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By Stefan Ulstein


L.A. Without Angels

Black and white Americans live in parallel universes. Blacks are forced by circumstances to venture out into the white universe because it is the larger one, but many whites are unaware, except in the vaguest sense, of the existence or nature of the black universe. Two recent verdicts in Los Angeles demonstrate this clearly: In the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a mostly white jury saw police officers threatened by a deranged black man. In the Simpson trial, a mostly black jury was unimpressed by the white prosecutor's mountain of tainted evidence.

"Devil in a Blue Dress," based on Walter Mosely's l990 debut novel, shows us Los Angeles half a century before these two watershed events. It is not yet the city of crack cocaine and drive-by shootings, but the City of Angels is already a land of broken promises and dreams deferred.

In Carl Franklin's finely tuned second film, we meet Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins in the Los Angeles of l948. Like so many blacks who served in World War II, Easy Rawlins has come home restless, and hungry for a piece of the American Dream he fought for. Hoeing rows and chopping cotton isn't enough for him now. The mystique of the white man has been broken. In Europe, he killed white boys who looked a lot like his Texas field bosses, so he heads west to work in the booming factories of Los Angeles. California promises him a little breathing room and the chance to live in a slightly less repressive society.

As the opening credits roll, the camera moves languidly across a moody canvas depicting night life in "Colored Town." The painting dissolves into a Los Angeles street scene so real that it could pass for archival footage. The cars, the clothes, even the baby carriages evoke the bustling prosperity and unbridled dreams of postwar America. As the camera closes in on a barroom where Easy Rawlins is scouring the want ads for a job, it is almost jolting to encounter the recognizable face of Denzel Washington.

Easy has just lost his job at an aircraft plant. ...

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