I recently had a chance to watch The Cross and the Switchblade, the 1970 film adaptation of Reverend David Wilkerson's 1962 memoir of the same name. Philipsburg, PA, about 190 miles from Allentown, my hometown) is led by God on a mission to bring salvation to the young boys and girls who make up some of Bedford-Stuyvesant's most notorious gangs. He is particularly taken, in the book as well as the film, by the case of Nicky Cruz, the most violent (and most deeply troubled) member of the Mau Maus, a Latino gang who is tied in a tight rivalry with the Bishops, a gang of African American youths.
(And yes, it's really true that the Puerto Rican gang is named the Mau Maus rather than the African American gang, even though the source of the gang's name, the anticolonial Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya which took place between 1952 and 1960, has an obvious and distinctive African connotation.)
While it is the story of the conversion of Nicky Cruz that lies at the The Cross and the Switchblade's center, both the book and the film take on issues of drug use, sexuality, race and gender at length (even if they texts don't do so on purpose), and the film in particular constantly tangles with issues of drug-involved womanhood and notions of 'proper' femininity. While the whole story of The Cross and the Switchblade, along with Wilkerson's eventual leadership of the Times Square Church and his founding of Teen Challenge International and World Challenge ministries, are crucial elements of the larger David Wilkerson mythos, I don't have the time or space to deal with these here. (See, instead, my upcoming paper at the American Historical Association's annual meeting in January - a link will be provided here soon.) Instead, I will focus on the ways in which drug-involved womanhood is represented in the 1970 film, and the ways in which religion and drug use mold these ongoing cinematic conversations.
In her first scene, only six minutes into the film, Bo proudly tells Wilkerson of her shortened femininzed nickname: Little Bo Peep, the sweet fairy tale sheperdess, becomes the more masculine, or at least androgynous, 'Bo.' She is a young African American girl who proudly "runs alone," doesn't do drugs ("I ain't got no use for jitterbuggin' or gettin' messed up") and serves as Wilkerson's first introduction to gang life in New York. As a 'messenger,' unaffiliated with any specific gang but able to transport messages between them, Bo is able to enter territory that would be off-limits to others. In many ways, her liminal status (unaffiliated with any one group, often working alone) is repeated in many ways: in her spiritual indifference, her lack of alignments, and, most notably, in her androgyny.
From the moment we first see Bo (a character who is not present in the 1962 text), the audience is unsure if she is a boy or a girl. She's dressed in jeans, a loose leather coat, a sweater, and a ragged hat: clothing that provides no clear gender markers. She even refers to her androgynous, liminal state a bit later in the film. As she and Wilkerson walk through the streets of Brooklyn, Bo pulls a trumpet out of an unlocked car and begins to play it, lamenting that she "used to play in the YMCA Drum and Bugle corps until they kicked [her] out." "Why'd they kick you out?" asks David Wilkerson, as played by Pat Boone. "Found out I was a girl," Bo answers. To this, Wilkerson smiles. Bo casts her eyes down, briefly, and we see a flicker of shame on her face. She then places the trumpet back into the unlocked car.
Bo instantly aligns herself with Wilkerson, an alignment that marks the first of Bo's transitions from liminal figure into a gendered, feminized, 'proper' Christian girl. Other transitions soon follow.
In many ways, this scene is charming, a vision of racial unity amongst the backdrop of racially-charged gang tensions. But it also speaks to Bo's decreasing liminality. Prior to her alignment with Wilkerson, Bo was seen only with her friend Bottle Cap, another African American youth. Now, she's suddenly the right-hand woman of a white pastor from rural PA and living in domestic tranquility with a family of Latinos. She is no longer adrift and living in the streets; instead, she is anchored into a multi-racial family, all of whom are committed to drug-free Christian ideals and working for the benefit and redemption of others. For a short film (less than two hours) that deals extensively with drug use and gang violence, Bo can be read as one of the film's biggest successes, particularly at the end when she works at Wilkerson's youth rally, and we see Bo dramatically transformed.
The rally, which takes place in a large theater (gesturing towards Wilkerson's future pastorship at the Times Square Church in a renovated Broadway theater), is the last, and most dramatic, scene in the film. Naturally, the bulk of the action focuses on Nicky's acceptance of Christian doctrine and his affirmation of his newfound belief.
It seems that Bo, who does not battle a drug addiction in the film (that's the role of Rosa/Maria - more on that in the next post - but Bo does know where, how, and when the drugs are being used, sold, etc, which makes her drug-involved enough for consideration here), is completed as a character by the time she reaches the rally and has a fully social and sartorial conversion. It's unnecessary for us as an audience to see her religious conversion (one may assume that, through her alliance with Wilkerson and her help with the rally, this has already taken place). Instead, what adherence to Protestantism has brought for Bo is a conversion in the realm of social comportment: now that she has accepted Christ, she conforms to traditional notions of femininity as well. This can be seen in her skirt and her knee socks, her docile and subservient nature (carrying Bibles, helping set up the rally), and, ultimately, the fact that her conversion warrants very little screen time. For a character that Wilkerson relies upon completely to find and meet the gangs he hopes to aid, Bo's conversion is wordless, unremarked-upon, completely visual, and finalized when she wears a skirt instead of jeans. She is the ultimate subservient woman, letting the man's conversion (Nicky's) take the cake. We as an audience don't know if she also assumes a more feminized name, but we can rest assured that, since Bo has found both God and a skirt, her conversion to traditional ideas of Protestant Christianity and traditional womanhood is complete.
Finally, the fact that this character has no duplicate in the text assures us as a film-watching audience that Bo's visual sartorial conversion is sufficient for us to understand that she is, indeed, changed. The book traces no such similar account - there is no young ragamuffin in the book who drops her jeans for skirts when she begins to follow Christ's word. Bo's presence in the film (a catalyst to help Wilkerson find the gangs, a visual confirmation of the transformative power of Christianity) is, in many ways, a completely optical experience, much like the process of film-watching itself. In this sense, Bo both reminds and proves to us, a movie-watching audience, the visual power that comes with images on screen. Bo's role, while minimal, is also complete: Rosa/Maria needs to get over her heroin addiction before she can be saved, and Nicky needs to leave gang-life behind. But Bo? She can put on some knee socks and a skirt and we, the audience, can see all we need to know.
More on Rosa/Maria next time...