Sunday February 24th, 2019…that date will have a two-fold reason for being remembered: First, it’s the day Mahershala Ali won his second Academy Award. Winning the Oscar for the comedy-drama film Green Book solidified his status as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actors. Oscar wins for both Regina King and Rami Malek (for If Beale Street Could Talk and Bohemian Rhapsody, respectively) are also recognitions of people of color for their acting talents. The cynic in me wonders if those three wins are just patronizing handouts from the Academy, but another part of me is just glad that talent is being appreciated. And the second reason…? That’s also because of Mahershala Ali. He’s been the lead character for the third season of the HBO series True Detective and the season finale aired that same night. The third season was a return to form after the near-universal condemnation of the second season. The third season returned to the southern gothic roots of the original, as well as the 3-time period narrative structure. However, what was most striking about it was how it was a dramatic departure (particularly the finale) from the blinding darkness that has defined the series from the beginning. In a season marked by mystery, deaths, and southern racial tension, it actually had a happy ending. And if you haven’t seen this season, read no further. Spoilers are below.
The season began chronologically on November 7th, 1980. Apart from being the same day that Steve McQueen died, it was also a day that began a decades-long plague in the lives of two Arkansas State Police detectives named Wayne Hays (Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff). The disappearance of two children in a small Ozark community came to affect the lives of everyone involved and those who later became involved. The two children, Will and his younger sister Julie Purcell, took their bikes out for an afternoon ride, but never came home. Hays and West, a cynical Black & White cop partnership, investigate the case over three decades, looking for closure even long after they retire from the police force.
As with season one, there are plenty of religious themes amidst the southern backdrop. The noir-ish car conversations remain and can now be considered a vital part of the series, as does the aerial cinematography. The other parallels to season one are family and children: The Tuttles in season one were a powerful Louisiana family with their influential tendrils dug into religion, education and politics. They even immortalized their existence by spawning several illegitimate branches of their family. The Tuttles were also secretly involved in ritualistic child sacrifices and abductions. The appearance of the powerful Hoyt family in season three invoked the aforementioned child abuse aspects. The Hoyt family made their fortune in the food industry with their company Hoyt Foods (a nod to another successful Arkansas food corporation by the name of Tyson Foods, Inc.), but the personal lives of the family were plagued by a series of unfortunate events. But, back to the case…
…the disappearance of two children most certainly provoked hysteria, especially the racial kind. A shell-shocked Vietnam veteran named Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes) becomes the target of the White good ol’ boys of the neighborhood largely because he’s a Native American with marginal employment. The only person he seems to connect with is Wayne, not just because he’s a fellow person of color, but also a fellow Vietnam war vet (Wayne is revealed to have been a soldier specializing in long-range reconnaissance patrol). It isn’t long before tensions fly and result in a shootout at Woodard’s. With Woodard now dead via suicide by cop, the politically-influenced bureaucracy of the state police use it as an opportunity to close the case and declare that Will and Julie were killed by Woodard (despite no proof of this, and there was planted evidence at Woodard’s home used to support this action).
During this period, Wayne encounters other people of color as well. He meets a middle school teacher named Amelia Reardon (played by Carmen Ejogo) and their relationship is established over her morbid fascination with the Purcell case. In fact, it’s their mutual dissatisfaction with how the Purcell case ended in 1980 that leads to Wayne being deskbound as a public information secretary until 1990 (albeit voluntarily out of pride). Wayne’s first interaction with Amelia betrayed a low-key flirtation on both parts that grew in subsequent meetings. Even their discussions about the racial climate of their small Arkansas town were subtle and low-key, as though it was too taboo to be talked about. Even their first dinner date contained not-so-subtle imagery, as they and another Black couple were seated in tables all the way in the back of the restaurant.
By May 12th 1990, both are married to each other with children. Amelia is publishing a book about the Purcell case which doesn’t sit well with Wayne, as it represents a painful period with a jarring lack of closure. He and Roland hadn’t spoken since 1980, but are brought back together to reinvestigate the Purcell case after proof surfaces that Julie is alive. Evidence points to potential involvement from the parents of the children. Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) is the distraught father who by 1990 had found Jesus. His wife, Lucy (Mamie Gummer), was known for her promiscuity and certainly had some involvement in her children’s disappearance. Lucy had worked for the Hoyt family in 1979 and they become a bigger piece of the puzzle in 1990. She overdosed in Las Vegas in 1988, and by the season finale, it became empirically evident just how bad of a parent she was. Tom and Lucy both spat racial epithets at Wayne and Amelia before, highlighting the racial tension that would still be around a decade later.
In re-investigating the Purcell case, they once again hear stories about a Black man with a dead eye. In 1980, they found dolls around the children’s last location. These dolls were said to have been purchased at a church fair by a man named Sam Whitehead. Indeed, he is a Black man with one eye, but not the Black man with one eye who they should’ve been looking for. We see that very man, Junius Watts, twice: Once in 1990 at Amelia’s book signing, and again in 2015 as a farmer awaiting penance for his part in the Purcell children’s disappearance. An African-American former housemaid of the Hoyt family described Watts’ relationship with the Hoyts using sub-textual references to the “house slaves vs. field slaves” dynamic. This very theme would come up far more harshly in a break-up argument between Amelia and Wayne in 1990, when he mocks her light-complexion and bougie (read “White”) traits. Their backgrounds also betray the conventions of colorism as well: While both are from Arkansas, Wayne grew up in poor conditions to a single mother, was drafted into the Army, and the furthest extent of his literacy during his formative years were comic books. Amelia is college-educated, light-skinned, was part of the Black Panther movement in California where she alludes to having “been a mess” before getting her life back together.
This theme of colorism can also be said to be expressed in Wayne and Amelia’s adult son, Henry (Ray Fisher), as he has an extramarital affair with Elisa Montgomery, a White woman and documentary filmmaker interviewing the 2015 dementia-addled incarnation of Wayne about the Purcell case. In 1980, Wayne displays a sadistic streak in threatening suspects with prison rape. One particular gem of note that he dropped after he and Roland beat the breaks off a pedophile? “Talk shit about us, I’ll have monstrous niggas fuck him to death in his cell. You hear me boy? You will bleed Black cock.”
This season of True Detective stands out for me as race played a contributing factor to the story. I credit Ali with that, as it was he who convinced showrunner/creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto to make Wayne Hays a Black character. Though the season ending was positive and relatively anti-climactic, the strength of Ali’s performance went concurrent with his Oscar win. The way I see it, he triumphed.