Diana McCaulay’s Dog-Heart analyzes themes of income inequality and poverty in the Caribbean nation of Jamaica. In light of the current economic situation of the United States of America and its prominent political implications, a film adaptation of this novel would hit on these themes and would find a receptive market.
The film follows two characters, Dexter, a poor black boy living in Jacob’s Quarter, Jamaica, and Sahara Lawrence, a relatively affluent restaurant owner. The story is split between these two people and follows the course of 4 years, the passage of time being marked by Dexter’s grade changes and physical portrayal from 12 year old boy to 16 year old “man.”
The general plot is derived from a chance meeting between the two characters outside of a movie theater. Dexter and his friends beg outside of this movie theater that is frequented by rich folks. They target people based on what they wear, what cars they are going to, and how they react when they see the boys walking towards them. When Dexter approaches Sahara and her son, Sahara gives more money than he has ever received, and asks for his name and where he lives. Dexter is apprehensive and gives only general information. Carl reveals himself to be entitled and admonishes his mom throughout the film for caring for this poor, “worthless,” boy. Sahara searches Dexter out and finds his family, consisting of Dexter’s mom, his 9 year old brother, Marlon, and his baby sister, Lissa. They live in a squalid plywood “house” in a shantytown, in sharp contrast with Sahara’s beautiful home in a nice neighborhood. Sahara strikes up an agreement with the family where she would provide money so the children can go to a real school and would bring groceries to the house, but only if the children do not beg anymore. The family agrees and the plot follows the kids’ difficulty in assimilating into a new culture. In one of the food deliveries, Sahara meets Lasco, a friend of Dexter’s with a truly evil demeanor that frightens Sahara to no end. Lasco is the eponymous “Dog-Heart.” Marlon and Lissa excel, while Dexter finds it too difficult to overcome the social differences. He does well enough to go on to high school and Sahara sets him up in an elite school for the gifted. Almost immediately after starting school, Dexter starts to give in to social pressures and trepidatiously follows his now teenage friends, Lasco and Boston, from the shantytown into a life of crime. He attends school only sparingly. They perform several menial crimes, stealing from various shops, acting as lookouts for drug deals, and more, and make a little money. After a few jobs, it is revealed that Lasco has used his earnings to buy a gun, and tells the boys that he wants to join a gang. To join the gang, he must first capture and kill a rich white person of such socioeconomic importance that the crime will make it into the newspapers. Before they can start to plan such a crime, a lookout job goes bad, and the police go looking for the boys. The boys run to Dexter’s house and hide, his mom tries to kick them out but the police are right behind them. The cops bust down the door and Boston and Lasco escape, but Dexter is arrested. In the confusion, Marlon is mistaken for one of the escaped boys and is shot and killed by the police. Dexter goes to jail. Sahara finds out what has happened from the newspaper the next day and goes to visit Dexter in jail. After seeing the horrendous conditions of his imprisonment, she goes to Carl’s father, a prominent white lawyer in Jamaica, and gets him to have Dexter released. At this point, Dexter severs all ties with moving down the straight and narrow path and finds Lasco and Boston. They now plan on joining the gang. Lasco, Dexter, and Boston go to the movie to find an unwitting victim. Carl has since gone to college and Sahara is attending a movie on her own. As she leaves, the boys kidnap her and tape her up. She is thrown into the trunk of her car and the boys take her to an abandoned building. When Lasco moves to kill her, Dexter has a change of heart and takes the gun and kills Lasco. He tells Boston to run away and then releases Sahara. Sahara drives away in a panic and Dexter leaves the city for the mountains, where he hopes to live in peace.
Dexter is poor boy of great intelligence. He has the raw horsepower to succeed in the “white” world but cannot escape his poor “black” background. His family needs him to beg, as his father is never known, and this limits his ability to better his own future. The nature of providing for his family also puts him in a mental rut that does not allow him to ever think of himself as anything but a poor street rat. He will have mental monologues in patois, and will struggle with talking “normal.” He is fiercely protective of his brother Marlon and commands influence in his family, which he does not realize until he is older and attempts to assert himself over his mother, which will result in him recoiling from his intimidation of the woman who raised him. Dexter, at his heart, is a good person who just wants to escape the conditions that make him and his loved ones suffer, and he is forever apprehensive to accept Sahara’s help, as he cannot see from his position how enduring the hardships of school will ever help him and his family escape squalor. He also questions her motivations, which are never known to him.
Sahara is a single mother with a mixed race background. Her mother was a poor black woman and her father was a rich white man. Her mother abandoned her when she was young and her father was a missionary-type character. He left for Africa when she was young and her primary caregiver was her aunt in England, who was never fond of black people. Sahara went to school in Jamaica and opened a restaurant with her black best friend. She makes a good amount of money and has a child with her high school sweetheart, with whom she does not have good relationship. Her son, Carl, is at first an entitled young man, who tries to convince her mother to stop providing for the family for various reasons. He goes to Florida State University when Dexter goes to high school but fails out. When he returns, he moves in with his father and has a change of heart, manifesting itself into him helping his father release Dexter from prison. Sahara is shaken at the end of the film because of her experiences, but her initial inclination to help is confirmed when Dexter proves himself to be a good person underneath his failings.
The income disparity between the two characters is the main theme. Sahara is not rich, but she finds it within herself and her belongings to provide for the poor family. But her intentions are constantly questioned, via internal monologue and Dexter’s point of view. She frequently becomes frustrated at Dexter’s inability to focus on schoolwork, which she attributes to laziness derived from his poverty. But the audience can see it’s because Dexter has to provide for his family. For instance, the family does not even have running water, so he has to walk a mile to and from a communal tap every morning before school, harassed by bigger boys all along the way. The main theme is that poverty is not a symptom, but a condition that causes many other symptoms, which should ultimately beg the inference that to eradicate poverty, you should alleviate all the effects first (contrary to medical logic).
The two main locations are Jacob’s Quarter, a slum in Jamaica (although not the worst slum, which should be said by Dexter at some point, inviting the idea that even though it is a hellacious place, he has some pride in it), and the “rich” world of Sahara. Jacob’s Quarter should invoke visions of shacks in Haiti (like the ones seen on television commercials after the 2008 earthquake) with functionality prided over appearance. Kids do not always wear shoes because they must save their shoes for going out of the Quarter for instance. The rich world should have palm trees and mimosas, invoking the stereotypical island paradise that many think when they envision Jamaica. The island theme should run through all these shots as they appeal to the rich American stereotype to which we all subscribe. This will lead the viewer to reflect on themselves and their own situation, as they will agree with the island the theme and then realize the dirty truth of what Jamaica really is.
The scene where Sahara is captured is the climax of the entire story. Three dirty and starving boys creep through the shadows and approach the single mixed-race woman leaving the theater. They hush each other as she approaches her van, and she is deep in thought. She looks through her purse, passing over a can of mace, and fumbles with her keys. She drops them and bends over to pick them up. She is clocked on the head and falls to the ground. She tries to scream but a dirty hand shoves a filthy rag into her mouth and other hands wrap tape around her head. Their frantic and unprofessional movements poke her and drop the tape and empty her bag. This attracts attention and people come over to see what is happening. When the boys see this, they quickly shove her into the back of the van and rush to start it. Bystanders flip open their phones and call the police. The van squelches its tires as they peel out and rush to an undisclosed location. Sahara is in the dark, with a bag over her head, and she is crying and trying to scream. Dexter and Boston are screaming at each other while Lasco has a cool expression, which indicates he is in complete control; he is in his element. The van stops and the boys pull the kicking Sahara out. The bag is removed and she squints in the van’s lights. Her eyes adjust and she looks at Dexter and Boston, each boy refusing to meet her gaze. She then focuses on Lasco, who looks her dead in the eyes, with a look of pure evil, with the look of a soulless heart, a “Dog-Heart.” He relishes the moment and then demands the pistol. A shot rings out and his face contorts in surprise as he falls on the ground. Dexter holds the smoking gun and then demands Boston run away. Boston swears revenge and escapes into the darkness. Dexter releases Sahara’s bonds and throws the keys on the ground. The gun follows the keys and Dexter watches as Sahara collects both and drives away. Sahara watches Dexter in the rearview mirror and gets to her house, where she stops in the driveway and cries.
When Sahara and Carl first meet Dexter outside of the movie theater.
Dexter approaches Sahara and Carl and says, “’Scuse me miss, but I lookin’ for jus’ some change fo’ mi family, nuttin’ much, jus’ a few coins.”
Carl replies,” Mom, come on, we need to get out of here. I have school tomorrow.”
Sahara rebukes Carl,” Carl, be quiet.” She turns to Dexter and asks, “What’s your name?”
“Mi name ain’t important, miss, I jus’ need some change to feed mi family.”
“I’ll give you 500 dollars (this is Jamaican currency) if you tell me your name and where you live.”
“I… uh, mi name Dexter. I live in de Quarter. Jacob’s Quarter miss. Mi family is hungry and we needin’ some food. That money would help miss.”
“Ok Dexter, as promised, here’s 500. Why are you here begging? Don’t you have school tomorrow?”
Dexter ignores the question and says, “Thank you miss, thank you miss, mi goin’ to school tomorrow. Have a good night miss!”
This film embodies what many think will be the biggest issue of the 2014 Midterm elections, income disparity. The Democratic and Republican parties have differing views on how to rectify the situation, but the film will not address solutions. It will only show what needs to be considered before a solution is in place. The answer is not a short-term fix that is meant to help one’s own conscience, but a lasting change that acknowledges the vast differences in lifestyles that accompany income disparity. The ending is not feel-good per se, but it does give the audience a glimpse into the humanity of the poor, which is in stark contrast to the label (of which this treatment has been guilty of using).