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"It's just been revoked!": Hollywood, Lethal Weapon, and the Mainstreaming of Antiapartheid

Published on 5th October 2019

In the final minutes of 1989 action-comedy film Lethal Weapon 2, Los Angeles Police Department sergeant Roger Murtaugh, played by black actor Danny Glover, confronts the film’s final boss: Arjen Rudd, a white Afrikaner diplomat who had secretly smuggled drug money from the United States to South Africa. Murtaugh’s white friend and main protagonist Martin Riggs, shot by Rudd just seconds earlier, lay bleeding on the ground behind him. Rudd raises his identification card, shouting “diplomatic immunity,” and after just a moment of hesitation, Murtaugh shoots him in the head. “It’s just been revoked!” Murtaugh shouts, concluding an iconic scene that crystallizes the contradictions that defined Hollywood’s attempts to include antiapartheid themes in its productions. Lethal Weapon 2 deploys the iconography that defined global perceptions of apartheid, and in doing so demonstrates how Hollywood’s attempt to use such symbols to construct radical antiapartheid film narratives was both facilitated and hindered by its adherence to Hollywood conventions of personalized dramas and gratuitous violence.

The South African government’s brutal suppression of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, which saw thousands of black students rebel against the rule of South Africa’s white minority government, thrust apartheid into the international spotlight. Student-led protests on college campuses demanded their school administrations divest from South Africa, even as human rights organizations boycotted South African companies. In 1987, Congress overrode Reagan’s veto in order to break relations with South Africa. By the late 1980s, people “could denounce apartheid without thinking twice.” The very existence of Lethal Weapon 2 testifies to the penetration of the antiapartheid movement into the popular global consciousness. Hollywood, ever the cautious capitalist, would only produce and internationally distribute antiapartheid big-budget films if antiapartheid had become so mainstream as to be banal. Indeed, Hollywood had begun to produce antiapartheid films because it “recognized the monetary opportunities.”[1]

However, Hollywood’s incorporation of antiapartheid themes into its films was typically marked by a profound tension between its traditionally personalized dramas and the more macroscopic perspective that a political critique of apartheid demanded. For example, Cry, Radical, a 1987 movie about the real-life friendship between black South African activist Steve Biko and American journalist Donald Wood, grounds its entire narrative in the friendship between the two men to the exclusion of exploring important political actors of the antiapartheid movement, like the African National Congress and the MK. As such, Hollywood action films’ conventional narrative preferences makes made them an ill-suited medium for conveying nuanced political or social commentary. Such films found themselves hobbled by their atomistic focus on personal relationships as a shorthand for commenting on oppressive structures.

Lethal Weapon 2 adheres to the same problematic mold, but complicates it by presenting some of its characters in both individualistic and symbolic terms. In attempting to engage with the global antiapartheid movement so prominent in its narrative while still retaining crowd-pleasing Hollywood conventions, the film resorts to the crude simplification of complex conflicts inevitable when individual characters symbolize institutional political actors. It is this loyalty to Hollywood film tradition that allows Lethal Weapon 2 to embrace a politics that is at once conservative and radical[AE1] .

Lethal Weapon 2 takes place in the United States rather than South Africa, a switch in vantage point that reflects an international consciousness of apartheid absent from previous antiapartheid films. Whereas previous movies, like Cry, Radical and A Dry White Season, had followed a white Western foreigner as he visited South Africa and interacted with its black population, Weapon adopts the inverse perspective: the Western cast is visited by South African foreigners. Whereas before the threat of apartheid had been visually restricted to the domestic South African sphere, discoverable only by venturing to an exotic faraway place, it has now physically spread outward to the shores of the Western world. The presence of white Afrikaner villains as diplomats not only renders them symbolic and literal representatives of the apartheid government, but also indicates South African apartheid’s newfound status as an internationally relevant issue. The Afrikaner diplomats serve as the enemies of not just the United States, but any country that still maintains diplomatic ties with South Africa. Indeed, the diplomats themselves justify their criminal activities on the basis of the apartheid regime’s increasing international isolation and subsequent economic hardship. In keeping with the theme of apartheid as both essentially foreign and domestically pertinent, the most symbolically-saturated (and so most politically charged) scenes of Lethal Weapon 2 take place either within the interiors of the South African consulate, at once a domestic South African space and a site of international aggression, and the Los Angeles Harbor, which sits at the border between the United States and the world beyond.

Riggs’ confrontation with the Afrikaner diplomats at the South African consulate, which serves to shamelessly parallels the Afrikaner villains with the German Nazis, captures the way that Hollywood’s antiapartheid narratives reflected globally dominant understandings of apartheid. “Well, [here’s] the master race,” Riggs derisively laughs as he sizes up his enemies, in a heavy-handed allusion to Hitler’s racially purist ideology. This connection had already been foreshadowed early in the movie, when Riggs mistakes the diplomats’ accent for German, but here subtext becomes text. Riggs deliberately mispronounces the head diplomat’s first name, Arjen, as “Aryan” and mocks Rudd’s henchmen, Pieter, with the nickname “Adolf.” The scene explicitly portrays the Afrikaners, and by extension the apartheid regime, as evil as Hitler’s Nazi regime.

And yet, oddly enough, the film’s narrative never attempts to justify this bold comparison, depending instead on the audience’s awareness of apartheid to validate its presentation of the Afrikaners as modern-day Nazis. It presents no actual parallel between what the Afrikaner caricatures do in the movie and what the Nazis did in World War II, aside from generic expressions of racism. Indeed, within the narrative of the film, Riggs has no reason to condemn these particular diplomats so severely. Their crimes up to this point consisted of smuggling drugs and threatening police officers, the same hallmarks of generic Hollywood villainy that Riggs regularly encounters, and yet he feels comfortable characterizing them as exceptionally evil. His nickname for Peter Voldserit, “Adolf,” bears no apparent similarity to either the man’s real name or connection to the contents of his actions, and yet Riggs touts the nickname as not only clever but appropriate. As such, the movie does not substantiate the comparison on a narrative level but fully commits to it regardless. Lethal Weapon 2, ultimately, relies on facts external to itself [AE2] to validate the characterization of its villains; that is, the irredeemable villainy of the Afrikaner diplomats derives from their status as representatives of a widely hated real-world tyrannical system rather than any demonstration of their role in perpetuating institutionalized oppression within the film’s actual narrative. Hence the reason that Rudd’s insulting response to Riggs’s taunts, “kaffir-lover,” is presented without explanation of the term. Other occurrences of the racial slur throughout the movie go similarly unexplained. The movie persistently presumes viewers’ familiarity with the atrocities, and images, of apartheid.

Yet, historically speaking, the filmmakers had no reason to think that knowledge of the real-world apartheid government and Nazism would render Lethal Weapon 2’s equivocation between the two reasonable. While the regimes shared bigoted ideologies and racially discriminatory policies, crucial differences existed in their targets of discrimination, style of oppression, and degree of brutality.[2] A deep understanding of Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa, in other words, would problematize rather than substantiate efforts to draw direct parallels between them. This reality, however, did not prevent antiapartheid activists from demonizing the apartheid regime as a modern-day incarnation of Nazism, a comparison that became ubiquitous in the antiapartheid movement and which manifested itself in its slogans and posters.[3] It is this global but simplistic perception of apartheid’s injustices, rather than the reality of it, that Lethal Weapon 2 draws upon to substantiate its paralleling of the Afrikaner diplomats to Nazis. In other words, the film uses the condemnatory Nazi iconography of the antiapartheid movement to establish its own villains as symbols of ultimate evil. That the film could do this comfortably points to a global consensus on apartheid’s depravity. By the time of Weapon’s release, in other words, the antiapartheid movement had largely been drained of its controversy, politically neutered and so safe for commercial use[AE3] .

And yet, despite its initial ease with vilifying its South African villains on the basis of viewer’s familiarity with the global perceptions of apartheid, Lethal Weapon 2 eventually justifies the evil of its villains in personal terms unique to the protagonists rather than the broader institutional injustices of apartheid. Since the film focuses on American characters on American soil, the suffering inflicted by the far-away Afrikaner regime remains off-screen and as such irrelevant to the lives of the leads. Typical Hollywood blockbusters craft individualistic narratives that generate drama (and emotionally engage the audience) though personal animosity between their heroes and their villains, and Lethal Weapon 2 is no different.[4] Because it cannot emotionally invest its American (and international) audience in a battle against symbols of evil, no matter how potent, the film renders the Afrikaner’s threat concrete by extending their murderous fangs not just to faceless oppressed South Africans, but to innocent non-Africans. Hence the diplomats murdering Riggs’ latest love interest, Rika, and revealing that they were responsible for the murder of his wife four years earlier, the inciting event for the original movie’s storyline. Riggs makes the filmmaker’s intentions clear when he tells Murtaugh, his voice ragged with sorrow as he drives away from the sight of Rika’s murder, that the fight against the South African diplomats “is personal now.” Before the Afrikaners had been evil by dint of their abstract representation of a cruel political system; now they had become evil by dint of their personally vindictive actions. But in realizing the Afrikaner’s danger to an American audience, the film undermines its criticism of apartheid’s racially oppressive, Nazi-like domestic policies. The movie’s white ‘fascists’ do not actually discriminate in the distribution of their violence, targeting whites and blacks alike. Indeed, the character that suffers the worst at the hands of the South African diplomats is not Murtaugh, the sole black lead in the movie, but Riggs, the white main character. As such, while the film’s loyalty to the traditional Hollywood formula creates villains whose villainy extends beyond the symbolic, it does so at the expense of the coherence of its political critique. Its microscopic Hollywood conflict, represented by its protagonists’ personal struggles, undermines its macro antiapartheid narrative, represented by the symbolism of the Afrikaner diplomats.

However, the film does not abandon its symbolic narrative, as demonstrated by yet another scene at the South African consulate that codes Murtaugh not just as black, but a black ally of black South Africans. Leo Getz introduces Murtaugh to an immigration officer at the consulate, who is shocked to see a black man attempt to secure a flight to South Africa. The immigration officer discourages Murtaugh from his expressed intentions to immigrate to South Africa with a blunt rationale: “You’re black.” Murtaugh, far from offended, concurs that he’s black, and even points to the fact of his race to justify undertaking his intended trip: “that’s why I want to go to South Africa, to join my brothers and sisters in their struggle against the white minority fascist regime!” Murtaugh then proceeds to recite several popular antiapartheid slogans, from “one man, one vote!” to “Free South Africa!” Note that this entire exchange is shot with a wide angle that frames Murtaugh against the backdrop of the consulate’s transparent glass windows, through which young antiapartheid protestors can be seen picketing.

But film’s symbol-oriented antiapartheid narrative manifests itself in other places. Consider the scene at the South African consulate that codes Murtaugh as both a representative and an ally of oppressed South Africans by draping him in the slogans and images of the antiapartheid movement. Murtaugh, when pretending to secure an immigration visa at the South African consulate, is discouraged from doing so by an immigration officer, because “you’re black.” Murtaugh, far from offended, concurs that he’s black. In fact, “that’s why I want to go to South Africa, to be with my oppressed brothers, to take up the struggle against the white minority fascist regime!”[5] Murtaugh’s blackness, then, allows him to uniquely identify with the black South Africans under apartheid, which in turn casts him as the film’s stand-in for blacks everywhere, including black South Africans. Note that this entire exchange is shot with a wide angle that frames Murtaugh against the backdrop of the consulate’s windows, through which antiapartheid protestors can be seen picketing, which in turn associates Murtaugh with the multiracial antiapartheid movement they represent. This connection is cemented when Murtaugh, arguing with the immigration officer, demonstrates his antiapartheid credentials by reciting several of its popular rallying cries, from the African National Congress’s “one man, one vote!” to the more general “Free South Africa!”[6] Not coincidentally, these same statements decorate the signs carried by the film’s antiapartheid protestors. Indeed, after Murtaugh is expelled from the consulate, he joins and becomes the leader of the rally, framed by the camera as its new center. The film, then, co-opts the antiapartheid slogans in vogue at the time of its release to identify Murtaugh as the face of the film’s antiapartheid movement. Murtaugh, like the Afrikaners, ceases to exist within the film’s visual and narrative language simply as an individual but rather embodies a dual, if problematic, symbolism: at once a South African proxy (because of his race) and an international ally of the oppressed (because of his American nationality).[7]

Which brings us to the climactic final scene at the Los Angeles docking port, where Murtaugh fires a bullet that represents a collapse of the personal and the political. On the one hand, Murtaugh has a personal stake in killing Rudd, who nearly killed his best friend Riggs moments earlier. More so, his willingness to act as a vigilante rather than as a police officer, and as such kill a man who as a diplomat has legal protections, affirms his love for Riggs. Murtaugh’s final act, therefore, is one of revenge for a close friend. But per the earlier scene at the South African consulate, Murtaugh is also a symbol: of the oppressed South Africans and of the broader global resistance against apartheid. As such, his final act is also symbolic, representing not just black liberation but also global antiapartheid resistance, because it takes place in an American setting, in an American film, and is performed not by a black South African but a black American ally. He is at once a proxy for and an international ally of the black South African. The two are united in his person, and that unity defeats Rudd, the film’s stand-in for the apartheid regime.

But as a consequence of this symbolic language, the movie appears to endorse violence as a solution to apartheid. Lethal Weapon 2 resolves the dilemma that sits at the heart of its conflict—finding a way to prosecute criminals whom are protected by the law—by dismissing the dilemma altogether: just ignore the law. This is a profound statement in a film about a regime that perpetuated much of its oppression by both imposing stringent laws and acting outside of them, but is also noteworthy in light of the controversial, extra-judicial tactics that the ANC pursued in its fight against the apartheid regime.[8]

And yet the exaggerated violence commonplace in Hollywood action films like Lethal Weapon 2 minimizes and so undermines the implications of Murtaugh’s final killing shot. By situating its antiapartheid commentary in a movie genre that glorifies violence (and that proposes murder as a solution to every problem), the film inevitably appears to champion the radical politics of the ANC that previous liberal white filmmakers had struggled to make palpable to a moderate international audience.[9] And yet because Lethal Weapon 2 adheres to both Hollywood conventions of gratuitous violence and its own franchise narrative formula (which always ends with all the bad guys dead), it normalizes this radical politics in a manner that obscures its significance. The cartoonish carnage that typically characterizes Hollywood violence[10] only serves to further disconnect the viewer from the full implications of Murtaugh’s violent act in light of the antiapartheid movement that he represents. Viewers, accustomed to their Hollywood heroes shooting up in the bad guys in the bloody climaxes of their action films, would not perceive the diplomats’ murder as anything other than the usual. This intersection of Hollywood convention and crude antiapartheid symbolism, then, produces a final scene that though iconic is muddled in its meanings. A scene that would become one of the most iconic representations of apartheid’s manifestation in the global consciousness also muddles its radical symbolism by its placement at the climax of a Hollywood action blockbuster.

Still, one can argue that it was Lethal Weapon’s inelegant marriage of Hollywood convention and the antiapartheid iconography that enabled both its existence and its international resonance. Despite the antiapartheid movement’s widespread popularity in 1989, most antiapartheid films released at the time that attempted to provide more complex portraits of the reality of apartheid achieved little box office success. Cry, Freedom and A Dry White Season, despite artistic compromises like placing main white characters at the heart of stories fundamentally about black suffering, underperformed at the box office, while Mapantsula, a film with a main back character and nuanced explorations of apartheid, was ignored by major U.S. and South African film distributors.[11]Lethal Weapon 2, on the other hand, blew up the box office both at home and overseas, demonstrating that there was an appetite for movies with as heavy-handed a condemnation of apartheid as this one.[12] This success suggests that the simplistic symbols that the movie employs to tell its political narrative, from Nazi-like Afrikaners to youthful multiracial protestors to rebellious black men, were ones with genuine global resonance—more, in fact, than grittier and more historically rigorous portrayals of apartheid.

It may very well be that a force as ubiquitous as the antiapartheid movement required such crude and widely recognizable symbols to sustain both its energy and its unity. What mattered was not the intricate reality of the South African problem, but the straightforward perceptions that reduced the conflict to simple terms easy to rally around. The final scene of Lethal Weapon 2, which features a black man shooting a white man, tells the viewer nothing about the realities of the systems either represent. What it does do, though, is produce a sanitized but cathartic display of what the victory of justice over injustice will look like, providing an enduring record of what the end of apartheid might have looked like in the global political imagination of the antiapartheid movement.

Murtaugh, then, becomes the face of the film’s in-universe antiapartheid movement. This scene highlights the thematically relevant components of his identity: his status as an American, and not a South African, situates the movement in an international context, while his blackness allows him to uniquely identify with, and represent, the black South Africans under apartheid.

Which brings us to the climactic final scene at the Los Angeles docking port, where the personal and the political are collapsed into one. More important is Murtaugh’s confrontation of Arjen Rudd. The bullet that Murtaugh fires to kill Rudd represents a union of the personal and the political, the microcosm and the macrocosm. On the one hand, Murtaugh has a personal stake in this scene. After all, it comes on the heel of Arjen opening fire on and nearly killing his best friend, whose humiliation is doubled by the fact that he consistently promised to be the one to take down Arjen at various points in the movie, but is now bleeding out on the floor before his bullets. Murtaugh’s final act, therefore, is one of personal revenge for a close friend. But as the earlier scene at the South African consulate established, Murtaugh is also the symbol of the oppressed South Africans. Before him stands a man whom the movie has already coded as a symbol of the apartheid oppressor. But his act also symbolize broader global resistance against apartheid, because it takes place in an American setting, in an American film, and is performed not by a black South African but a black American ally. As such, the film also presents a reflection of the international antiapartheid movie in Murtaugh. He is at once a proxy for and an international ally of the black South African. The two are united in his person, and that unity defeats Rudd, the film’s stand-in for the apartheid regime.

That Murtaugh fires the killing shot not as an enforcer of the law but as a vigilante also reflects his simultaneous status as an individual and a symbol. On the one hand, his decision to abandon his police badge before the final showdown is framed and justified on the basis of a deeply personal reason: standing by his best friend Riggs, who has also decided to go beyond the law to avenge his lovers. Murtaugh, liberated from the shackles of adhering to legal protocol, disregards the diplomat’s legal protection and kills him. The film, rather than condemn Murtaugh for so brazenly violating his duty as a police officer, frames the moment as a heroic affirmation of his close friendship with Riggs, who had been almost killed by Rudd seconds earlier. But because Murtaugh is also a symbol for black South Africans and the antiapartheid movement, and Rudd not just an evil drug smuggler but apartheid itself, Murtaugh’s extra-judicial act appears to endorse the violent methods of the more radical elements of the antiapartheid resistance (like the ANC), who had abandoned any attempt to bring down the system legally.

This is significant, because previous antiapartheid movies, such as A Dry White Season, had blacks kill whites not as symbolic acts of resistance to institutional oppression, but rather as personal revenge. This distinction had conveniently sidestepped the question of endorsing the violent politics of antiapartheid South African organizations like the ANC. And yet Lethal Weapon 2, as a consequence of its symbolic language, appears to endorse violence as a solution to apartheid. The film resolves the dilemma that sits at the heart of its conflict (finding a way to prosecute criminals whom are protected by the law) by dismissing the dilemma altogether: just ignore the law. This is a profound statement in a film dealing with a regime that perpetuated much of its oppression by both imposing severe laws and acting outside of them. In killing a racist South African diplomat, the film’s narrative appears to suggest that the antiapartheid movement should resist the South African government by disregarding any legal protections it may enjoy domestically or in its relations with other countries.

The final scene, then, encapsulates the inherent tensions that underpin Lethal Weapon 2’s attempt to inject antiapartheid commentary into the framework of the Hollywood body-cop formula, but also the radical politics that adherence to such Hollywood convention produces. Lethal Weapon 2, by situating its antiapartheid commentary in a movie genre that glorifies violence (and that proposes murder as a solution to every problem), inadvertently endorses the violent politics of the ANC that previous liberal white filmmakers had struggled to make palpable to a moderate American (and international) audience. And yet because Lethal Weapon 2 adheres to both Hollywood convention and its own formulaic structure (which always ends with all the bad guys dead), it normalizes this radical politics in a manner that obscures its significance. The cartoonish carnage that characterizes Hollywood violence only serves to further disconnect the viewer from the full implications of Murtaugh’s violent act in light of the movement that he represents. As such, a scene that would become one of the most iconic representations of apartheid’s manifestation in the global consciousness also muddles its radical symbolism by its placement at the climax of a Hollywood action blockbuster.

And yet, one can argue that Lethal Weapon’s inelegant marriage of Hollywood convention and the antiapartheid movement’s iconography is what enabled both its existence and its international resonance. Despite the antiapartheid movement’s widespread support in 1989, most antiapartheid films released at the time that attempted to provide more complex portraits of the reality of apartheid achieved little box office success. Cry, Freedom and A Dry White Season, despite artistic compromises like placing main white characters at the heart of stories fundamentally about black suffering, underperformed at the box office, while Mapantsula, a film with a main back character and nuanced explorations of apartheid, was ignored by major U.S. and South African film distributors. Lethal Weapon 2, on the other hand, was a smashing success both at home and overseas, demonstrating that there was an appetite for movies with as heavy-handed a condemnation of apartheid as this one. This success suggests that the simplistic symbols that the movie employs to tell its political narrative, from Nazi-like Afrikaners to youthful multiracial protestors to rebellious black men, were ones that resonated globally. It may very well be that a force as ubiquitous as the antiapartheid movement required crude, widely recognizable symbols to sustain both its energy and its unity. What mattered was not the intricate reality of the South African problem, but the straightforward perceptions that reduced the conflict to simple terms easy to rally around. The final scene of Lethal Weapon 2, which features a black man shooting a white man, tells the viewer nothing about the realities of the systems either represent. What it does do, though, is channel international moral outrage to produce a cathartic and deceptively sanitized display of what the victory of justice over injustice will look like. The film’s climax doesn’t reflect the realities of apartheid, but it does provide an enduring record of what the end of apartheid looked in the global imagination of the antiapartheid movement.

[1]In Darkest Hollywood, directed by Peter Davis. 1993.

[2]In Darkest Hollywood, directed by Peter Davis. 1993

[3]"Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa: A Historical Comparison." A Vermont Teacher's Journey to the Rainbow Nation. September 28, 2015. Accessed April 26, 2017.

[4]Nixon, Rob. Homelands, Harlem and Hollywood: South African culture and the world beyond. New York: Routledge, 1994.

[5]Warner Brothers. Lethal Weapon 2, directed by Richard Donner. 1989.

[6]Soske, Jon, and Sean Jacobs. Apartheid Israel: the politics of an analogy. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2015, p. 40

[7] This emphasis on Murtaugh’s race represents a significant departure from the Lethal Weapon franchise’s first film, which largely bypassed commentary on race to present Riggs and Murtaugh’s relationship through an idealized, nonracial lens.

[8]Nixon, Rob. Homelands, Harlem and Hollywood: South African culture and the world beyond. New York: Routledge, 1994, p.76-95

[9]Ibid, p. 76-80

[10]Denzin, Norman K. Reading race: Hollywood and the cinema of racial violence. London: SAGE, 2002, p. 105-106

[11]Nixon, Rob. Homelands, Harlem and Hollywood: South African culture and the world beyond. New York: Routledge, 1994.

[12]"Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)." Box Office Mojo. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=lethalweapon2.htm.



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