In his blistering script for Q&A, writer-director Sidney Lumet includes a prefatory note about the ethnic slurs regularly spewed out by New York City police detectives and members of the judiciary: "It is important to keep in mind that the racial epithets are always said in a normal tone of voice, with no animosity whatsoever. It's as if the characters were saying, 'It's eleven o'clock.'"
And so we hear the words like a litany, from cops, lawyers, politicians — "nigger," "kike," "spic," "wop," "mick," "chink" — repeated so casually that they seem not to mean anything. Lumet knows better. In Q&A, he shows a justice organization divided according to ethnic lines and ready to explode with hatred when those lines are crossed. He also indicates that racism, rooted in the system and perpetuated by society as a whole, is on the rise.
ban corruption is a Lumet specialty, as shown by many of his best films, including Serpico and Prince of the City. But those movies were based on real people. Q&A is fiction, drawn from an acclaimed 1976 novel by Edwin Torres, who was the first Puerto Rican lawyer to serve as a Manhattan assistant DA and who is now a New York State Supreme Court judge. Torres says Lumet roughened up the language, but he feels the film is "true to the real meaning behind my plot."
Q&A starts with a bang. Lieutenant Mike Brennan, a brutal Irishman played by Nick Nolte ("I chew up wise guys and spit out faggots"), shoots a hood named Tony Vasquez. As part of a high-level coverup, Brennan must make the Vasquez hit look like self-defense. Even though a transvestite stoolie (Paul Calderon) and gangster witnesses can implicate him, Brennan isn't worried. Kevin Quinn (Patrick O'Neal), the chief of homicide, is his protector. Quinn assigns a green assistant DA, Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton), to handle the Q&A — the official record of the witness testimony. To the preening Quinn, played to smarmy perfection by O'Neal, the case is simple: Vasquez was "vermin," Brennan is "the personification of the Finest," and Reilly, the son of a decorated Irish cop, is part of a "tradition that had been built by our people."
It's an ethnic Old Boy network in action — one of many — and Lumet labors to give them all equal time. Reilly reports to Leo Blumenfeld (Lee Richardson), a thirty-year veteran of the DA's office who introduces an unethical colleague, Preston Pearlstein (Fyvush Finkel), with the crack "When Jesse Jackson used the word 'hymie,' he meant him." Then there's the two detectives on Reilly's team: Sam Chapman (the gifted Charles Dutton), who represents the problems of blacks in blue and Luis Valentin (well played by Luis Guzman), who reflects the Hispanic side.
In a Q&A session, Valentin turns on the Latin drug lord Bobby Texador (Armand Assante) for betraying his own to defend two Italian mobsters. Later the elderly Mob kingpin Nick Petrone (Leonard Cimino) waxes nostalgic about the old days. "Now we got spics and niggers mixed up in everything," he tells Brennan. "With us — with the police force. Detectives, inspectors. You come to a crime scene, you don't know who to shoot, eh?"
Lumet tries to cram too much in. Motivations get shaky, characters slip into caricatures, and the plot frequently spins off into melodrama and incoherence. But he's onto something, and you can sense his excitement. This is Lumet's boldest film in years — a combustible drama with a vivid, shocking immediacy. The director is back at the top of his game. Gone is the lethargy that infected his most recent films (Family Business, Running on Empty). In its place is the social consciousness that distinguished such classics as Twelve Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict. It helps that he's again shooting in New York and again with the superb cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak. Lumet knows the pulse of the city; its energy juices him up.
Lumet has a reputation for speed, and when a film doesn't engage him, as in Family Business, the result seems rushed, sloppy. But in Q&A, with all the actors perfectly cast and on his wavelength, he works wonders. Nolte is electrifying; he's the scariest kind of monster, the kind who makes us see how he got that way. He rails against the disparity between the street cops on the take for a pittance and the higher-ups who are raking it in. "We take a hamburger, and it's goodbye badge and gun and pension," he tells Reilly. "And all the time it's our life on that line, our widows, our orphans." As the dealer who wants out of the drug game, Assante is magnetic. The frog can turn out to be a prince, especially when it comes to love.
Q&A eventually comes to just that. Texador is partially redeemed by his feelings for Nancy Bosch, played by the director's stunning daughter Jenny Lumet. But there are complications. Before meeting Texador, Nancy had lived with Reilly. They broke up when Reilly learned that her father was black. Nancy is still shaken by Reilly's reaction at that moment. Now he has found her again and insists that "whatever that look on my face said to you, it wasn't how I felt." Hutton, sensitive but not soft, is exceptionally fine. He and Lumet, the granddaughter of Lena Horne, play these scenes with touching conviction. But their love story is wildly contrived and, worse, convenient, a device to sound a small note of hope. It almost sinks the picture.
What it doesn't is a tribute to the passion behind the film. Like Judge Torres, Lumet offers no answer to the question of how to change a world on the moral ropes. Despite Reilly's efforts to balance the scales of justice, things remain as they were. "Que sera, sera," sings Quinn in a chilling final affront to the laws he pretends to enforce. Lumet believes that change must start with the individual; that Reilly can deal with racism only by examining it in himself. Lumet never shows us the look on Reilly's face when he meets Nancy's father. But we're still haunted by it. It's the film's grieving heart.