A racist next door

Times Staff Writer

The LOS ANGELES Police Department and race relations factor prominently in a number of celebrated dramas, including “Crash” and “L.A. Confidential.” The upcoming thriller “Lakeview Terrace” pushes the often combustible mix of law enforcement and ethnic identity into a notably different direction: the film’s racist police officer is black.

Many events conspire to drive LAPD Officer Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson) off the deep end, but one of the film’s more incendiary ideas focuses on the role of interracial romance. Part of what transforms Turner from a man with a badge into the neighbor from hell is the newly married couple next door: Chris Mattson (Patrick Wilson) is white, while his wife, Lisa (Kerry Washington), is black.

“It was a different take, something that is not often portrayed,” said James Lassiter, who with actor Will Smith produced “Lakeview Terrace” for Sony’s Screen Gems. Race, Lassiter added, “is not the singular driver of [Turner’s] hate. But he is a racist.”

It’s not just that Turner disapproves of his neighbors’ latte-sipping lifestyle, which includes indiscreet romantic encounters, liberal friends and -- the horror! -- a hybrid car (Turner’s a giant SUV-driving right-winger). Turner, a single father of two, also can’t stand that the skin color of his neighbors isn’t the same. “You can listen to that noise all night long,” Turner at one point says to Chris as he listens to rap music, “but when you wake up in the morning, you’ll still be white.”


Jackson believes that in the PG-13 rated “Lakeview Terrace,” like the rest of the world, race is both text and subtext, which may make the movie especially topical. “People will say they are not voting for [Barack Obama] because he’s black, but of course they are. They have no idea what his platform is,” the actor said. “Race is an issue that everybody thinks about but you avoid talking about.”

The early trailer and poster for the film, which opens Sept. 19, don’t give the race relations story line much of a mention, but it’s largely what brought the movie’s cast -- and its frequently rabble-rousing director, “In the Company of Men’s” Neil LaBute -- to the project.

“There have been precious few films made about it,” said LaBute, of the subject of mixed-race marriage. “But it’s not necessarily the thing that draws an audience.”

poster and Ray Liotta’s bad cop thriller “Unlawful Entry.”When the movie opens, the Mattsons are moving into a cul-de-sac of pleasant new homes in a development on the outskirts of Los Angeles. (The movie’s title refers to the San Fernando Valley neighborhood where Rodney King was beaten by police in 1991, but the production was filmed in Walnut, 25 miles east of downtown.)


From the start, Turner, a 20-year LAPD veteran, doesn’t like what he sees next door. Chris Mattson secretly smokes and leaves butts all over. But it’s more what the Mattsons represent, rather than what they do, that makes Turner’s blood boil. “It’s a brave new world,” Turner says to Chris at one point.

A single dad, Turner struggles to correct his kids’ grammar and clothing choices -- his son has to take off a Kobe Bryant jersey because, in Turner’s mind, Bryant’s no longer on the right side of the law. As his roughhouse law enforcement techniques suggest, he’s old school -- to a fault.

As a neighbor, Turner is vigilant to a disquieting degree. He has mounted retina-burning, motion-activated floodlights on his home’s exterior walls and patrols the local streets with a gun tucked into his shorts. His daughter complains, “He has enough rules for two people.”

For a while, though, he’s not entirely unlikable; he’s a law-and-order man facing a chaotic landscape. He’s hardly an overt racist in the George Wallace mold; it’s more that he prefers life as it was, rather than what it has become.


Having worked his way out of South-Central to the suburbs, Turner resents that his neighbors appear to be privileged rich kids handed a standard of living they didn’t necessarily earn.

“I think a lot of people will watch this movie and agree with his point of view and see where he’s coming from,” Jackson said. When a secret is revealed late in the film about how Turner became a single dad, it becomes more understandable why Turner feels so hostile about mixed-race couples.

Executive producer Joe Pichirallo, who brought LaBute and playwright Howard Korder into the movie, explained: “The challenge was always to figure out how to portray him in a way that while you could question his methodology, you would not see him as all bad -- that he had legitimate grievances with his neighbors.”

When his two children witness the Mattsons’ having sex in their pool, Turner opens the hostilities. “That’s not the sort of thing you’d ever want your kids to see,” Jackson said.


Someone sabotages the Mattsons’ air conditioner and slashes their car tires. As a brush fire in the distance starts to flare, so too does Turner’s anger. Chris Mattson may be an organic-T-shirt-wearing UC Berkeley alumnus, but he’s not entirely soft and decides to fight back.

When Wilson first picked up the “Lakeview Terrace” screenplay (by David Loughery and Korder), “it read more as an R-rated film -- it was more of an actiony genre film,” the actor said. As LaBute worked with Korder to revise the script, the story’s political and character ideas became more focused and prominent. “Neil is able to push buttons without it seeming heavy-handed,” Wilson said. “It’s never done with a, ‘Let’s throw in some crazy stuff for shock value.’ He’s not that kind of writer.”

LaBute said the villain didn’t necessarily have to be black. “This character could have been played by Tommy Lee Jones or Edward James Olmos,” the director said. “We were wrestling with the idea of a modern-day cop in Los Angeles who is dealing with so many different people of so many different backgrounds and then has a reaction to this mixed-race couple.”

Turner may be the ultimate authority on the streets, but he feels powerless at home. The story, in LaBute’s view, is “not about 400 years of oppression” but about someone with a troubled past who snaps over something that many of us have encountered -- disrespectful neighbors.


And when things go bad, who can the Mattsons call? Their tormentor is their protector, the police. “That’s a modern-day horror movie: that the person you normally turn to for safety” is after you, LaBute says, “not that you’re running around in the woods being chased by someone with a chain saw.” “Unlawful Entry.”

“What appealed to us more than anything -- more than the racial elements -- is that the authority you are calling to protect you is the one you’re having the conflict with,” Lassiter said.