A ‘Taxi Driver’ Remake: Why Arthur Jafa Recast the Scorsese Ending

Call it a return to his roots. The artist Arthur Jafa began his career as a cinematographer, working with his then-wife, Julie Dash, on the acclaimed “Daughters of the Dust” (1991) and with Spike Lee on “Crooklyn” (1994), before garnering art world fame, including a Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, for “Love is the Message, The Message is Death,” a snapshot of Black life in the United States created from collaged video footage. Jafa’s practice has embraced film and video, sculpture, installation, and even painting.

His newest film, which goes on view Thursday at Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea, has a provocative conceit: Jafa has remade the shockingly violent climax of a classic of American cinema — Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) — in which the main character Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, storms into a seedy Times Square brothel and kills everyone in sight in order to save Iris, a child prostitute played by Jodie Foster, then 12 years old.

In the original movie — what Jafa calls the “redacted version” — these characters, including Iris’s pimp Sport (played by Harvey Keitel), were white. That never felt right to Jafa. When he discovered that the film’s celebrated screenwriter, Paul Schrader, had intended Sport to be African American, he decided to “restore” the movie by introducing Black actors, except for De Niro and Foster. In the 73-minute-long film, titled “******” — or as the artist pronounces it, “Redacted” — we see this recut version of the bloody climax over and over, each time slightly but crucially different. The result is extraordinary — both technically and conceptually —and brings to the surface the racist animus long accepted as underpinning Bickle’s barely contained rage. (Quentin Tarantino also criticized the decision to change the character to white in his 2022 book, “Cinema Speculation.”)

Arthur Jafa cast a replacement actor, right, as the pimp in “Taxi Driver,” originally played by Harvey Keitel, then skillfully wove in the new footage and rerecorded the voices. Credit…via Arthur Jafa and Gladstone Gallery

Schrader, who is still making movies at 77, said in a recent telephone conversation that the change to his original vision was the right call. “Someone at Columbia Pictures said to Marty, ‘we’re going to have a riot in the theater if we cast Sport as Black,’ and I realized they were completely right.”

“I think it would have been a much more vile and revolting film if his hatred was directed completely at people of color,” he added. “You can’t make something that is so off the meter that it can’t be seen or that people simply can’t bear watching.” (Martin Scorsese did not return several calls seeking his comment.)

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