Regardless of whether Zimmerman was motivated by racial animus, that clash and its aftermath have punctured another cherished American story line. Whether through the gauzy melodramatic flourishes of last year’s hit movie “The Help” or the collective self-satisfaction of electing the country’s first black president, many Americans badly want to believe that the nation has gotten past race. When we celebrate the vigilante on our screens, we tell ourselves it’s because of our healthy mistrust of corrupt structures, or because we’re genuinely vulnerable — not because of our more shameful tendency to sterotype others based on fear or hatred.
These tensions played out in another case of real-life vigilantism that galvanized the nation nearly 30 years ago. In 1984, Bernhard Goetz used an unlicensed gun to shoot four black teenagers he said were trying to mug him on a New York City subway train. As a dramatic embodiment of the anxieties swirling around race, crime and an ineffectual city government at the time, Goetz was vilified in some corners as a racist. But just as many saw him as a folk hero. The National Rifle Association contributed heavily to Goetz’s defense and used his example to lobby for more liberal concealed carry laws.
The result is that Zimmerman might have indirectly had Goetz to thank for his own license to carry the Kel-Tec PF-9 pistol with which he shot and killed Martin. (For his part, Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder and convicted only of illegal possession of a firearm.)
Back in 1984, some New York newspapers dubbed Goetz “The ‘Death Wish’ Gunman,” after Bronson’s architect-turned-urban-hero. This time around, though, we don’t have a ready-made cinematic vernacular for the vexing reality that has pierced the self-valorizing myth of vigilantism and facile assumptions about race and identity.
It’s easy to understand the enduring appeal of the vigilante archetype, whose hard-charging moral certainty jibes perfectly with this country’s sense of exceptionalism, not to mention the narrative constraints of a 90-minute action movie. It’s far more difficult to reconcile complicated reality with the simplistic, comforting fictions we crave.
After all, contradictions don’t have easy character arcs. Mutual comprehension doesn’t lend itself to ballistic showdowns. Self-examination and second thoughts are notoriously un-telegenic. But as audiences look forward to another summer of vigilante derring-do, whether by way of Bruce Wayne or Ben Stiller, they may want to take a moment to remember George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, and ask whether some of the stories we keep telling ourselves can ever really have a happy ending.
Ann Hornaday is The Washington Post’s chief film critic.
Read more from Outlook, including:
“In Trayvon Martin’s death, echoes of my brother’s shooting”
“Having Obama in the White House has made it harder to talk about race in America”
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