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Easing Into Old L.A. : With 'Devil in a Blue Dress,' director Carl Franklin checks out postwar black Los Angeles, where cool jazz flows from steamy nightspots and corruption threatens behind every lamppost.

September 24, 1995|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is an occasional contributor to Calendar. and

Surrounded by a swarm of noisy school kids, Carl Franklin is having his picture taken outside the Griffith Observatory at the foot of a statue commemorating the grand eminences of astronomy. The kids don't give Franklin a second glance--the cerebral film director's not the sort of guy who stands out in a crowd.

Wearing a checkered blue shirt and sandals with a goatee and shades, he looks like a high school Marxist history teacher on holiday. You'd certainly never peg him for one of Hollywood's hot talents of the moment, the director of "Devil in a Blue Dress," which uses the observatory as a locale for one of the film's key scenes. Opening Friday, the film stars Denzel Washington as Easy Rawlins, the Walter Mosley-created African American private detective who finds himself embroiled in mystery and mayhem on the mean streets of 1948-era Los Angeles.

As for the kids, their attention is focused on the statue's imposing bust of Galileo. "Ever heard of him?" one of the boys asks. "Oh, sure," his schoolmate knowingly replies. "He's the guy who discovered 'Frankenstein.' "

Filmgoers have little sense of history, especially the teen-age audience that drives the movie business. If they draw a blank on Galileo, imagine what they don't know about postwar black Los Angeles. It's a dilemma that strikes close to home with Franklin, who studied history at the University of California at Berkeley and is just as likely to tout a favorite documentary about Noam Chomsky as a new feature film. So it's no wonder that the 46-year-old director admits he was "terrified" at the prospect of test-screening his first major studio film for a raucous young audience.

" 'Devil in a Blue Dress' has a complex plot, which is hard on young moviegoers who are used to 'Dumb and Dumber' and MTV," explains Franklin, who first came to prominence after winning rave reviews for the 1992 cult-favorite film "One False Move." "They want a quicker story, with more flash. But by the time it was over, I was relieved. I think as the story began to unfold, they started to enjoy it."

The movie opens with Rawlins, having lost his job as an airplane mechanic, scrambling to find work so he can make the next payment on his house. When a shady character named DeWitt Albright offers him $100 to locate a beautiful missing woman, Easy takes the bait, only to find himself drawn into a seamy web of political chicanery and corruption. As the stakes get higher, Rawlins sends for Mouse, a childhood pal from Houston with a gold tooth and an itchy trigger finger.

In a lot of ways, Mouse is a prototype for today's amoral young gangbangers--he shoots first, asks questions later. History isn't his subject. Franklin initially toyed with the idea of casting Ice Cube in the role, though he eventually settled on Don Cheadle, a gifted actor he'd worked with years before.

"Oh, yeah, Mouse is the guy the kids like," Franklin says with a laugh. "They could relate to him. He's our fantasy character. In a time when most people feel powerless, he gives you a sense of power. Easy is always dealing with all these complicated questions of morality. But with Mouse, if you're a bad guy, you pay the price."

For Denzel Washington, playing Easy Rawlins was a chance to see a real black character in a specific historical context. "We'd never really seen South-Central Los Angeles from that time, so it was fresh territory," the actor explains. "Plus, it was real--Easy's a regular guy who's in over his head in a crazy situation. When I'm down at the station, being questioned by the police, I'm scared. It's how you'd react in real life--you're not so tough when you got a billy club up the side of your head."

By the end of filming late last year, Franklin and Washington had begun calling each other an odd assortment of mordant nicknames, favorites among them being Pain, Hurt and Slice. The private code originated with the director's interest in the brilliant black writer Chester Himes, who died, largely forgotten and in exile, more than a decade ago. To give his star a sense of place for the film, Franklin had Washington read various Himes texts, including crime thrillers like "Cotton Comes to Harlem" and his bitter autobiography, "The Quality of Hurt."

Himes' accounts of his troubles gave the director and actor a black-comic bond--in both senses of the phrase. "We had this ongoing Chester Himes thing where we'd try to find new ways to hurt each other's feelings," recalls Washington. "I'd say to Carl, 'Brother, I saw some of your work yesterday and it was terrible!' And then he'd say to me, 'That's just what I was thinking about your work, brother!' "

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