Now I am not saying this is a groundbreaking film in terms of race relations, but whilst watching Diehard in the 80s it was a welcome surprise that the black characters in this film are mostly positive. Think about it, the most positive black could get in the 1980s meant either Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor and to a lesser extent Michael Jackson. Instead if you watch any black character in movies from the 80s, you are most likely to get gang members, loud mouths, or servants and doormen from the mould of Hattie McDaniels. And if you were really lucky, you might get the nice 80s black guys breakdancing such as in the film Breakin’ rather than the 90s black guys in films such as New Jack City. In Diehard we get at least two positive black characters to support John McClane with a possible third supporting Hans Gruber. We will talk about the three characters below:
Sergeant Al Powell (played by Reginald Veljohnson, Jr)
Perhaps the third best character in the film after McClane and Gruber. From the first time we see him in the convenience store buying twinkies for his ‘pregnant’ wife there is an instant trust at first sight; even though we kind of know he is lying about all that food being for his wife. It is this trust and bond that also instantly manifests itself between himself and John McClane and we gather very quickly that Sergeant Al Powell is as they would say in The Wire ‘good poh-lice’.
But in an action movie where good police is needed Powell’s appearance does not seem like one that is ready for action mainly because he is overweight. We also later realise that he hasn’t used his service weapon for …years so that makes him further ineffective. He is a self confessed desk jockey. But this is not what endures him to us and makes him a positive black character. It is his relationship with McClane via radio that makes him truly appealing. Despite all the action in the film the friendship that has been struck over the course of this one traumatic Christmas Eve night is the most touching thing about the film. This bromance is taken even further at the end of the movie, where even though they don’t know what each other looks like, they recognize each other instantly in the crowd, McClane pushes his wife to the side and they hug like long lost lovers. Also note the romantic music being played. Powell is clearly relieved but perhaps knew all along that McClane would survive. He is also a quite rounded out supporting character with a back-story and everything and he has solidarity with good and effectual police work.
Powell comes to investigate a distress call at the Nakatomi plaza sent by John McClane. He is greeted by one of Gruber’s men posing as a security guard, and he is convinced enough to think that the distress call was phony so leaves. Just as he is reversing away in his police car a dead body falls from the sky on top of his patrol car and he is met with gunfire that prompts him to drive backwards away from danger and crashing into a ditch. “Welcome to the party pal”
Soon after he is the only one who has any radio contact with someone inside the hostage situation, and he is the man on the ground that has information about what is going on in the trenches. When his superior lieutenant Dwayne T. Johnson comes to effectively take over we see that Powell is the one who obviously has more sense and knowledge of his own job. He is also McClane’s only ally and in cowboy turns his ‘partner’ (this is what they call each other on the party line) when McClane feels really fucking unappreciated by the LAPD and the FBI. He is supportive in the murder of Elliot and he instinctively knows that McClane is a badge rather than a bartender. If his superiors had listened to him more, there would have been less cock ups and less of the bureaucratic foolishness in the hostage situation. He is obviously a man who is overqualified for his job.
The most poignant part of his character is related to his back story:
Hey pal, you got flat feet?
What the hell you talking about, man.
Something had to get you off the street.
What’s the matter? You don’t think jockeying papers around a desk is a noble effort for a cop?
I had an accident.
The way you drive, I can see why. What’d you do? Run over your captain’s foot with the car?
I shot a kid. He was 13 years old. Oh, it was dark, I couldn’t see him, he had a ray gun, looked real enough. You know when you’re a rookie they can teach you everything about being a cop, except how to live with a mistake. Anyway, I just couldn’t bring myself to draw my gun on anyone again.
So Powell is a great counterpoint to McClane the all action gunho hero, and it would take extra extenuating circumstances for him to draw and fire the gun he keeps resting in his holster. The friendship he has built up with John McClane throughout the night has been important enough for him to save his partners life by shooting dead Karl, the last of Gruber’s henchman as he attempts to avenge his brother’s death by killing John McClane towards the end of the movie. More than just the token black friend, he proves that he is his own man, a well rounded out and intelligent character and a positive representation of a black dude in movies.
If there is any actor who epitomises the career of being typecast, it is Reginald Veljohnson, Jr the actor who plays Sergeant Al Powell. His first notable appearance was as a jail guard in the film Ghostbusters and he went on to another walk on part in Crocodile Dundee as a limo driver. Yet the role which brought him much fame was as a police officer in Diehard and its sequel. He went on to play a detective in Turner and Hooch and played police officer Carl Winslow in the long running sitcom Family Matters. An interesting take on the character he played in Diehard can be viewed here.
Argyle the limousine driver (played by De’voreaux White)
Okay being a limo driver is not that great of a role to have for a black character, but despite the occupation, Argyle has a voice besides his job. He is not just a limo driver; he is a confidant, an expert on women, a business man, a blue collar working man, and a hero, and we get this all in the space of two and a bit minutes when he drives McClane to the Nakatomi plaza.
If you view Argyle as a Morgan Freeman Driving Miss Daisy type of black character you would be wrong. The servant/master barrier is continuously broken during his ride with McClane. Firstly McClane sits up front with him, after all it is the first time he has been in a limo and the first time Argyle has driven one. And whilst McClane is clearly disdainful about Argyle’s observations and comments on his marital life,Argyle does not relent. He even imposes a little bit of Run DMC on the stereo for his customer claiming that “This is Christmas music” though it is evident McClane would prefer something in the Bing Crosby vein.
As Argyle and McClane part each other’s company at the Nakatomi plaza McClane declares: “you’re alright Argyle” after he offers to hook him up for a place to stay if it does not work out with his wife. This is contrary to this still from Diehard with a Vengeance, which shows McClane as a bigot. But Argyle’s moment of reckoning comes at the end of the movie, where the one surviving member of Gruber’s men is about to escape in an ambulance. With no regard for the company limo and therefore his job, he crashes the car into the ambulance gets out then wallops the bad guy. Though he indirectly played his part in foiling the billion pound robbery by driving McClane to the Nakatomi, this act of heroism shows more involvement.
Okay, so he is with the bad guys. But like Hans Gruber he is the slickest of the terrorists/thieves. He is not at the Nakatomi for his brawn and he is the only henchman not to carry or use a gun. No Theo is here precisely for his brains and this is what makes him a positive black character; in a sense. He has some quite snappy lines and the little banter he has with Gruber is quite funny. He also makes a rare exception for this type of movie. If he was in a horror film he would have died. If he was the black sidekick good guy he might have died too. But he is the bad guy and whilst all the others succumb to death from McClane or in the case of Karl to Sergeant Powell; he is the only member of Gruber’s crew to survive albeit on the other end of Argyle’s right hook. So the cheeky bugger ignored convention by not dying whilst being on the dark side and being black. Kudos.