The Landlord (1970)


Directed by Hal Ashby

“Some people can’t learn what we learn.”

The Landlord, Hal Ahsby’s first film, covers race relations through the eyes of a 29 year old white man named Elgar (Beau Bridges), the son of wealthy parents.  Beau lives at home, but he decides it’s time to move out and make his own home.  He tells this to the camera, though, and not his parents.

Elgar’s plan is to buy property in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, renovate the property and then turn it into the home of his dreams.  The plan comes across as driven by naivete, and Elgar quickly finds himself stuck between two worlds.  His parents don’t support his decision, as the house is in a poor, black neighborhood.  When he shows up to introduce himself to his new tenants, they don’t immediately respond kindly to him.  No one seems happy with Elgar’s decision, and that makes sense considering he’s only thinking of himself.

Elgar begins to bond with a few of the tenants of his building, maybe because he genuinely likes them but more likely because he wants to rebel against his parents.  Each time his mother or father speaks down to him about his crazy idea, he goes into it with more force. His plan changes, of course, and instead of clearing out the building, he decides to fix it up for his tenants, even becoming more lenient on the late rent they all owe him.

So Elgar begins to fit in a little more in this neighborhood, but he can only get so close to his new neighbors and tenants.  They always see him as “the landlord,” not as Elgar.  Everyone is labelled, both whites and blacks as well as landlords.  Elgar’s changing identity is symbolized by his budding romance with a girl of mixed race, Lanie.  A dancer, she meets him at a club where she works, and she confronts Elgar, understanding that he mistook her to be white when she’s black.  As if to prove he’s not some kind of bigot, he continues to dance with her, though it’s clear her racial identity surprises, even shocks him.

Elgar and Lanie begin dating, and her own mixed-race identity stands as something he can identify with even though he shouldn’t.  What I mean by that is that Elgar is playing where these other characters are living.  The film begins with an image of a classroom of young children.  The teacher asks “how do we live?”  Everyone raises their hands, eager to answer, and she picks on Elgar.  Before he can respond we cut away to a new shot, and we see adult Elgar, reclining in the spacious backyard of his parents’ large home, telling the camera his thoughts on people.  He doesn’t consider color to be important, instead he just sees everyone as ants, equating them on some level.  He adds that everyone wants to make home, and this is his effort to make himself his own home.  So right from the start we see two important images: Elgar as a child an Elgar comparing his own desires to that of an entire culture of people.

In other words, Elgar considers his life and his story to be a microcosm of race relations as a whole.  So he dates Lanie because he sees himself in the same boat as her, ignoring the obvious truth that he is wealthy and privileged.

As proof that his relationship with Lanie might be built on a faulty foundation, Elgar sleeps with one of his tenants, a black woman named Fanny while her husband, Copee, is away in prison for a recent demonstration.  Elgar has genuine affection for this woman, but Fanny makes him understand that this relationship will go no further.

Elgar moves into the downstairs apartment in his newly acquired building, and he invites his mother over, but she is appalled by his long hair and the way he dresses.  She disowns him even before Fanny comes in to tell Elgar that she’s pregnant, which clearly upsets Elgar’s mother.  We see a shot of Joyce’s (his mother) horrified expression followed by a shot of her in her backyard with 6 or 7 young black grandchildren.  There are several shots like this throughout the film in which a character fearfully imagines a scenario and then we see that scenario.  It makes it clear that many of these characters, predominantly the white ones, are defined by a certain level of fear of something new and foreign intruding on their life.

Fanny tells Copee about the affair and pregnancy, and he nearly kills Elgar with an axe before holding back.  Copee is then hospitalized due to what seems like some sort of mental breakdown.  I think his character, who is hardly in the film outside of a few scenes, is more symbolic to a broader issue on discussions of race than important as an actual person within the story.  Early in the film Copee threatens to shoot “the landlord” with a bow and arrow.  Fanny will later tell him that he only recently became black, and that he was Native American before.  It suggests that Copee has his own identity crisis to a much more severe degree than that of Lanie’s.  To put it another way, there are three people with similar questions about themselves and their place in the world: Elgar, Lanie and Copee.  Elgar’s quest isn’t that important (as I’ll touch on shortly) because it’s not so sincere.  Lanie’s journey was handed to her from birth by her white mother and black father, and she has spent years navigating the black and white worlds.  Both of these characters know who they are, but they want to know where they should go.  Copee, on the other hand, struggles to know who he is on the inside and outside.  His DNA seems constructed on strands of question marks and exclamation points, and in the end, with the revelation that even his family may no longer be his family (due to Fanny’s infidelity), he breaks down.  In the ambulance he pleads for Fanny to not let them donate his heart to someone else before his death.  He seems sure that every part of him has been and will be picked apart.

The story begins to jump much more quickly through time as Elgar has abandoned his relationship with Lanie, telling her he owes it to Fanny to help her through the pregnancy.  When Fanny gives birth to a little boy, she says she can’t raise the child, choosing instead to keep her existing family in tack with Copee.  Elgar says he can’t raise the child either, but he doesn’t have a good reason.  He just says “what am I going to do with a child?”   That’s because Elgar is a child.  He wants to make a difference in the lives of Fanny and his other tenants, but he’s only willing to go so far.  This moment reveals Elgar’s selfishness, and it shows that he thinks he’s making a bigger difference than he really is.

Remember that shot early in the film of the classroom of children in which the teacher calls upon Elgar?  Well we see that shot again.  She asks, once more, “How do we live?”  It’s a central question to the film, and we’ve seen how a variety of people live, the similarities in lifestyle centered on race (whites live one way, blacks another).  Elgar is about to respond, but when we see his face we hear “I’m black, and I’m beautiful.”  The audio is from a schoolroom of black children run by one of Elgar’s tenants, Professor Duboise.  He calls on several children who in turn repeat that phrase.  Then he calls upon Elgar who remains silent.  The professor then says, “some people can’t learn what we learn.”

Elgar gives up and moves out of the building, releasing his grasp on the property, the tenants and his home-owning dream.  He realizes he’s a fraud, no better than his ‘liberal’ parents whose defense of their progressiveness is that they went to the theater to see Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  They are blind to their own intolerance, and that makes racial harmony all that more difficult to achieve.  The first step to fixing a problem is knowing you have a problem.  Elgar sees that his parents have a problem, but he only now realizes that he himself has a problem.

Throughout the story Elgar parades his tolerance of the black community around like his parents celebrated their sitting all the way through Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  He proudly told his parents that he’s dating a non-white girl, and he seems to spend time with his black tenants as if just to make a point to himself and to his parents.  He’s trying to prove too much: He wants to make it clear he can live on his own and that he’s progressive.

So in the end it’s too much.  He leaves the building, not even waving goodbye to the first tenant he met, the one time warmth between them suddenly frozen over.  It’s revealing because it suggests that none of this was authentic.  Elgar was playing at interracial friendships, and his tenants were too.  No matter what he told himself, he was never more than “the landlord.”

Elgar drives to the hospital and picks up his son, whom he said he would allowed to be given up for adoption.  Then he drives over to Lanie’s apartment and calls her down to meet the baby.  The film ends with them going upstairs, Elgar finally making the home he’s been searching for throughout the entire film.  So that home was never a place, but rather a feeling.

I really liked this film.  At first I thought the views on race relations would be rather insensitive by today’s standards, but the film is much more about how the “white establishment” or heteronormative perspectives look at those who are marginalized in society.  The fact that Ashby’s film called out Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner explicitly made it clear that this wouldn’t be another film like that one (which allowed white audiences to pat themselves on the back for how tolerant they are of black people).  This story certainly feels like it’s going that route at first, however.  Elgar leaves the comfort of his white, unsupportive and racist parents to spent time in the ghetto.  He’s held up at gunpoint and bow and arrow-point, but the tenants seem to warm up to him.  He even goes to a party at which he’s supposedly the guest of honor.  But the film stops going that direction when he sleeps with Fanny.  She tells him this won’t go any further, and she’s right.  The film also stops heading down that path.  We start to see the facade stripped away and learn who each of these characters is underneath the surface of the labels assigned to them.

The story is very much about a white guy believing he can change the world by doing things his way, only to learn that he knows nothing.  He’s so sure in himself, but that confidence is rightly washed away by the end.  Mr. Duboise tries to briefly teach him that there is a lot of work to do towards racial equality.  His classroom is full of students taught that society wants to put them in certain boxes, and they have to learn at a young age how to break free of those restraints.  In other words, Duboise wants them to know that they don’t have to be what the world tells them they are.

So at the very end of the film, Elgar has learned that he can’t compare his experience with the plight of black people.  He stops talking about what people are like and what people want.  Instead of discussing what should be done, he takes action.  Instead of giving his son up for adoption, he decides to raise him and give him a life.

One of the first images in the film is Elgar in his luxurious backyard, being served lemonade.  That shot is cut back and forth with a black man trying an failing to hail a cab in the city.  While Elgar explains that we’re all the same, we are shown very definitively that we are not.  Martin Luther King’s message was that we should all be treated the same no matter the color of our skin, combating the idea that blacks should be treated differently than whites.  In other words, the marginalized were calling for equal treatment while the establishment did not.  These opening shots have a sort of inverse relationship.  The white guy is the one saying we are all treated equally, and the black man’s inability to get a cab shows how wrong this idea is.

I think this film is a great look first at how change happens and second how it should ideally take place.  First, change is rarely neat.  Elgar’s parents are one way, believing themselves to be progressive, and he’s another way, thinking it’s really he who is progressive.  The story immediately sets up how wrong and naive he is, and the end of the film demonstrates the ideal scenario to facilitate widespread change in how the world operates.  Elgar realizes he’s not as progressive as he first believed, and I think that’s why there is some optimism in this story.  Ashby shows us the holes in our logic (of how we see the world) but suggests we are capable of identifying those blindspots.

The home that Elgar creates is one with a mixed-race girlfriend and a mixed-race baby in a small apartment.  It’s much different than the large white home he grew up in.  So though we may not be able to do everything or maybe anything on our own, we can still have an impact.  God, I don’t like how I’m phrasing this.  The point is this: Elgar’s parents live one way, probably a little more progressive than their parents, and Elgar lives another way.  Then Elgar’s son will grow up in yet another type of home, influencing the way he sees the world.  Change happens slowly over time, most of the time.

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