Mixing hip-hop flair with the samurai ethos, arthouse cool with wild action sequences, and Forest Whitaker with a bunch of birds, Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai couldn’t be a stranger, more perfect combination of elements if it tried. A weird outlier in pretty much every sense, the film is among the very best of Jarmusch’s numerous cult hits. The film was recently screened as part of the BFI’s ‘Black Star’ season, a focus on (you guessed it) black stars in film – covering a wide range of genres and creators over the whole of the last century. While not an unknown film, Ghost Dog stuck out as a slight odd-one-out during the season’s ‘Hip Hop Weekender’, which focused on the rise of hip-hop stardom in cinema. Basically, this screened the day after Friday.
It’s not uncommon for a Jarmusch film to appear as an outlier; in fact, that’s part of his whole ‘thing’. Paterson is a warm, low stakes, slice-of-life film released in a year of political turmoil. Only Lovers Left Alive is a vampire comedy-drama that came out just as people became sick of vampire films. And despite the variety between them, there’s a common thread that can be drawn between Ghost Dog and other recent efforts by Jarmusch: he’s great at writing quiet outsiders. Not necessarily lonely people, but people that experience society at a distance, observing with varying states of calm. Ghost Dog and Paterson are participants in their local communities, even if it’s only in a small, passing manner; content with a simple and focused existence that exists outside the mess of the everyday world.
Paterson is serene, a loving outsider’s view of the rest of the world, fascinated by the ongoing lives of strangers. Only Lovers Left Alive is the opposite – Tom Hiddleston portraying an angry artist vampire living in self-exile on the outskirts of Detroit, seemingly disgusted by humanity as a whole. He keeps his interactions with humans to the bare minimum: a guy who procures things for him (instruments, etc.), and the blood he drinks. It’s worth noting that Adam (Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton) appear seemingly as physical embodiments of Jarmusch himself – cool, reclusive artists who wear sunglasses whenever they damn well please.
A prominent plot point in Ghost Dog is that the title character has no friends. Despite his widespread recognition and respect from others in his neighbourhood (being constantly hailed by other black men), he lives alone on a rooftop and his only recreation, outside of tending to his birds, is his reading. Potentially the film’s most charming element is Ghost Dog’s best and only friend, a Haitian ice-cream man who doesn’t speak English – yet, despite the language barrier, they still understand each other. This mutual understanding comes from their shared isolation, something that no one else in the film, with the exception of the girl that Ghost Dog befriends, experiences.
The thing with Ghost Dog is that even when aware of all the strange, disparate elements, it still surprises. Among the cultural mish-mash (including the RZA’s first-ever film score), there’s a surprising amount of humanity in the solitary character of Ghost Dog. While there’s a lot of B-movie action to be found in the premise of a black samurai betrayed by his employers (see: Black Dynamite, any Tarantino film), Jarmusch instead uses the outlandish premise to highlight the isolation that comes with being such a figure. Compared to the stock, macho “lone wolf” character type, Ghost Dog is far more sensitive. This is something made charmingly clear during a scene involving an assassination attempt of all things, as he’s distracted by a small bird that lands on the barrel of his gun. His childlike wonder at smaller things like this make his life appear all the more tragic, set on a violent path after being in the wrong place at the wrong time – as well as the wrong skin colour.
He seems at peace with his separation from the rest of the world, happy to tend to his flock of homing pigeons and watch them fly from his grubby rooftop shack in Jersey City, and indulge in reading (not including his near-religious reading of the Hagakure, the samurai code). However there are hints at inner turmoil, mainly suggested by the image of a stray dog that Ghost Dog repeatedly comes across and subsequently shoos away after it stares him in the face. Coupled with repeated flashbacks to the day he met his employer where he was being beaten in a racially motivated attack, the readings of the samurai code appear not just as a practice, but as a coping mechanism – a religion that works with violence, making it a seemingly righteous or spiritual experience as opposed to the senseless violence that Ghost Dog suffered as a child.
Jarmusch’s outsider perspective is perfect for a character like Ghost Dog. His later works contextualise the film as one of many reflections on what it is to be isolated, from a self-professed ‘outsider’. But Ghost Dog is different. The protagonist is not just isolated as the figure of the lone samurai, but within the context of Black Star, and Ghost Dog’s position as a black male, he is somewhat isolated by his race in his line of work. His employers are rich, white, Italian-American criminals who, in the same mindset as the white men you might see in a Spike Lee film (Jungle Fever springs to mind), only value black people for their output in entertainment (in one of the film’s numerous running jokes, one particular mobster is a big fan of Public Enemy). Every other black man and woman is irrelevant to them. Jarmusch’s film isn’t as overt in this message as Spike Lee might be, but it’s still there, under the surface.