Lakeview Terrace | Race, Class and Corruption in L.A.

Lakeview Terrace (2008) is a thriller with a unique premise. The film tells the story of a newlywed couple, Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington), who move into a high-priced Los Angeles suburb. As they settle into their new home, the couple is met with hostility from their new neighbor Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson). Abel is a beat officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, widowed with two children.

Abel, who is black, does not approve of the Mattsons, displaying antagonism early on toward their interracial marriage (Chris is white; Lisa is black) for reasons that become clear later. Although the neighbor relationship could possibly work itself out, the two sets of neighbors become increasingly hostile toward each other after a series of perceived slights. As the young couple become concerned about the escalating tensions, they find themselves without recourse, learning the hard way that the “blue wall of silence” will always favor their well-connected police officer neighbor.

Samuel L. Jackson in 'Lakeview Terrace'

Samuel L. Jackson, as Abel Turner, in Lakeview Terrace.

A Neighborhood Trust Gone Wrong

When we first meet the Mattsons there are many things that set off Abel’s hostility, starting first when Abel incorrectly identifies Chris Mattson as the mover instead of the husband. Abel begins to stalk Chris like a predator. At their first meeting Abel catches Chris in his car, listening to hip-hop and smoking a cigarette. Abel blinds Chris with his flashlight and tells him to roll down his window; he then holds the flashlight to Chris’s head as if it’s a gun and tells him to hand over his wallet.

After that unsettling introduction, presumably a lesson to be wary of one’s surroundings, the pair engage in some small talk before Abel condescendingly tells Chris that he can listen to hip-hop all he wants but he will still wake up white tomorrow. You can almost feel Abel deciding then and there that Chris and his wife need to leave. Abel also becomes increasingly upset when he finds Chris’s discarded cigarette butts on his lawn.

We learn early on that Abel is a strict authoritarian with his children. In one telling scene Abel even criticizes his pre-teen son for his basketball jersey, forcing him to change from a Kobe Bryant jersey to a Shaquille O’Neal jersey. (Abel’s character would presumably have been critical both of Bryant’s interracial marriage and his sexual assault case of 2003). Abel also has a terrible relationship with his teenage daughter, and the two are increasingly antagonistic toward each other.

Yet Abel’s children are also clearly the most important people in his life, and they are perhaps the only people who are keeping him relatively sane. The final straw for Abel and the precursor to a protracted “war” with the Mattsons, which happens very early on, is when Abel sees the young couple having sex in their pool, in full view of his children. The scene is pivotal in the sense that Abel takes the slight as a violation of both his Christian value system and also his authority as a father.

Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson in 'Lakeview Terrace'

Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson, as Lisa and Chris Mattson, in Lakeview Terrace.

And from there, well, things escalate quickly. Abel sets up some very intrusive security lights which keep the Mattsons up throughout the night. Then, the Mattsons’ air conditioner mysteriously breaks down, although it is implied that Abel is responsible. The Mattsons attempt to smooth things over by inviting Abel over for a dinner party, but the party quickly becomes a disaster when Abel’s conservative values clash with the beliefs of the other guests.

In another scene, Abel’s daughter is swimming over at the Mattson’s house without Abel’s permission. After a tense argument Abel slaps his daughter and mockingly dares Lisa to call the police on him. The point of no return is when Abel furiously chops down, with a chainsaw, plants that the Mattsons had set up as a barrier between the connecting yards.

The film’s final act starts when Abel and Chris meet each other by chance at the local bar. It is only then we learn that Abel lost his wife in a car crash a few years prior. The wife had been on a business lunch with her white boss, and Abel is convinced she was having an affair. By this point Abel’s sense of identity is so shattered that the film can only end in tragedy, and of course it does.

A Discussion of Race and Class in Los Angeles

Lakeview Terrace skirts many hot-button issues successfully, making for a wonderfully complex film. First is the question of race and class. Los Angeles has long been a powder keg of race relations. Even the film’s title and stated location, Lakeview Terrace, the city in Los Angeles where Rodney King was beaten, is a reminder of the area’s troubled history. When the film was released in 2008, the Los Angeles riots of 1992 were still a fresh memory. But even the Watts riots of 1965 had left a permanent scar on Los Angeles. Abel’s character, who we learn grew up in South Central, is a product of this racial hostility, and as we learn more about his character it’s easy to see how he may have adopted an “us vs. them” attitude in terms of race.

But, as Abel points out very early on, he lives and works in one of the most diverse racial areas in the country, and he gets along fine. Just as important is that the Mattsons are outsiders to Los Angeles, and they do not understand the area’s delicate socio-economic balance. Abel bought his house on a middle-class income and after years of struggle. When he sees the Mattsons arrive, he sees a young couple who have been handed everything to them on a silver platter. Chris we learn is some kind of sales rep for a “green” grocery chain (think Whole Foods). Lisa is a work-from-home graphic artist. In Abel’s eyes the Mattsons have not earned the right to live there, in that neighborhood.

Creating a film about a black police officer, who specifically does not like white men and who is specifically against interracial marriage, is a difficult proposition. The film successfully frames Abel’s hatred as a natural result of the trauma from his wife’s death (and presumed affair). Yet the film serves as a reminder to all of us – hatred can exist anywhere and can have any justification. It is the duty of all of us, as a society, to overcome prejudice and hatred and to strive for peace and harmony with each other.

Corruption and the Blue Wall of Silence

Yet Abel’s race and class are only part of his identity. Perhaps most important, Abel is law enforcement. Abel’s family and friends are all police. Abel does nightly armed patrols of the neighborhood, something now eerily reminiscent of the vigilante neighborhood patrols of George Zimmerman just a few years later. As Abel makes clear throughout the film, he believes in the power of law enforcement and its role in maintaining order in society.

Lakeview Terrace was probably made at the exact right time, as far as the film’s plausibility and the premise of a police officer terrorizing his neighbors. In 2008, the year in which the film was released and presumably when the film takes place, the abuse of power in the LAPD was alive and well, as it was in police stations across the county. In 1997, for example, Abner Louima, had been brutalized by the NYPD after a fight outside of a nightclub.

But it wasn’t until the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012 that more serious considerations about race and justice began to dominate nightly headlines. The Trayvon Martin shooting led to the Black Lives Matter movement, which was further fueled by later cases such as that of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. These high profile cases have changed the American judicial system, combined also with increased use of body cams and other technology – all of which would have been distractions for this particular film, a timeline in which the LAPD and the “boys in blue” were still mostly in control.

Lakeview Terrace also does an excellent job of portraying the inherent danger of Abel’s job. In one harrowing scene, for example, Abel has to disarm a young man armed with a shotgun. The situation could easily have spiraled out of control if it weren’t for Abel’s street smarts, quick wit and physical prowess, but also his brutality. It is perhaps due to the daily dangers of Abel’s job that he is willing to escalate his neighborly feud to the breaking point.

I feel it’s no coincidence that Lakeview Terrace takes place in Los Angeles, ground zero for the national debate about the use of police force. Given the timeline of the film Abel would have been an officer up to, and including, the 1992 riots. From 1978 to 1992 Abel would have served under police chief Daryl Gates, who is best remembered as arguably turning the LAPD into somewhat of a paramilitary force. The LAPD’s heavy-handed tactics drew praise from some, especially for attempts to control the spread of drugs and gangs during the 1980s and 90s, but the LAPD was also notoriously corrupt and adversarial to the local community.

On Feb. 28 1997, just five years after the beating of Rodney King, the North Hollywood shootout occurred, an event that would change the way police departments operate, first in Los Angeles and then the rest of the country. During the shootout, neatly summed up by the TV film 44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shoot-Out and also referenced in the Megadeth song “44 Minutes”,  the police found themselves woefully outgunned. As a result, the LAPD and then police departments across the country began to arm themselves with semi-automatic assault rifles, such as M16s and AK-47s. Later, police departments became the recipients of surplus military vehicles and equipment, a development that further led to the militarization of law enforcement.

The fine line between legitimate law enforcement on the one hand, and police corruption and brutality on the other, began to blur in the late ‘90’s during the Rampart scandal. During this time more than 70 officers belonging to the CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) anti-gang unit of the LAPD’s Rampart Division were implicated in a wide range of misconduct including unprovoked shootings and beatings, the planting of false evidence, stealing and dealing narcotics, bank robbery, perjury, and attempts to cover up evidence of these crimes.

The topic of police force is one that Abel himself brings up at the dinner party earlier in the film. Do citizens trust the police with their safety and tacitly accept that sometimes a few eggs will be cracked along the way? And who is left to police the police in the face of corruption? These are topics that are still being discussed today and which there are no clear answers to.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of one’s personal beliefs the film portrays a nightmare scenario to the viewer. If your neighbor were a police officer, and for whatever reason wanted you gone, what recourse would you have? Would you trust the institutions in place to protect you from police power?

It’s tempting to compare Lakeview Terrace with other films that deal with police corruption, films such as Training Day, Copland, and the disturbing Bad Lieutenant. However, such comparisons would not be apt. Abel does knowingly abuse his power as a police officer, but his motives are entirely personal. In fact, Abel believes he is doing the right thing and that he is just in his actions, however twisted that may be.

If anything, I would say Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Abel is closest to Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Abel is simply an average man who played by the rules that society gave him. Unfortunately, society has passed him by and he is now past the point of no return. It’s just unfortunate for the Mattsons that Abel has both the means and the willingness to abuse his police connections for ill intent.

Lakeview Terrace is a thoughtful film and there is much you can take away from it, depending on your own personal beliefs and background. I especially like that the entire film takes place in a cul-de-sac. A cul-de-sac provides a sense of security against outsiders, but if you have a conflict with a neighbor you can easily imagine the problems becoming much worse. Likewise, during the film’s final act I appreciate that it takes place against a background of a raging wildfire threatening to engulf the neighborhood. Abel’s character is aware of the danger but still remains, choosing to water his roof until the very end.

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