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Bear Left!

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Volume III, Number 510 February 2003

Catch Any Black Man If You Can

Paul Corrigan

Why do Americans cheer for the white con artist in Stephen Spielberg's film "Catch Me If You Can" and racially profile young black men as criminals? It is an interesting question, but not one Americans want to answer. This is the reality that we are willing to live with, but the truth is something we are not willing to face.

Last Saturday, I took my daughter and her friend to dinner and a movie. "Catch Me If You Can" was a mutually acceptable movie choice. The film is set in the 1960s and is based on the real-life story of Frank Abagnale, Jr. In his teens and early 20s, Abagnale passed millions of dollars in fraudulent checks while posing as an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. In essence, Spielberg brought to the screen a romanticized story of young man who conned his way to the good life and the FBI agent who hunted him for years. The con is handsome and lovable, the G-man a virtual father figure. On its face, the movie, the antithesis of Les Miserables, is devoid of politics. But politics is there if you look. Frank Abagnale, Jr. lived in a world where perception was reality. A smart and charming con artist, he took advantage of the way banks and businesses, even the oldest profession, were willing to cash checks for a young white male professional. That is political.

What drove Frank to such action is also political. Frank is the son of a local businessman, Frank Sr., played to perfection in the film by Christopher Walken. Frank Sr. is a smooth talker. He used that skill to his advantage in romancing the attractive French wife he brought home with him from the war and in the selling and negotiating involved in his business. Frank Sr.'s charm did not work on the IRS. Prosperity turned into financial hardship. Frank Sr. refuses to admit that the world's new perception of him is reality. Faced with adversity, his beautiful wife plays to her strength, the ability to catch a man with her looks and sexuality. Young Frank, forced to change schools, shows he is his father's son. He responds to a school bully on his first day by pretending to be a substitute teacher and then actually teaches a class for days before the witless school administration discovers the ruse. Frank Sr. responds to his son's antics with pride.

Frank Jr. is devastated when his mother announces that she is divorcing his father and he is asked to choose which parent he wishes to live. Emotionally and financially dependent on the adults in his life, Frank Jr. runs away from home and begins passing bad checks as a means of survival. The fraud soon fills not only his financial needs but also his emotional needs. Alas, all of the money in the world can not put his parents' marriage back together again and repair the boy in the young man.

Frank Jr. pretends to be the adult, but we still see him as the kid who craves love and was abandoned by his mother. Hell, even Hank's G-man, Agent Hanratty, feels for the "kid." After the movie, I was surprised that viewers had cheered DiCaprio's character had such harsh words for Frank's parents. His dad was a "deadbeat," his mother a "whore." Is the reality that black and white? No, but perception is. The perception is that they are failures and Frank is a success. In reality, he is a fraud, albeit a creative one. In America, we care more about how people look than who they really are as people. We trust the priest in the collar who buggers young boys. We invest in the company with the celebrity CEO who abuses his fiduciary duty. Shamefully, we incarcerate men of color and the poor in huge numbers for offenses that pale in comparison to those of the rich and powerful. Look at the statistics: they do not lie.

The subway train I took to work last Friday was stopped in Kendall Square station, under the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Close to twenty police officers surrounded a train of six cars. The doors to the train remained closed as the officers peered into the windows of each car. After approximately ten minutes, the doors opened and three officers entered the car just in front of mine and approached a young black male. He was abruptly taken off the train and onto the adjacent platform. Surrounded by police, he was questioned. After some time, he began to raise his voice; he stated his name and the fact that he was an Associate Professor of Mathematics at MIT. His facial expression had changed from one of apprehension to one of anger. "This is racial profiling," he added to the earlier refrain. Indeed, it had every appearance of being just that—approximately 20 minutes into his ordeal, he was allowed back on the train. No one cheered his release.