The Defiant Ones:
A False American Dream

What are some generalized interpretations of hierarchy? Rich over poor; white over black; north over south; man over woman; literate over the illiterate; bourgeois over the proletarian…However, the list is nowhere near ending not because there simply are more binaries, but how hierarchies are structured in a myriad of ways that would separate the richer from the less rich…the whiter from the less white….As it remains impossible to build common ground on the structures of hierarchy existent in each society and culture, it is granted a consensus for the least that hierarchy is ruled by one holding more power than another to aid upon effective social mobility, but is it equally necessary to establish a hierarchy on the suppression of another? Diving into the conversation, the 1958 film The Defiant Ones unveils hierarchy's existential ambivalence in American land and history.

Appropriate division of power is crucial to societal function as it pushes forth economy and order. Hinted from the very beginning when Sheriff Max Muller receives a call from the governor to check in with the escaped criminals, the film already offers its audience a direct view of a simple hierarchal relationship between the governor, sheriff, delegates, and inmates on the run. The power one has above another is what gets labors done and orders carried out. Nothing is inherently wrong with the sheriff and delegates chasing down Cullen and Joker to put them back into prison, a corner in society where criminals are supposed to pay off for their crime. Hence one of the reasons Joker's dream to become Charlie Potatoes cannot come true is because inmates are meant to be put into prisons for the wellness of social order—built from the hierarchy that will not punish the innocent nor praise the guilty.

Society needs a hierarchy built on respect.  In the contemporary discourse, majorities detest class and power division because it stands for uneven distribution of not only resources but also respect—the form of respect that ceases one from building their power on the suppression of another with injustice. When the sheriff questions the necessity of guns during the chase, the delegates treat Cullen and Joker, prisoners ranked below them, as if rabbits in a hunting game. Such a condescending attitude that treats human less than human is what leads to forms of erroneous hierarchy.

However, as hierarchy marks its boundaries and division broader than mere class, racial discrimination that situates white people over the non-white further escalates the corruption of it. The urge in breaking the prison chain is understandable with the perspective coming from prisoners being suppressed long under the social pyramid, but the fact that their chain could not be broken at the beginning signifies a metaphorical obstacle to be mangled. The chains are locked during the first half of the film in a way not because their fugitive identity would not grant them freedom, but because Cullen and Joker must be chained to each other until Joker learns to put down his white superiority. Half across the film, Joker struggles between the ambivalence of hierarchy—an aspect that recognizes himself above Cullen's black skin while the other situates himself as a prisoner the same as Cullen. When the villagers interrogate the two inmates on who broke into the house, Joker's inability to agree nor disagree with the villager's blame on Cullen alone was of his mind battling against the right and wrong. Journeying across Cullen's process in digesting this layer of discrimination, the audience sees Cullen's transformation at last. The moment Joker is forced to face the inhumanity of suppressive hierarchy through Billy's mother's attempt in killing Cullen, he seeks to regain full respect for Cullen. These prison chains will only be broken when Joker, in representation of the ones blindfolded by unjust hierarchy, recognizes there is nothing existent to separate him from Cullen as a prisoner. Given a correct state of mind, Cullen and Joker's held hands after failing to jump on a train to the north serves a bond stronger than any prison chain to tie social hierarchy into justice.

With such hands held, why is it impossible to escape hierarchy? To the extent of defining hierarchy, it is only the hierarchy built upon suppression of another that people should try to escape. Hierarchies are crucial in performing social order and efficiency as long as it is carried out in proper respect that takes each group of the power structure to walk in the shoes of another. With Johnny's dream of becoming Charlie Potatoes based on suppressing black skin and the female gender, his vision in seeing hierarchy the wrong way will hinder him from obtaining true freedom.

Johnny dreamt of the wrong dream.

"I'm gonna buy me a pair of buckskin shoes, with a brand-new suit and a silk skirt. And I'll be Charlie Potatoes, comin' down the street, with a Panama hat and a good lookin' girl."—Johnny was so close to a dream-come-true. Chains unchained, a getaway car, a good lookin' woman, and Cullen supposedly being safe and sound. He has planned out a dream to escape a hierarchal system that oppressed him as a prisoner, but little did he know that his free and wealthy American dream is built at the expense of Cullen's life and Billy's mother's feminine inferiority. Joker could not run on a perfect getaway while having Cullen being safe alone without him enduring his identity and status as a prisoner—in becoming someone who should hold respect to anyone above them the pyramid as well as below. Besides the necessary hardship endured for racial equality, so does the term good lookin' girl need to be corrected. As Joker lists women into his dream list, it serves to be equalizing women as a trophy in proving a higher class status. With his dream built on the objectification of women as well as the patronization towards black skin, Joker could never have attained a freed mindset from the immoral hierarchy. By the end as Joker reflects upon his getaway with Billy's mother, repeated lines of him screaming into her and his sense of mind "You don't even know me…you don't even know my name…you don't know anything about me" reinforces the absurdity of thismis-dreamt dream.

At the end of the day, every class says thank you to the class above of them, but only if it is spoken to others and oneself with respect can hierarchy stand in line with morality. The way Billy's mother is portrayed in servitude and inferior manner is of a form of thank you spoken in blunt hierarchical injustice. Analyzed in parallel with Joker's assertion "You don't even know my name", the injustice of gender oppression shapes the dream of Billy's mother. Her dream of a getaway, similar to the one Joker has dreamt, is of a damsel in distress who is sunken into deep blunder, believing that she needs a man to scoop her out of the village. Billy's mother is therefore an explicit representation of someone stuck inside the system of unjust hierarchy. As she allows herself into a passive position by letting Cullen and Joker, clearly as prisoners with their chained wrists, stepping into her property, she even indulges the passivity later on. Her instant flirtation with a man she does not know or even bother to care about his name, as well as herself worried with her appearance in front of the male gaze both serve to be clues to a suppressive hierarchy as she gives up her subjectivity. Submission towards this form of unjust power structure is what keeps Billy's mother from having a character name in the film. It remains impossible for her to escape the village into her dream of a metropolitan extravaganza as long as she fails to recognize the form of respect she needs for herself to fend off the patriarchal values unjust hierarchies shape for women.

What is then implied when even socially suppressed groups of women bear an eye of discrimination towards the black skin? The Defiant Ones has carried out all forms of exclusion and suppression of women characters throughout the film. With none of the woman characters being named and even women of the village asked to leave during the scene of lynching Cullen—whether out of disbelief in women's ability to handle violence or deserving of knowing—the respect one should hold towards different people ranked in the social pyramid is instantly taken away. However, with Billy's mother discriminating against Cullen's skin, the film reveals an aspect of suppression that will hardly end. Even socially suppressed groups, in such case the female gender, may hold a condescending attitude towards another group of being. This never-ending cycle of disrespect is then a byproduct of the unjust hierarchal system that society should altogether avoid.

Carrying on hierarchies' existential ambivalence, The Defiant Ones brings us a prisoner not too white nor too black—a form of respect that settles in the presence of rightful hierarchy and absence of suppression.  Near the end of the film, as Joker yells into the field to save Cullen from a path to death, he trips over and soaks half of his white clothes in mud. This accidental remark runs in contrast to the fact that Joker intentionally painted his face with mud to cover up his whiteness during the village scene. Now that he stumbles into a half black half white middle ground unintentionally, the film conveys an ambivalent presence of being neither too white nor too black. Resonating to W.E.B Du Bois' writings on black skin's strivings, it is a wish to "neither Africanize America nor bleach the African blood." Yet, when questioning the possibility of this state of mind, one must acknowledge the hardships Joker had endured together with Cullen to reach this position.

It is of a journey that defines people across the hierarchy neither as the other nor the ally. The mud Joker deliberately painted over his face was only a compromise on the mere facade. True respect blossoms from walking in the shoes of another as Joker comes across his flesh and mind weakened from the chase. As Joker is still very much white, his pretension is waned by the prison chain that forces him to undergo the discrimination and fears most of the ordinary black people are enduring. In the woods when only Cullen was able to recognize the noises of the weasel, it is a play with the symbolic primitivity of black skin that casts Cullen closer to the jungle of society. For anyone stepping into the jungle, one will have to endure people holding rifles like the delegates, who treat the black skin as if wild animals to be hunted. Joker becomes sick as he stumbles into this mistreated game between the hunter and hunted, for then can he truly witness the immoralities present hierarchal relationships are being built on. The necessity of such sickness is not a symbol of weakness that takes away his white identity, but of the experiences needed to show the kind of respect Joker needs to have at last for Cullen. Hence with Joker's clothes stained half in mud, one can maintain an ambivalent state that wanes one's arrogance in othering any class or gender situated above or below them. As Joker walks the moccasins of the suppressed black skin, the ending of the film grants him a final destination where he was able to willingly settle in his reality as a prisoner while freeing himself from a dream based on immoral hierarchy.

But perhaps, a happy ending of Joker and Cullen in arms of each other does not fulfill the demands of a final destination in real-life society. With social hierarchies ranked in much more divisions than the mere color of skin separating Joker and Cullen, we see the film leaving out a series of immoral hierarchies unresolved. The film only depicts two inmates breaking free from hierarchal suppression, but is it possible for divisions ranked above them to walk in the same moccasins as well? A reality remarked with the correct form of hierarchy will not refer to the manhunt a game between the hunter and the hunted, but of sheriffs carrying out justice to chase prisoners back to where they belong; nor will women be excluded out of social conversations to constrain the female knowledge.

In fact, The Defiant Ones does exploit a few characters to hint at aspects of righteous hierarchy, yet their character flaws still highlight the difficulties pertaining how power division should be carried out. Attempts with the sheriff stopping the crew from using rifles and dogs near the inmate, along with Big Sam letting go of Cullen and Joker all seem to situate the two characters as advocates of rightful hierarchy. With Big Sam's rightfulness being the resultant of walking through the same moccasins Joker went through as seen from his same wrist scar, details of mentioning both the governor's election and the sheriff's promotion puts other white male characters' motivation into question. As if without a promising promotion or election, none would be treating the escaped prisoners seriously. Either let go or kill the inmates would then be a total disregard for moral hierarchy. After all, the chase should not be referred to as a game between the hunter and hunted, nor should the sheriff be executing justice only out of fear for punishment.

Easy to justify aspects of hierarchy through words, but not as easy for one to truly embrace each division across the pyramid in reality. Hierarchy is crucial in maintaining social order in a way that differentiates the worker from the leader giving out orders, but not to serve as an excuse to hinder the worker's value being weighed as much as of the leader. With all forms of unjust hierarchies being carried out for centuries, some may have already internalized a suppressed role in society such as how Billy's mother has willingly situated herself into servitude and dependency. After all, how does one remember something already forgotten? Though people may find it difficult to include the excluded, seeing how feminism has grown out of patriarchal expectations and improved women rights in the past century is of great hope to envision a time in the future where people are able to not see themselves more or less than anyone while carrying out their roles in society either as laborers or entrepreneurs.

Before this seemingly utopian system comes into practice, one should hold the belief in this newfound freedom themselves to attain a positive mindset.  As progress takes time, the immoral aspects of hierarchy would not be erased so soon, though hopefully not too far as well. Noticing the difference in background music that splits the inmates' scenes from the sheriff's crew, the film casts an explicit contrast between the two worlds they are living in different levels of the social hierarchy. Every time it switches to the scene of officers searching in the field, cheerful background music plays for them. On the other hand, knowing that their current state is inescapable, Cullen sings his background music himself. From the beginning in the prison truck to the end where he jumps off of the train for Cullen, his singing runs into melancholy and hope to recognize how hierarchy is still based on suppression for thousands, and even millions of others living in the world. Cullen and Joker is the exact form of spirit needed in by people across the hierarchy to truly embrace each other as each of their hands are held tightly to another despite chains lifted. The newfound freedom lies in the trust of one another where upper classes and lower classes feel free to connect and have Billy's mother live in an environment where it is safe to not be the damsel in distress.

Looking beyond the lenses of The Defiant Ones, the field of literature renders hierarchy's existential ambivalence as well in stories like Barn Burning. Boy Sarty lives in a white family where the less white revolts against the whiter —as defined by different social classes among their whiteness—by burning their barns. Though Sarty has lived under his father's rules ever since birth, the moment he witnesses his father's cruelty in burning the last barn is when he enters a conflicted state of which side of the hierarchy being more justifiable—where he discovers at the end—none. His current life is based on immoralities from both his father and the landowners; as his father would not give into his social status as a farmer as much as how landowners are bought into the idea of suppressive hierarchy. His father's disbelief in hierarchy originates from the very consequence of a division of power with insufficient resources and respect given to both sides. As Sarty runs off into the woods with his head turned against the higher class's discrimination and lower class's wrath, he is running towards the newfound freedom that Cullen has been singing to.

Hierarchy, then as a form a system constructed in boosting societal productivity, has lost track from the social constructs that provide one an excuse to look less or more of anyone above or under the division. Given this ambivalent state of hierarchy's existence, it remains as modern discourse's urgency for Cullen to regain the respect in singing an uninterrupted song into the divisional society, otherwise, a melancholy left unsung, and an American dream mis-dreamt.