“You’re a dinosaur, Date Rape. You’re a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer, a chauvinist, a misanthrope, homophobic clearly, or maybe you don’t like yourself.”
Dave “Date Rape” Brown (played by Woody Harrelson) is all of these things, to be sure, and he knows this. His eldest daughter Helen does not have to tell him this, but she feels she needs to. It is always on her mind and it always lurks in the corner of her soul. Her father is a terrible man and he is unapologetic about this.
Dave is called “Date Rape” because he killed a man suspected of multiple rapes. I should say he “allegedly” killed this man or at least that is how he puts it to anyone who cares to listen. He administered the sort of “street justice” that he feels is sorely needed in a world gone mad around him. Of course this is just an excuse from a violent angry man who wishes to express that anger at will against those who cannot fight back.
Rampart is a film about a man trusted to uphold the law as a police officer. His story unfolds as the LAPD faces the disgraceful “Rampart” scandal that broke in the late 1990’s after years of systematic abuse of citizens and suspects and wide ranging corruption. The film, on more subtextual level, is about the death-throes of a certain culture and a way of life: white male privilege. At one point when he is confronted by a co-worker over his use citation of an obscure court case to excuse his violence to get information on a meth lab he smirks and implies that if the law is not on his side he will simply make up the law. It is not like anyone is going to challenge him on it ever.
Dave alludes to this fact of life throughout the film: he has the power. He misses no chance to insult or undermine anyone who does not look or behave like he does. He torments his young female co-worker about her eating habits and her upbringing, he sneers at the artistic talent of his lesbian daughter Helen. He clearly has little respect for women; in fact he married two sisters one after the other, having a child with each, and insists that they all live together in one strange incestuous household/compound. He is kind to his daughters in a superficial sense but he is never there for them emotionally and he treats them more like possessions than anything else. He cannot love something that he does not own or control in some way.
Dave both knows and denies he is a racist, depending upon the situation and the audience. When he is with his cop father’s old drinking buddy planning their next robbery of illegal property and money he quips about “scum” and “brown skinned” criminals. He also castigates the “new” LAPD that is at least making the effort to become less violent and intolerant in at least a cosmetic sense. What the streets need, in his view, is the sort of rage and violence that he meets out on a daily basis. He puts his theory into practice when a latino driver slams into his police vehicle while running a red light; he beats the man within an inch of his life and later explains away his actions as “merciful” in that he could have shot the man dead on the spot. The Police Union lawyer assigned to his case has a hard time finding this a compelling explanation to bring to her superiors. Dave thinks the charge is bullshit and that it is all a set up to make the Rampart corruption case go away in a haze of media scrutiny of his own actions. He seems to subscribe to the Richard Nixon theory of law and order: if Dave Brown does it then it is not illegal.
Dave seems to be obsessed with finding ways to nullify his racial animus in eyes of his peers and himself. He applauds himself for sleeping with an attractive black woman and police fetishist, as if this drunken sexual encounter explains away his brutality to those not of his race. When Dave is investigated for his killing of a gangster while attempting to rob him of his illegal gambling money (he needs the cash to defend himself in the brutality case) the man assigned to his case is black and this bothers Dave to no end. He tells Kyle Timpkins (Ice Cube), the man who is investigating him
“I am not a racist. Fact is, I hate all people equally. And if it helps, I’ve slept with some of your people. You wanna be mad at someone, try J. Edgar Hoover. He was a racist. Or the Founding Fathers, all slave-owners.”
Once more he mistakes his own misanthropic sense of universal loathing for tolerance. He hates everything equally, so doesn’t that make him tolerant and liberal? We never really know if he buys into his own bullshit but it does seem to be an apology that is well rehearsed and familiar to him. Maybe something he learned at the knee of his own father?
The one thing that immediately becomes apparent about Dave “Date Rape” Brown is that he is afraid; afraid of anyone and anything that may threaten his faltering grip on the circumstances of his life. He is a man, at least in his own mind, under siege: by the women in his life who demands respect and accountability from him, by his employers who are now making an effort to right the horrific wrongs of the past, by his lawyer mistress who is beginning to doubt his sanity and most of all by society itself which is changing and becoming ever less homogenized and repressed. His daughter is right: he is a fossil of an age that is now beginning in the late 90’s to fall apart under the weight of its own decadent hypocrisy. He is a violent criminal who rages against the petty faults and criminality of everyone else. He is a murderer who sees himself as a hero because he administers street “justice” against those with no ability to speak up in their own defense.
In one scene he sits in the pool at his girlfriend’s house, rain falling on his head, and demands that she jump into the pool with him to demonstrate that she is “on his team”. That she will not play his increasingly bizarre power games with him just proves his suspicion that she is just another “bitch” out to get him. He is a misogynist who nonetheless craves affection and attention from women. He uses the fact that he killed a rapist as a sort of macabre pick-up line and he evens tries to use this fact to sway his own daughters over to his “side”. They do not buy into his warped sense of chivalry and honor and abandon him to the fate that he has created for himself. This is the only moment in the film where Dave shows any sense of emotional vulnerability; he weeps into his pillow as his daughters turn their backs on him after he admits his evil deeds to them to their faces. He thought that if only they could understand that daddy did these things to “bad people” only…or at least to people who appeared bad, which in his world is really no different than actual guilt. Skin color, gender and sexual orientation dictate criminality. His own white skin protects him from culpability in his own mind.
After the tragic encounter with his daughters Dave decides he will give himself up to Timpkins…but only on his own terms. He admits to killing the alleged rapist and to other violent crimes against suspects and criminals. He does all this with the full expectation that he can buy himself a deal because, after all, he was committing his crimes in the name of “justice” and against people who look for all intents and purposes like the sort of people he assumes on sight to be guilty. When Timpkins laughs away this facile “confession” Dave is genuinely confused; isn’t this what his “enemies” want? To catch him in the act of being just a little bit too brutal? Timpkins just shakes his head at this self-righteous ignorance; he has admitted only to what he does not see as a crime. He withholds a confession to the crimes he committed out of greed and for his own personal benefit, like the gambling heist/murder. Timpkins will not allow Dave “Date Rape” Brown to martyr himself for the cause of white male power. He turns his back on Dave and leaves him raging and unable to comprehend his own irrelevancy and stupidity.
The film ends on an ambiguous note, with Dave seeming to finally accept that he will never again have the family life or the career he envisioned for himself, the life that he thought he had but never really did. Like the real life white male chauvinists from Rush Limbaugh to David Duke to Bill O’Reilly Dave Brown yearns for a society and a past that never really existed at all: a world where white might made right and everyone knows their place is under the boot of the Dave Brown’s of the world. Because Dave Brown, and Rush, and Bill, are afraid; they are afraid that the brutality and hate that the projected out into the world may someday come back and inflict itself upon them in the form of real justice.