Sometimes even our fantasies may not be our own. Take Travis Bickle, the anti-hero of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). Travis is a lonely, depressed Vietnam vet, drifting amidst the sleaze of New York City, frequenting porn movie houses and driving taxi passengers by night. His girl friend, Betsy, is a campaign volunteer for Senator Charles Palatine, who is running for President and when Betsy rebuffs him (after he took her to a porn film) Travis decides to kill Palatine. He acquires guns and practices his fantasy of being a tough-guy in the mirror. Ironically, things turn out flukishly different: there is a shoot-out but Travis is hailed as a hero. It could have gone either way.
Paul Schrader, who wrote the script, was inspired by reading the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who had shot George Wallace when he was a presidential candidate in 1972. So, in a sense Bremer's fantasy became Bickle's. But it didn't stay Bickle's. John Hinckley Jr saw Taxi Driver and adopted it completely into his own life, wearing the same mohawk haircut that Bickle (Robert de Niro) wore in the film and fixating on Jodie Foster, the child star of Taxi Driver. In 1981, acting out the part, Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan.
Bickle, Bremer and Hinckley are all examples of marginal people – bums, if you like – who might have lived out lives of sleazy obscurity but for the one moment that brought them fame. They have been in my mind because of George Floyd.
George Floyd was born in North Carolina but his mother moved to Houston, Texas, while he was a child. A tall young man (1m.93). George excelled at both basketball and American football and, like many a young American black man, hoped to be a hip-hop star, performing as Big Floyd in his group, Screwed Up Click. Having dropped out of school, his early dreams of a legal career – he wanted to be a Supreme Court judge – fell away and he adapted to a life in the Houston underworld, selling drugs, stealing and doing odd jobs. The court records show that he was jailed at least five times in a criminal career spanning over a decade.
His most serious crime was when, disguised as workers for the local water department, he and a friend gained access to a woman's house, whereupon they were joined by five further gang members. Floyd, the gang leader, pulled out a gun and pressed it to the woman's stomach. Thereafter Floyd searched the house for drugs and money (in the end settling only for jewellery). The woman screamed and was pistol-whipped by another gang member. Floyd served five years in prison for this but thereafter had another conviction for criminal trespass and several more for theft so he did not appear to learn any lesson from it.
Nonetheless, as he got older Floyd seemed to wish to reform and became actively involved in his local Houston church, Resurrection Houston, and tried to help his local community. Indeed, in this new role he earned the moniker of “the gentle giant”, helping draw young black boys into the church by teaching them a mixture of basketball and religion and sharing with them his idolization of LeBron James. He settled down with his girl friend, Roxie Washington and they had a little girl, Gianna, to whom Floyd was a model father.