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John DoughertyFebruary 23, 2024
Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster star in a scene from the movie "Inside Man." (CNS photo/Universal) (March 23, 2006)

February is Black History Month, and Catholic Movie Club is going to focus on the work of Black directors. I’ve invited a friend to join me each week to discuss these films with me and to involve Black voices in this series. I hope you enjoy our dialogues as much as I have!

For our final film of Black History Month, we’re covering “Inside Man” (2006), written by Russell Gerwitz and directed by Spike Lee, one of the most acclaimed Black American directors in history. A taut heist thriller, “Inside Man” has a deceptively simple premise: A crew of armed robbers, led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), enter a Wall Street bank and take the staff and clientele hostage. Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), an honest cop under investigation for corruption, is assigned as the negotiator. Meanwhile, Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), a high-powered fixer, is hired by the bank’s wealthy founder to protect the secret contents of his safe deposit box. But not all is as it seems, and as the tense standoff continues, Detective Frazier—and the audience—have to reassess who the real “good guys” are.

This week’s discussion was a long time coming. My guest, Phadadria M. Randall, L.C.S.W., is a school counselor and the owner of Wholehearted Counseling Services, L.L.C. in New Jersey. We previously worked together in the Office of Campus Ministry at Saint Peter’s Prep, a Jesuit high school in New Jersey. For a year, we co-taught a section of a senior religion elective called “Finding God in All Films,” so faith-centered conversations about movies are nothing new for us. Phadadria enthusiastically recommended “Inside Man” to me over the years, so I was happy to finally watch it and discuss it with her for this series. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

John Dougherty: Can you tell me a little about your history with this film and Spike Lee’s work in general?

Phadadria Randall: I have seen most of Spike Lee’s movies, particularly…his first films. I've seen so many of them multiple times. “Inside Man”...is not what one would consider to be a “Spike Lee joint.” When we think of the traditional Spike Lee joint, we’re thinking [of] a block in Brooklyn, loud music, gold chains, people yelling, tons of vernacular..this feels like a Spike Lee film rather than a Spike Lee joint. The first time I saw it, I was in college. My now-husband recommended it…and within the first three or four minutes of the film, I was locked in. Those same three or four minutes still captivate me now. I’ve seen this movie more times than I can count. The film is beautifully multi-layered.

And…this is not a Black movie in the way that we’ve seen from Spike Lee. It’s about marginalized groups…but it’s beyond the scope of just Black Americans. It doesn’t necessarily center any one particular voice. And that, I think, is a stretch for Spike Lee, but I think that’s what makes this film attractive to so many people.

Whether it’s the person we’re voting for, or the job that we have, or how we interact with our family and others, and all aspects of our lives, we have to ask: What are the lines?

On that topic…I can imagine people seeing this in theaters and getting so swept up in how slick and well-constructed of a thriller it is that they could walk away [saying], “Oh, this is Spike just having fun and not making it political.” But what makes a political filmmaker? Is it just that all their movies tackle [political] issues directly? Or is it a strong political viewpoint that influences all of their work? In this film, he’s making a heist movie, but he’s also bringing in all of these different layers of injustice because these are realities for the characters. I think that’s a very political act of filmmaking, saying: “This is the reality of the country you live in, and…you’re going to have to think about this stuff, even in this twisty heist thriller.”

[Those] are ever-present reminders that the world we live in will always be multi-layered. And [it raises questions of] right versus wrong, good versus bad, the intersection of morals and ethics. How much wrong are you willing to do to try to get it right? How much bad are you willing to do to fulfill a good thing? Those are questions that every individual character has to answer. And I think, as human beings, we deal with that every day. As people of faith, we deal with that every day. It's not so much about the what, it’s more of the why.

Lee does a lot to upend your expectations, and I think one of the main ways he communicates is by showing you those lines that people will or won’t cross. There’s that great scene with Clive Owen’s character and the little kid playing the video game, where [this armed bank robber] is horrified by the violence in the game. That tells you a lot about the character.

All the characters who are…a little gray or whatever, they still have that line they won’t cross. That’s the cross we all bear. [Which] lines will we cross, [which] lines won't we cross? Granted, this movie sets up a very particular scenario. But at the end of the day, whether it’s the person we’re voting for, or the job that we have, or how we interact with our family and others, and all aspects of our lives, we have to ask: What are the lines? What are the boundaries? Why are they there? Why [are they] important? Are you being led by a greater good, whether it be faith, God, spirituality? What’s your why?

I was thinking about the contrast between…Denzel’s character [Detective Frazier, the hostage negotiator] and Christopher Plummer’s character [Arthur Case, the wealthy and philanthropic bank founder]. Denzel was falsely accused of taking money…but because of who he is, it’s causing him all of these issues. Case, on the other hand, made his fortune by collaborating with the Nazis and literally selling out his Jewish business partner. But because of who he is, nobody has even questioned where his wealth came from.

[Case] says, “I sold my soul, and I’ve been trying to buy it back ever since.” He’s able to arrive at this place where he acknowledges that he’s done something atrocious. But his power, his access and dare I say the color of his skin has still allowed him a certain level of freedom to do whatever he wants that Denzel’s character never experiences. I think that’s an interesting perspective for [Frazier] to be a Black American character who has this faith that justice will prevail…because he knows he hasn’t done any wrongdoing. Whereas you have [the heist crew] who are sort of creating their own justice. And at the end, who walks away with their dignity? Who can rest their head at night and know that they’ve done the best they can do as a human being in this society?

Here’s this Black man who still has to humble himself to this white woman in power, who’s still answering to a white man in power—that’s still a day-to-day reality for so many Black Americans.

At the beginning of the film, we think the heist crew are just violent criminals… but at the end you realize they are risking a lot to…correct an injustice that’s decades old. And like you say, they trust that justice will be served. I like how, when Denzel interacts with Jodie Foster’s character, even though she’s morally gray, he can tell that she has a code like he does. That’s why he goes to her at the end: “I have faith that there’s a line you won’t cross, and you have the access to [hold a powerful man accountable] that I don’t.”

Even that, when you think about it—here’s this Black man who still has to humble himself to this white woman in power, who’s still answering to a white man in power—that’s still a day-to-day reality for so many Black Americans. [H]e was able to navigate the injustice to get justice. It’s recognizing what’s within your capabilities and using [that] for the best outcome.

How do you respond to this movie as a person of faith?

As a person of faith, as a woman, as a Black woman, as a mother, as a wife and all the many other titles that I hold, this movie forces me to re-evaluate my connections with everyone. This movie forces you to think about your own values, your own morals, your own boundaries in a way that allows you to be your best self. But it also forces you to reflect on the values, boundaries and morals of others in a way that allows you to work together and to coexist. When we think about our internal motivations, I can say without a doubt that my motivations are all connected to my relationship with God. And my values and my principles that I live by are guided by my connection to God. When I think about lines that I’m not willing to cross, I don’t have to give it a second thought—there’s no moral gray area for me. And I can also respect that there might be some for others, and I can still love you, and I can still pray for you and I can still…do my best to try to support you. I can empathize, at one point or another, with every single character in that movie. At the end of the day, finding God is finding that humanity in people.

“Inside Man” is streaming on Peacock Premium and Starz.

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