knew, who gladly offered to be his girl. Nervous, he tried to back out of the deal, but she pushed him along and started him down a successful career. Maybe he’s remembering the facts with crystal clarity and maybe he’s not, but the story’s power as a story—especially taking place so early in the film—position the image of the willing prostitute as a way out for the poor, black boys who are out of answers. These decisions show in the way the Hughes Brothers chose to edit their film, and consciously or not, they’ve created another world in which the very image of the woman serves as a pathway to salvation for their male protagonists.

In From Hell, this Hughes woman leaps off the screen, transitioning from the background portrayal seen in the Brothers’ early work to an arch, explicit depiction that matches the rest of the film’s outsized style and tone. Mary Kelly, as played by Heather Graham, is an almost literal symbol of hope. Lilly-white, strawberry, and angelic, no amount of faux dirt can mask the fact that she doesn’t fit into her grimy, soot-colored surroundings or, indeed, even with the ladies that form her circle of friends. She’s otherworldly, and as Johnny Depp’s Detective Abberline realizes that she is to be one of the Ripper’s victims, he begins to fantasize about her in lush, green locations, far away from the urban blight. It’s important to note that Abberline wasn’t psychic in the original novel, and that his visions are entirely a creation of the Hughes adaptation. Abberline becomes obsessed with saving Mary—specifically her, which is a bit odd considering other victims are alive at their first meeting—and with fulfilling his own vision. Abberline knows that he cannot journey to the island with Mary, and in fact he dies in London without ever seeing the promised land, but Mary’s salvation and, significantly, the salvation of the hunted child, redeems Abberline and his opium sins.

The situation is a bit more complicated in The Book of Eli, partly because there’s a relative glut of major female characters. Our primary concern is Solara, played by Mila Kunis, but we’ll return to her in a moment. Twice in the film, Eli meets a con woman on the road who lowers the guard of her victims to lure them in to a trap. The first time Eli meets her, he kills her entire entourage. When Eli and Solara meet her again later in the film, she’s running the same scam with a new crew. This is her idea; these are her crews. She’s the one who has found a way to survive, and she’s offering that survival to the men strong enough to carry it out. The film is full of characters like her, pulling strings and exploiting weakness. Martha, the old cannibal woman Eli and Solara meet on the farm, appears to run the household over her husband, George. It’s easy to imagine that eating their guests was all her idea.

Solara is a different matter altogether. Like the con woman on the street, Solara manipulates to survive, but that doesn’t appear to be a strictly evil trait in a world run dry of resources by the villain Carnegie. Her character remains unsullied. Unlike the other women we’ve looked at who offer a bright path in the darkness, Solara attempts to walk Eli’s path to a destination he’s already chosen, a tag-along. Solara is capable of taking care of herself, but she also falls into trouble and must be rescued. In many ways, Solara is a more typical heroine in the modern action movie—a no-nonsense tough girl who still needs a masculine hero to save her.

But there’s more to Solara than what we first see. She ends the film not as a path to saving Eli, but as a path to saving the rest of the world or, at the very least, those still enslaved in whatever will be left of Carnegie’s shanty village. Solara represents the hope for us, the audience, to take out of the theater; she’s a hope for the future, for her saintly mother, and for (of course) the sequel. In a way, Solara is the ultimate culmination of the Hughes woman. She’s not there to save a man, but to save every man. Her success and survival is the path of redemption for the world.

I’ve only scratched the surface here. There’s a lot more to explore, such as how the Hughes balance their female characters’ needs to be both sexual and sacrament, or their complex relationship to how women are portrayed in the hip hop culture with which the Hughes Brothers have deep ties. My main point here is that there’s more to the Hughes Brothers films than just macho heroes and glamorized women. They work within the bounds of their genre choices, but they stretch the archetype to place their male heroes at a crossroads of choice, pretty much always presented by a redemptive woman. Mostly, the male character botches the choice, and the surrounding violence swallows them up. The Hughes Brothers are attracted to stories that resonate with them, and their particular history invites a certain kind of narrative, a narrative that has thus far played out very clearly in their films. I’d be very interested to see a Hughes film featuring a female protagonist in a role that doesn’t immediately read as redemptive.  So far, that hasn’t seemed to interest them. Maybe that will change one day. In any case, I’ll be watching because their films are sometimes flawed and awkward, but they are never flat, they never adhere to formula, and they allow their female characters to hold all the keys to a better life.

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