The Torchy’s scene has only acquired more power over the years due to the renewed vigor of racists in the public square. Prior to entering the establishment, Murphy tells Nolte’s bigoted cop, Jack Cates, who believes the mouthy Hammond lacks the “bulls*** and experience” it takes to intimidate a bar full of hicks, to “Come in and experience some of my bulls***.” Hammond takes charge immediately by downing a shot of vodka, hurling the glass through the bar mirror, and grabbing the bartender roughly by his shirt collar to demand information.
The 5’9″ Murphy had just turned 21 when he shot this scene, but he reads as a grown man on screen. And while Hammond might be impersonating a cop, he isn’t bullsh***ing. The experience is being Black in America, and this spikes the bulls*** with an exquisitely controlled fury. “I don’t like white people. I hate rednecks. You people are rednecks. That means I’m enjoying this s***.” Then he drops the hammer when one of the patrons challenges him. “You know what I am? I’m your worst f***in’ nightmare, man. I’m a n****r with a badge, which means I got permission to kick your f***in’ ass whenever I feel like it!”
That last line could hit a little more awkwardly given the recently revealed murderous exploits of the Memphis Police Department’s Scorpion Unit, but in context, it’s a haymaker, and Murphy lands it flush. This exchange is sharply contrasted by Hammond’s relationship with Cates, who taunts him with racist invective until they get into a fight. The scrawny, 21-year-old Murphy holds his own verbally and, remarkably, physically with the burly Nolte. You never question the mismatch because anyone with Hammond’s mouth only survived his childhood because he could back up his talk with his fists. Off-camera, Murphy didn’t look the part. On camera, he was lethal, quick-witted perfection. He didn’t disappear like Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis are known to do; he made minor adjustments to his smartass persona, and gave us a wily, con-artist performance on par with Paul Newman in “The Sting” or Barbara Stanwyck in “The Lady Eve.”