Ashley Clark on Taxi Driver
With his mohawk, shit-eating grin, DIY spring-loaded wrist-pistol, and “You talkin’ to me?” spiel, Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle is deeply enshrined in popular culture as seventies American cinema’s most charismatic psychopath. Nearly forty years after Taxi Driver’s release, Bickle’s image, left to float free of context, has long been so defanged that it can comfortably adorn the walls of student residence halls, and be appropriated for chuckles in wacky comedies such as the recent Neighbors (featuring a surreal De Niro costume party, in case you were curious). Viewing Taxi Driver today, it becomes apparent that while the urban landscape depicted by Martin Scorsese and DP Michael Chapman represents a poetically stygian version of pre–Mayor Koch Manhattan, its protagonist’s febrile psychological state is rooted in a timeless, prescient, and political reality.
While Bickle has little time for conventional politics—he only declares an interest in presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) because he fancies a crack at campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd)—he’s not apolitical. Shortly after we first encounter this insomniac cabbie, he’s already pondering his own fanatical brand of order-before-law social cleansing, predicting that a “real rain” will come to wash all the scum—“whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies”—off the streets. His simmering internal monologues, partially based on the diaries of callow would-be assassin Arthur Bremer, and written with an acknowledged degree of autobiography by Paul Schrader, clearly reflect a national right-wing backlash mentality that can be traced from the 1970s (popular vigilante films like Dirty Harry  and Death Wish ; the racially and sexually coded Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979) through the 1980s (the successful Willie Horton Republican attack ads), all the way up to today's Tea Party ranters and mouth-breathing Trumpian birthers. In a 2012 foreword to her 2000 monograph on the film, critic Amy Taubin convincingly posits that Bickle stands in for “the millions of Americans who claim that Obama has no right to be President because he is a Muslim and in cahoots with those who attacked us on 9/11. What they are really thinking but dare not say is that he is black, black, black.” With this in mind, it’s revealing to consider how Taxi Driver represents the key threats to Bickle’s ideal society through its portrayal of minority figures.
Until Bickle undergoes a third-act epiphany and decides that his destiny is to rescue preteen prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from the clutches of skeevy pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel), the film suggests that, in addition to the general backdrop of a hot, fetid Manhattan, two particular social groups have taken up permanent residence in his craw: women and black men. Bickle’s misogyny is made plain in the text: he gets aggressively grabby with Betsy when she dumps him for taking her to see a Swedish “sex education” film, and he lambastes her entire gender following this unfortunate incident (“I realize now how much she's just like the others, cold and distant . . . Women, for sure, they’re like a union”). Conversely, there is no equivalently explicit verbal articulation of Bickle’s racism. Granted, he casually drops the epithet “spook” in one of his early diary entry-cum-voiceovers, but only to claim that he—unlike other cabbies—will happily transport said racial group around (“Makes no difference to me”). It’s notable, too, that Bickle isn’t afraid to lay his slimy moves on a black female employee at a porno-theater concession stand (Diahnne Abbott, in a piquant miniature performance of lethargic contempt). When it comes to black men, Bickle’s racism is sublimated deeply into the film's fabric, only intermittently making itself plain to the viewer. In order to amplify Bickle’s tortured psyche and intimate his prejudices without verbalizing them, Scorsese consistently traffics in images of black males as hostile beings, perhaps in part to put his own spin on the urban landscape routinely depicted in the blaxploitation films of the early 1970s. Whether or not Scorsese truly realized the power of such imagery is open to debate, but the film’s representation of black people ultimately comes close to reflecting James Baldwin’s contention, in his book-length essay The Devil Finds Work (published in 1976, the same year that Taxi Driver was released), that “the root of the white man’s hatred [for black men] is terror, a bottomless and nameless terror, which focuses on the black, surfacing, and concentrating on this dread figure, an entity which lives only in his mind.”
Bickle’s issues with black men become apparent the first time we see him at the midtown café where he and his fellow cabbies congregate. The lone black driver, Charlie T (Norman Matlock), is a burly fellow wearing dark glasses and a dashiki, a garment that infers some kind of Black Power affiliation. When Bickle glances over at him, he is met with a menacing glare. It’s the first notable black-white interaction in the film, and it immediately establishes a framework of racial anomie. Does Charlie hate Bickle for a particular reason? We don’t know; we’re not told. Suddenly, a low-angle shot, which replicates Bickle’s point of view, smoothly pushes into two imposing black guys (whose luridly blaxploitastic attire codes them as pimps) at an opposite table, who are also apparently staring threateningly at Bickle. Bickle is so freaked out by this that he slips into a kind of trance state. These minutely observed actions may seem incidental—particularly in a film so famed for its ripely baroque set pieces—but they are crucial in fostering subtext. At this early stage, a first-time viewer has no reason not to empathize with Bickle, and it’s worth considering how different the effect would have been had, say, Charlie T given Bickle a half smile and a wave, or had the men been eating bagels and chatting amongst themselves (neither hypothetical action is implausible). This stacking of the deck in Bickle’s favor is at its most egregious—and, I suspect, intended by Scorsese in this case—in the brief later scene that finds Bickle in his taxi, under fire from a group of feral black youths who pelt his car with bricks and eggs, ultimately smashing his window. One of the enduring difficulties of parsing Taxi Driver is beautifully articulated by Patricia Patterson and Manny Farber in a 1976 essay in Film Comment: “The fact is that, unlike the unrelentingly presented worm in Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, this handsome hackie is set up as lean and independent, an appealing innocent.” As such, Bickle can be read as one in a long line of male protagonists in Scorsese’s films who, in a variety of different ways, tread a teasingly fine line between being repellent and being seductive (see also: Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street). Bickle is dangerously easy to identify with, partially because of how charismatic De Niro is in the role, but also due to the way faceless threats are piled against him.
Although Taxi Driver is a highly individualized film created by at least two authors (Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing in 2011, cites four: Schrader, Scorsese, De Niro, and composer Bernard Herrmann), I’d argue that its callous treatment of black people becomes more problematic when assessed within the context of Scorsese’s oeuvre, a body of work in which the erasure of, and hostility toward, African-Americans, is a recurring trait. Sometimes this is justifiable and enriching, particularly when he is aiming for verisimilitude in pungent, bravely unsympathetic portraits of ethnic Italian-American life, as in Mean Streets and Raging Bull. On the matter, Scorsese told Richard Goldstein and Mark Jacobson upon the release of Taxi Driver: “How do you say, ‘Oh, I mean, in the Italian-American neighborhood I never heard the word Nigger. Never.’ You know, how do you say that? I mean, that’s not true. It just isn’t true. I mean, if you’re gonna put something up there about yourself you might as well try to do it as honestly as possible.” And he’s right. But that doesn’t mitigate the dubious treatment of black people that manifests itself elsewhere in his work, from the anti-black epithets dispensed in Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, and Shutter Island to the gloatingy aestheticized, twice-shown dispatch of Samuel L. Jackson's low-level criminal Stacks Edwards by Joe Pesci's Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, to Gangs of New York's perfunctory handling of the draft riots. In each case, almost zero right of reply is afforded to black characters, and this silence is conspicuous in Taxi Driver, too, when garrulous white cabbie Wizard (Peter Boyle) makes a crack about Harlem resembling “fucking MauMau land,” while sitting next to Charlie T. Implausibly, the tough-looking Charlie says absolutely nothing. Elsewhere, I’ve always found dark humor in the sheer starkness of the credit for Taxi Driver’s bit-part actor Frank Adu, who appears for a few seconds, ranting manically as "Angry Black Man." It calls to mind the plight of all the starving black actors in the pre–Spike Lee era fighting over scraps in the limiting Hollywood environment (a struggle brought to life in Robert Townsend’s sharp, underrated 1987 satire Hollywood Shuffle).
In many cases, Taxi Driver skillfully transfers Bickle’s latent racism onto other characters, and this hostility is often freighted with an unmistakable sexual element. The scenes immediately following Bickle’s rejection by Betsy, for example, constitute a master class in evoking the specter of black-male sexual potency through allusive textual detail; they brilliantly introduce a further layer of anguish to an already rich psychological portrait. Bickle picks up a fare played by Scorsese himself (legend has it that the actor slated to play the role couldn’t make it that day).This weaselly cuckold instructs Bickle to pull over before unleashing an unnervingly vitriolic tirade from the backseat: “See the woman in the window? That’s my wife. Do you know who lives there? A nigger lives there. And I’m going to kill her.” Of the many alarming things about this sequence—including the astonishing sight of Scorsese giddily appearing in such a disgusting light—one that sticks out is the verbalized intention of the man to kill the transgressing woman rather than the man. So appalled is he by the defiling of his wife by a black man that he must terminate her, but not before destroying her sexual organs (“D’you ever see what a .44 Magnum could do to a woman’s pussy?”). The fare’s hysteria is clearly intended to shock the viewer, and it sets up a hierarchy of madness—Bickle, still broadly empathetic at this point, looks on silently, visibly unsettled. Moreover, the strength of the rider’s feeling, and the repulsive language he uses, deliberately evokes the profoundest depths of historically American racism, in particular the mortal fear of miscegenation, a proposition so fundamentally repulsive that even the suspicion of it led to the violent deaths of black children like Emmett Till. Following a few subsequent scenes in which anonymous black masculinity is further harnessed to create an aura of threat (an exchange of charged glances between Bickle and a random black pedestrian; the lurid spectacle of a group of black boys accosting a black prostitute on a garishly crimson-lit midtown street), Bickle visits the oleaginous fixer Easy Andy (Steven Prince) to purchase a .44 Magnum: the exact model of firearm earlier invoked by Scorsese’s character. Its long, black shaft is deliberately ogled over by Scorsese’s camera in a worshipful, close-up left-to-right pan, underlining its fascination for Bickle.
Taxi Driver’s most problematic scene in terms of its treatment of race, however, is notable for its relative lack of allusion and ambiguity: it arrives just over an hour in, when Bickle visits a bodega to pick up some groceries. A jittery young black man (Nat Grant) enters shortly thereafter, and proceeds to hold up the Puerto Rican shopkeeper (Victor Argo). Bickle appears from behind and shoots the black man to death, nervelessly, clinically. This decisive action serves a valuable narrative function in that it proves that Bickle—who has earlier informed his boss that he served in Vietnam—has lost none of his sharp reflexes, and is now primed to kill. The two men look down on, and prod at, the dead man like he’s a piece of expired meat, and the disturbing sequence seems mostly concluded. But Scorsese isn’t finished. The shopkeeper grouses about how “that’s the fifth one this year,” and implores Bickle to scram; he’s got things under control. As Bickle warily exits the store, Scorsese launches into an ostentatiously edited, five-shot sequence depicting the shopkeeper beating the black man’s limp body with an iron bar. It’s an appalling instance of intra-ethnic violence that is notable for moving, albeit briefly, away from Bickle’s point of view (a rarity in the film). From this switch of perspective, it can be inferred that Scorsese (and perhaps Schrader) is making some sort of objective statement about the totem pole of contemporary New York racial tensions, while also spotlighting the outsize, visceral rage of the shopkeeper. But this type of commentary jars with the rest of the film’s impressionistic subjectivity, and draws unfortunate attention, once again, to its authors’ general compulsion to leverage the black-male image without offering any right of reply—essentially a kind of image-based, racial taxation without representation. The first time I saw Taxi Driver, the vindictive charge of this sequence jarred me so much that I was unable to concentrate for the next few minutes.
The unceasingly hostile treatment of black people in Taxi Driver would have made more sense had it retained the ending of Schrader’s original script, in which all the people massacred by Bickle at the brothel (including Iris’s pimp) were black. Instead, viewers are left to process the cognitive dissonance of a film that softens them up for a racially motivated bloodbath, only for the race issue to quietly seep out of the film along with the dead, black stickup kid. “At script stage, we got to the scene where Bickle shoots Sport and we just looked at each other and we knew we couldn’t do it the way it was written,” said Schrader. “We would have had fights in the theatre. It would have been an incitement to riot . . . Marty sent me out to find ‘the great white pimp,’ but I never found him.” This admission from Schrader scotches any idea of Taxi Driver as a realistic document of the time, and confirms that its intended effects were seriously hedged. Had Schrader’s original ending remained, Taxi Driver’s treatment of racism would have been simultaneously easier to peg as a more cogent articulation of white supremacist or reactionary rage, and more difficult to swallow because of its total marginalization of black people. It’s nonetheless fascinating to imagine just how perennially incendiary Taxi Driver might’ve been had Harvey Keitel’s white pedophile Sport—a chewy-accented, walking reference to The Searchers—been played by, say, Richard Pryor or Louis Gossett Jr.; it would, for one, have afforded even more textual resonance to the chilling speech given by Scorsese’s character in the back of Bickle’s cab. It’s perhaps apposite to the enduring mythos of this technically virtuosic, queasily absorbing and endlessly fascinating film that we’ll never know.