An Inspired Duet: “The Soloist”

by Guest Contributor Rebecca Linz

I was looking forward to “The Soloist” for two reasons: having played the violin all my life, I love those rare contemporary films that dare to explicitly appreciate classical music, but also because I am a sucker for based-on-a-true-story films.

The dynamic between the two protagonists (Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers, a Julliard-trained cellist turned homeless man suffering from what appears to be schizophrenia and Robert Downey Jr. as Steve Lopez, an L.A. Times reporter) evolves from a relationship between a potentially successful article topic and a struggling journalist into a mutual friendship. “I’ve never loved anything as much as he loves music,” Lopez muses in awe about his subject. Flashbacks into Ayers’s childhood reveal that his mental illness was probably always present but began to torment Ayers during his time at Julliard when he was a college student (which is a common age for symptoms of schizophrenia appear).

Among the voices that haunt Ayers’s mind is a woman telling him: “They’re white, heartless aren’t they? . . . Turn you white . . . Whiteness, whiteness, whiteness,” which not-too-subtlety reminds the viewers that Ayers is one of very few students of color (and the only African American student that we see) at Julliard.

When I see a film that I enjoy or that makes me think, it is generally after I have left the theater or turned off the TV that I look to see what critics thought of it in order to avoid having the opinions of “experts” keep me from seeing a film I’m interested in. For example, I was recently shocked to find that “Spinning into Butter,” the recent film starring Sarah Jessica Parker about the administration’s response to a racially-based hate crime on a college campus, was almost universally loathed (I loved it). I was similarly surprised when a quick Internet search of reviews of this film revealed a plethora of viewers dismissing this film and its two stars (both Foxx and Downey, Jr.) as a typically racist tale of white superiority and the exploitation of the downtrodden black à la “Dangerous Minds.”

I disagree with this opinion, but upon some further reflection, I believe this reaction comes partially from the race status of the two actors. The movie poster, for example, shows Foxx cast in shadows and looking down: black, disheveled, poor. In the background is Downey, Jr. looking directly at the viewer: white, relatively well-dressed, and lucid. Criticisms have been made that a white actor was cast as Lopez, but upon further research, I see that the real Steve Lopez is of Spanish descent and physically resembles Robert Downey Jr. Another element is the fact that Lopez’s point of view dominates; we are rarely given the direct perspective of Ayers. This stems from Ayers’s unstable mental status, however, and not his race; flashbacks provide glimpses into Ayers’s psyche, but we as viewers, like Lopez, can only speculate about what is really going on in Ayers’s mind.

I see this film less as a commentary on race relations than on class relations. Lopez is visibly out of his comfort zone as he immerses himself into the streets and shelter where Ayers resides. The articles he writes do help bring money and attention to the homeless community in Los Angeles, but the problems of drug addiction, mental illness, and police brutality toward the homeless are not glossed over in the film. It could be argued that it was exploitative to cast not actors but real homeless individuals as the men and women in the shelter, but this realism provides potential for increased awareness that hiring actors could simply not provide. Those who critiqued Lopez for exploiting Ayers, including his editor and ex-wife in the film (played by Catherine Keener, who, in one of the few lines spoken by a woman in the entire film, jokingly encourages him to “keep . . . exploiting him like you are now” to further his career. This is spoken at an awards ceremony where Lopez receives a prize for his columns on Ayers who is, unsurprisingly, not invited.

Lopez voices his conflicting feelings regarding his overwhelming desire to help this man who, he does not deny, was at first merely a subject for an interesting story to save his career. As the movie poster states, the dynamic between the two men evolves into an “unlikely friendship” that, despite the odds, eventually becomes an egalitarian relationship. This evolution takes its time as Lopez and Ayers first address each other as “Nathaniel” and “Mr. Lopez” respectively. Yet Lopez is disconcerted when Ayers begins referring to him reverentially as “a god.” This additional (and unnecessary) reminder of the power dynamic between the two men makes the viewers’ uncomfortable as well, but Lopez comes to realize that he has indeed been condescending toward his subject/friend, and he insists on formalizing how he addresses his friend from “Nathaniel” to “Mr. Ayers.”

The film culminates at a concert where, while watching in fascination as Ayers immerses himself in the pleasure of the music, Lopez admits that besides providing Ayers with a cello and an apartment, “Maybe our friendship has helped him. But maybe not.” It is clear, however, that Lopez has “learned the dignity of being loyal to something you believe in” from Ayers. As a Beethoven symphony swells and the credits appear, the duet of characters attempt to become a trio, just as the image of the cello in the movie poster attempts to become a third protagonist. A message of this film suggests that music can bridge social and racial divides. But as the cameras scan the well-dressed, primarily white audience in the concert hall, it is clear that music, much like Lopez’s newspaper articles, is limited in the amount of concrete good that it can do.