‘Tis the season for police brutality: Die Hard and Lethal Weapon use Christmas to defend the LAPD against accusations of misconduct
The holiday season means a lot of different things to different people. We explore the Christmas season from a pop culture point of view.
In 1986, the LAPD purchased a fourteen-ton armored breaching vehicle the use of which was essential to smashing quickly through walls of suspects’ homes. The constitutionality of the vehicle was questioned and eventually the California Appellate court ruled that the vehicle was indeed unconstitutional, violating the terms of lawful search and seizure.
Around the same time, an investigation into the controversial “choke hold effect” (placing an arm or a flashlight over someone’s throat) brought back in the early 1980s by chief Daryl Gates found that sixteen people had died soon after being restrained by LAPD police who used the choke hold. Despite widespread community disapproval and its subsequent ban, the LAPD continued to use the choke hold until they were exposed. (Martha L. Willman, "Police Violated Chokehold Ban, Valley NAACP Official Claims", Los Angeles Times (June 24, 1982))
During the 80s the LAPD was predominantly white (80%) and living outside of the city limits, particularly the areas of Simi Valley and Ventura County where the Rodney King trials (1992) were held only a few short years later. An influx of immigration in the late 70s and early 80s had severely changed the cultural demographics of the region and a new police chief, Daryl Gates, had taken a zero tolerance approach to handling crime. When questioned about the deaths relating to the choke hold, Gates was quoted as saying "blacks might be more likely to die from chokeholds because their arteries do not open as fast as they do on normal people”, a quote he has understandably claimed was misunderstood in later years.
By the early 1990s the people had had enough of the famous LAPD brutality and in 1992 rioted in the streets against the pro-LAPD Rodney King verdict. 53 people died in the riots and just over 2,000 were injured after the brutal beating of Rodney King in March 1991 was captured on camera and all police officers concerned were exonerated at trial.
The 1992 L.A. riots are now known to be a response to overwhelming frustration with the LAPD under Chief Gates, which reached its peak in the 1980s. By the late 80s word was spreading about the treatment of non-whites and the behaviors of the LAPD were being exposed. Someone had to defend white might, and coming to the rescue was one Joel Silver, who started a local production company, Silver Pictures, in 1985.
Within two years he brought out two films that were to transform action films forever, and so resonate with the community that together they would launched two enormous action careers (Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis), make over $261 million from a combined budget of $43 million, and change perception of the “L.A. Cop” forever.
Both films depict policemen who use force over negotiation, both uphold Christmas values while debunking Christmas criticisms, and both depict white protagonists with black partners, at a time when black LAPD cops almost didn’t exist. (Interestingly, they are similarly inclusive of women and Hispanics, when the same ratio discrepancy existed.) In short, the films are nothing more than propaganda campaigns to improve the image of the LAPD.
There are too many similarities between Lethal Weapon and Die Hard to be dismissed as an accident of coincidence. Both Riggs (of Lethal Weapon) and McClane (of Die Hard) are handsome, funny, white, rogue cop renegades, regularly criticized for being too dangerous and too violent. Despite being a New York cop, we first meet McClane (Bruce Willis) landing in L.A. where he endears himself to us by being afraid of flying and carrying a large bear, but objectifies so many women in the process of leaving the plane that we have no reason to think of him as anything other than a man’s man. On the airplane as he lands, another passenger notices his gun and McClane says: “It’s ok. I’m a cop. Trust me. I’ve been doing this for eleven years.”
When we first meet Riggs (Mel Gibson) he is undercover in a drug bust (all white criminals) but the first time he reveals himself to be a cop, he says “Now I could read you your rights, but nah; you guys already know what your rights are don’t you?” He is accused of being fake, so he comes back with “Now that’s a real badge, I’m a real cop and this is a real fucking gun.” The criminals might not be black, but the aggressive gun wielding cops are definitely misunderstood heroes who try to do right regardless of race.
As for Christmas, both films are peppered with Christmas carols, decorations and constant references to Christmas as a family time of year. The two main criticisms of Christmas as an institution are suicide through loneliness and greedy materialism. Both are defeated by the LAPD in these films – suicide in Lethal Weapon, and corporate greed (Japanese, not American) in Die Hard. White Christian values are upheld through the connection to Christmas, particularly apt when the LAPD had a reputation for attacking non-Christians at the time, and were still riling under the 1951 Bloody Christmas episode when five Hispanic and two white men were severely beaten on Christmas day and eight police officers were eventually indicted for assault, only when the Mexican American community lobbied for an inquiry.
In Lethal Weapon Riggs finds a reason to live after connecting with Murtaugh’s family (closing credits: spends Christmas with them) and in Die Hard McClane reunites with his estranged wife and family after defeating Hans Gruber (closing credits: leaves for his wife’s house in a cab for Christmas, the implication that he will move to L.A. for her).
Suicide is in Lethal Weapon from the beginning, as a semi-naked woman throws herself off a building after we’ve been listening to a stirring rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock”. When we find out the girl is a prostitute who took bad drugs, it fast becomes a narcotics homicide involving our black and white buddy-cop partners learning to get along despite their differences. (And, eventually, resolving Riggs’ own suicidal tendencies.)
Die Hard opens to a stirring rendition of Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis”. McClane is reluctantly in L.A. after his wife left and took the children to pursue career advancement, and he refused to follow, assuming she would fail and return home. She doesn’t, and McClane is forced to accept that family togetherness includes a world where his wife earns more money due to her corporate success.
Both heroes use Christmas to reassess their family values and connect with family through maturity and acceptance. Both heroes learn, through extreme violence perpetrated off to the side of the line of duty, how to be better friends, fathers and men.
Given the LAPD’s reputation for extreme racial attacks at the time, each film is careful to depict white criminals, with only a brief foray into alternate races as criminal associates. Lethal Weapon casts Mitchell Ryan as Gen. Peter McAlister and Gary Busey as Mr. Joshua, a decidedly Aryan looking villain. Die Hard plays the German card again with Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, who controls a group of Aryan looking super villains, a depiction so extreme the cultural identity had to be changed when the film went to Germany. A man of Asian appearance tortures Riggs with electricity and Clarence Gilyard appears as an African-American computer hacker villain in Die Hard. Race is handled very carefully and both white heroes have black cop buddies with whom they form a special bond as each film progresses. In both films, the black buddy defends the white cop’s right to use violence and break the law. At the end of Lethal Weapon, Riggs’ beating of Mr. Joshua is depicted as a fair and equal fight, which a cop-vs-suspect battle never is.
At the time of writing this article, I haven’t been able to confirm where Joel Silver found funding for these two films, but their role as propaganda pieces in defense of the LAPD at the height of its most brutal, racist and culturally dangerous cannot be denied. Above all else, these films are violent, and constantly depict the police as reacting to attack when they kill and break the rules.
White cops are funny, loyal, misunderstood, modest, generous, fair and always right, no matter how many people they shoot and kill, and this message set in L.A. couldn’t be clearer. Above all is the use of the traditionally white Christian celebration of Christmas to reinforce family values and depict the LAPD as the defender of Christmas – and, therefore, white culture. Bad people are those who fight Christmas and the white Christian values of gift giving, indulging in food and alcohol, and family togetherness, all of which go hand in hand. Welcome is the ‘other’ race willing to take up these traditions and celebrate them as if they were white.
Christmas, it seems, is an easy symbol to appropriate.