Ignore IndieWire's critic Tambay Obenson on CBS's Queen Latifah-rific reboot of the '80s TV show The Equalizer. In his world, we are supposed to judge TV shows for the quality writing and acting and stuff like that ('...this “Equalizer” feels thoroughly unoriginal'). He must believe that something like art is really to be found in, of all places, television programs. But a show like The Equalizer must be judged not as a work of art but as a vivid dream. You do not wake up and say: "That dream had great performances, direction, writing, and such." No. You wake up say: "That was curious." And such is the case with Queen Latifah's The Equalizer. As with a dream, we must ask: What makes this show so curious? This post will unpack that very question.
But first, a brief TV history of The Equalizer.
We must begin with this TV programme from post-Empire. It's called Callan. Its life span was between 1967 and 1972. But when I arrived in Zimbabwe (former member of Empire) from Washington, D.C. in 1982 as a boy, the show was still busy re-running on ZBC, the then-new country's only channel. I loved the opening like you wouldn't believe.
If the music of this opening rings a bell in the American mind, this has to be the reason why:
Are you feeling that? The stuff of dreams.
Well, Callan starred a youngish Edward Woodward as David Callan, a killer secretly authorized by the state (The Section) to make things happen outside of the law and the public's view. Agent Callan has owl eyes, tight lips, and deadly hands. But during normal hours (meaning, the time when he is not killing someone bad), he is a reliable bookkeeper for a scrap metal business on the edge of what remained of Britain's industrialization. Callan is a man not of Empire, but of its sunset, its long decline, its growing geopolitical irrelevance. For example, his parents were not subjects in the domination of the "Jewel in the Crown," India, but were instead killed by a "wonder weapon" designed by the Nazi scientist in Germany and Disney personality in the US, Wernher von Braun, the V2 rocket. Germany and the US had displaced Empire when Callan, whose choice of tipple is whiskey, worked for The Section.
Not long after watching all 44 episodes of Callan, something very unexpected happened on ZBC: Woodward appeared on the US TV show The Equalizer as a retired secret agent who for mysterious reasons relocated to New York City in the mid-80s. Woodward was no longer any kind of young, but he still had the same owl-like eyes, tight lips, and deadly hands. As a boy, I directly witnessed the link between the two shows—Callan and The Equalizer. In my mind, it worked out like this: After a career of killing people for the state, Callan moved to NYC and decided to offer his killer services to God-to-honest Americans in desperate situations. His new name? Robert McCall.
That music is by the former drummer for The Police, Stewart Copeland (the British band's yank and son of a real live CIA agent), who also provided a superb score for Francis Ford Coppola's most curious work, Rumble Fish.
And so that marks the beginning of a TV character whose journey will eventually reach Latifah in the third decade of the 21st century. In between Woodward and the queen of the boom-bap-era rap is Denzel Washington. He teamed up with one of Hollywood's top black directors, Antoine Fuqua, to make a movie adaptation of the '80s TV show in 2014. Because it was a rip-roaring success, a second Equalizer was made in 2018. (The second was better, in the terms of dream exhalations, than the first.)
In this iteration, Robert McCall, a former top secret agent for Pax Americana, is a killing machine who is so efficient, he can time himself in much the same way a superior microwave oven has a timer that can defrost a frozen chunk of beef with great accuracy.
After killing lots of very bad people, Washington's McCall returns to his apartment to read Marcel Proust, or Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Richard Wright.
Queen Latifah's equalizer is not a reader. She loves the old-school rap ("...used to get busy in a Burger King bathroom") and watching movies with her homegirls. Her name is Robyn McCall. In the first three shows of the series, we learn that she entered the army to escape a life of being black and beat-down by the black-woman-hating system. Apparently, she excelled as a soldier and eventually became a special agent for the greatest power of the 20th century, the United States of America. Managing Pax Americana was not a pretty business, however. She had to do some unspeakably awful things for the country. And it is here she has her reason for becoming an equalizer in an unequal world. She is trying to give to the people what the state often takes from the people and hands to the rich. The class aspect of The Equalizer has been there from the beginning. It's born with Callan, who, as an accountant, hates his penny-pinching boss.
(Watch up to 1:04.)
But why does Queen Latifah's equalizer kick ass? Because she is Queen Latifah. My god. What more do you want? She is not about getting an award for her performance. She is about you cheering her on when she beats up a baddie, or when she has to find some way to match her heroically employed killer skills with her mothering of a rude teen daughter at home. I can watch this forever. It is the dream of dreams. And Latifah is not doing no post-modern mammy like Angela Bassett in Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days. The Queen has a love life. She does her right. She also has a new love interest, an NYPD detective named Tory Kittles (played with aristocratic perfection by Marcus Dante).
So, unlike a mammy, the black woman in The Equalizer is not obviously emotionally nourishing or have, as Michele Wallace put it in her masterpiece 1979 book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, roots growing under her feet. This black woman was trained to kill, and she will and does kill. Nothing mammy going on here. But certainly something that reminds one of the present generation of active black women represented by the likes of Keisha Bottoms and Stacey Abrams.
Finally, if you need just one more piece of validation for this dream-rich show, I recommend following Lesley Jones' tweets during an episode: