‘Lakeview Terrace,’ a film about a black officer at odds with his mixed-race neighbors, takes liberties with an Altadena couple’s true story
By Carl Kozlowski 09/18/2008
What if you had a neighbor who was so obnoxious that you finally had to call the cops? Then think of what would happen if that neighbor was a cop and all of his colleagues wanted nothing to do with you or your complaints?
That’s the disturbing premise of “Lakeview Terrace,” a film starring Samuel L. Jackson opening nationwide Friday. Jackson plays Abel, an LAPD officer who goes ballistic after an interracial couple played by Patrick Wilson, who is white, and Kerry Washington, who is African-American, moves in. As the story goes, Abel uses every means at his disposal — from simple annoyances to costly pranks to committing crimes — to drive Wilson and Washington out of the neighborhood.
If this storyline has a familiar ring, it should — at least to readers of this newspaper, which during the past seven years has been following a remarkably similar story that’s been an ongoing concern in a middle-class neighborhood in Altadena.
It seems director Neil LaBute’s “Lakeview Terrace” is an artistic rendition of the real-life story of John and Mellaine Hamilton, an interracial Altadena couple that has been locked in a number of bitter disputes with next-door neighbor Irsie Henry, an African-American former LAPD officer who has ended up in court over his disagreements with the Hamiltons.
Henry laughed off the similarities; Mellaine Hamilton said she and her husband were never contacted by producers of the film and scholars debated the social values being portrayed and questioned the ethics of using such a story without permission of the principal players involved. But Jackson didn’t see any conflicts involved in his end of the production.
Jackson admitted hearing “a little” about the Hamilton-Henry feud, but said the film has plenty of elements to stand on its own merits. Jackson had his share of run-ins with police as a youth, but he’s also a realist when it comes to neighborhood security in an increasingly violent world.
“A cop like this probably does take care of the neighborhood more than he harms it,” Jackson said of his character. “People hear about cops in other areas who might be corrupt on some level but are the only ones who can help when a huge problem goes down and someone shoots 20 people. So people will think of what a guy like this does for their neighborhoods rather than worrying about the cops’ private lives and disputes.”
LaBute and writer David Loughery, who originally penned the screenplay five years ago as the real-life situation was unfolding in stories first covered by former Weekly reporter Natalie Dunbar and picked up later by City Reporter André Coleman, said films — just like episodes of TV’s “Law & Order” — are going to find inspiration in affairs of the times.
Perhaps, with the right intentions, such productions can make a positive difference in preventing similar problems from occurring in the future, said LaBute. But “Ultimately, we ask ‘Can we get along?’” said the director, harkening back to the words of Rodney King following the first days of the LA Riots, sparked by the acquittal of the white LAPD officers accused of beating King. (Ironically, King is from Altadena, and was beaten that night — the early morning hours of March 3, 1991 — after being pulled over in Lakeview Terrace.) “Barely,” LaBute answered his own question. “But what’s the alternative?”
In the case of the Hamiltons and Henry, the only alternative has been hiring lawyers and going to court a number of times. In the last legal round, Henry — who lost his job two years ago following an LAPD Board of Rights hearing — was found not guilty of assaulting John Hamilton in 2006. In that incident, Henry is seen in a video that he recorded chasing Hamilton with a can of what appeared to be pepper spray (but Henry contended was really spray deodorant) after Hamilton sprayed Henry with a garden hose.
In a recent previous ruling in a different Pasadena courtroom, this time deciding whether Henry violated the conditions of a restraining order brought against him by the Hamiltons, Henry was given a 10-day suspended jail sentence and placed on probation.
Spencer Vodnoy, attorney for the Hamiltons, said his clients prefer to put as much distance as possible between themselves and Henry and the court. Henry has claimed — and is supported in a recent letter to the editor written by his sister Aldra Allison — that he is not a racist, as the Hamiltons and others have said, and that he is really the victim in all of these cases.
For the most part, both sides appear prepared to move on with their lives. But now, they must all deal with seeing Jackson’s image staring at them from movie billboard ads placed throughout the area — including one at the intersection of North Lake Avenue and Altadena Drive in Altadena. And it is that exposure of personal problems to the wider world that brings into focus numerous issues raised when Hollywood tries to turn the lives of otherwise private people into ostensibly fictional films.
“What was amusing for us was the film was listed under unusual concepts on a film Web site, which we found interesting since we’d been living it for five years,” said Mellaine Hamilton. “I Google my name and the movie comes up. Even if you Google Badcop.com, [Henry’s] name comes up and the movie after it.”
“There’s no question [the movie] is based on this case of Henry [and] the Hamiltons,” said Vodnoy.
“The thing that’s kind of disturbing about it on some level is the fact that Hollywood is potentially sensationalizing a story that’s true and exists but they pretend there’s no connection between the two things. I can’t speak for my clients, but for me at least, it kind of undermines the serious nature of the dispute.”
The film, Henry said, “should be basically written in a different direction; it’s been them harassing me.”
Whichever side one takes, Professor Michael Taylor, chair of the film and television production division of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, said the issues faced by the Hamiltons and Henry in relation to “Lakeview Terrace” are longstanding in the world of filmmaking.
“Classically, headlines have always become entertainment. Headlines are traditionally about crimes and unusual human stories with all kinds of extraordinary bits of human behavior, which makes for the basis of an entertaining, dramatic film,” said Taylor. “But when it’s a story as specific as what you told me, I would think you’d have to get permission. It’s important to acquire the rights before you dramatize or fictionalize.”
Taylor’s USC colleague Lanita Jacobs-Huey, an associate professor and expert on African-American culture, language and inter-ethnic violence, said “Lakeview Terrace” walks a fine line between exploiting real pain and addressing important but often-buried social issues.
“This is certainly a provocative premise that might rub some people the wrong way when we think of the typical scenario of police brutality, where we often don’t think it’s a black cop perpetrating and certainly not interracial love that’s their focus,” Jacobs-Huey said. “The fact that a true story is that close to the film is really something.”
While Loughery admitted seeing a “small story in a newspaper,” he said his true inspiration was in dreaming up “the ultimate neighbor-from-hell” story.
“I had been wanting to write that kind of feud story and it was the springboard for the film, but I only recently heard of the real-life names,” Loughery said. “I wanted it to work as a thriller, but one that also had something to say about the current state of race relations in America today.”
While LaBute was brought onto the project late in pre-production, he vouched for Loughery’s explanation that the Hamilton story was a “touchstone,” at best, for the project.
“This film speaks to the nation, where race is on the table a lot of the time. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be coming out on nearly 3,000 screens,” said LaBute. “But our characters don’t talk about race directly. Race hangs in the air — just like it does in real life. For being a movie that fits the templates of a thriller, this has a lot on its mind.”
Mellaine Hamilton has a lot on her mind, too, especially regarding safety from neighbors who are granted special privileges because of their connection to law enforcement. “One of the things we learned through this situation is that when you’re the police officer, you get the benefit of the doubt automatically... The cops said they didn’t believe it,” she said.
Blaming the filmmakers for being exploitive and “unimaginative,” as she put it, is one thing. But “We blame LAPD too,” she said, “because they knew all along.”