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Topics in History: History through Film

Topics in History: History through Film

Topics is a course at Southport High School taught by Kevin Sanders that analyzes major events from United States and world history through Hollywood films that attempt to portray those events. Students investigate historical documents and other sources to determine if a film is historically accurate.

The goal is for students to develop deeper understandings of the historical discipline while generating questions about the way the world is around them, along with watching classical films that have graced American and international screens.

Student: Colton Matthews

Film Reviewed: Training Day

Training Day is a movie directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Denzel Washington (as Alonzo Harris) and Ethan Hawke (as Jake Hoyt). The movie is loosely based on the corruption that was exposed in the LAPD’s C.R.A.S.H Unit in the 90s. The movie follows Hoyt, evaluated by highly decorated narcotics officer Harris. Throughout the movie we see much of the corruption that was uncovered in the 90s represented by Denzel’s portrayal of Officer Harris. Washington’s excellent portrayal does a great job of offering a realness to the corruption seen in the movie even though the exact events of the movie did not actually occur.

The Rampart scandal of 1997 which influenced the writing and production of the movie exposed widespread corruption in the C.R.A.S.H. units of LA throughout the 80s and 90s mostly from testimony from officer Rafael Perez, whom the character of Alonzo Harris is strongly based on. The movie does an excellent job of showing how you can quickly go from good cop to being corrupt in the streets of LA and even creates some conflict for the viewer; even though Harris is clearly corrupt, the viewer is still drawn to him as a protagonist for most of the movie. When asked about the similarities between his character and the real Rafael Perez, Washington stated, “I think in some ways he’s done his job too well. He’s learned how to manipulate, how to push the line further and further, and, in the process, he’s become more hardcore than some of the guys he’s chasing.”

The movie does a great job of showing the contrast between Alonzo and Jake and how easily the transition can be from good cop to bad cop in the environment they’re in. The scene where Alonzo goes to visit “the three wise men” shows us that the corruption in the department goes as high up as police captains and chiefs, and we start to realize that Jake is kind of by himself when it comes to good cops who follow the rules and resist corruptions. Even the other officers are on Jake’s side; they are still doing things no police officer should be doing and forcing him to break his own morals. Throughout the movie Alonzo pushes Jake to cross the line of corruption more as the movie goes on. At first these situations are presented as a playful “first day on the job hazing” but quickly lead to much more as the plot develops.

A switch in the perspective of the viewer and Jake occurs near the end of the movie when Alonzo’s plan to frame Jake and save himself from the debt he owes is revealed. It is revealed to us that all of the things Alonzo made Jake do under the disguise of hazing was actually him setting up Hoyt for the murder and robbery of former-cop-turned-drug dealer Roger (played by Scott Glenn). Alonzo shoots Roger with Jake’s gun, then takes Jake to a gang member’s house whom Alonzo has paid to murder Jake. This is a pivotal moment in the movie, because up until this point all of the illegal activities Alonzo had been involved in were portrayed as for the greater good or him doing a bad thing because more good will come out of it. This in many ways is a replication of the feelings of society when we learn about police corruption since they’re supposed to protect us when we give them the benefit of the doubt, but there are still many police who are corrupt and it’s usually a shock when corruption is exposed.

Training Day does a very good job of instilling the feelings and emotions that the main character of the story is experiencing and the way the movie plays out makes us experience the movie as if we were rookie officer Jake Hoyt. It also does a very good job of giving us the nuanced perspective that officers involved with the corruption in the C.R.A.S.H. unit might have had. Although the movie is not exactly what happened in history it does a very good job of representing and teaching the viewers about the historical situation it is based upon.

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