Text by Rizvana Arinaz and David Fellerath; Fashion by Rizvana Arinaz; Photos by Rex Miller; Makeup by Khourtney Smith
Just south of Raleigh's booming downtown, where a series of construction projects are poised to bring corporate anonymity to the sleepy Southern city, there is a holdover from a more life-sized, if hardly untroubled, past. Just a few blocks from where a massive convention center is dwarfing and altering the visual character of Raleigh's public spaces, there is the King's Motel.
Strikingly iconic, King's Motel is equal parts Twin Peaks and Psycho—two films with strong affinities for film noir, a genre of movies from the 1940s and '50s that featured morally compromised men, dangerous women, dark shadows and a prevailing atmosphere of spiritual malaise and sexual paranoia.
But there is also something racially archaic about the form, like segregated water fountains. As film scholar Eric Lott defines film noir, "Leave it to white folk to turn chiaroscuro into a racially coded metaphor for the 'dark' places of the white self."
In the essay "The Whiteness of Film Noir," Lott sees film noir (literally, "black film") as concerned, above all, with race. He suggests that film noir is "a sort of whiteface dream work of social anxieties with explicitly racial sources, condensed on film into the criminal undertakings of abject whites." For Lott, in classic noir narratives, characters of color "populate and signify the shadows of white American life in the 1940s."
This series of photographs is a quiet narrative about the dark underworld of a group of seemingly unblemished suburban guys. The noir sequence explores the relationship between the public world of social respectability and the potentially private, seedy exploitations of a class of privileged young men.
As a pictorial narrative, this piece is a deliberately limited representation of present-day Raleigh. Outside the frames of our narrative—and adjacent to the motel—is an Asian food market/ Chinese eatery, and across the street, a homeless shelter for men. Raleigh, as a city in transition between its industrial spaces and its gentrified ones, is like many cities, in search of itself. (King's Motel survives, but Kings Barcade is gone.)
Additionally, it is possible to glimpse, through the strong noir elements, the construction of a class psyche, wherein we are lured into an atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion, fear and guilt, which are often depicted in a bourgeois class context.
There are many reasons not to be nostalgic for the good old days in the South, not least the tradition of whites dominating blacks. Even as the South modernizes, and Raleigh's old landmarks fall to the bulldozer, there are lingering vestiges of the old-fashioned corruption in powerful white men, seen in politicians such as Jim Black and Coy Privette—the latter a religious man caught in cheap motels with a (black) hooker. Then, of course, there was the infamous party thrown last year by male jocks in Durham.
There will always be corruption, of course, and as Raleigh changes, so will the color and gender of its political practitioners. But while the citizenry becomes more diverse, will the scruffy—malignant, even—charm of every old building succumb to the new? Will there be a place for the careworn, the accidentally beautiful and otherworldly buildings like King's Motel?
Motel of mystery
If you've ever driven along South Wilmington Street in Raleigh, its hard to miss King's Motel, if not for its David Lynchian intrigue, then because of the massive Cargill oilseed plant towering behind it. The motel at 1403 S. Wilmington St. has been around since the early 1950s, and, instead of attracting tourists, it tends to shelter locals looking for a roof and bed, or simply a place to get out of the house for a night. Kay Patel, whose family has owned the place since 1978 and who grew up at the motel, notes that aside from the usual ruckus and occasional altercations, "It's pretty much the same old [stuff] around here." But then she thinks better: "Oh! The Accelerators did shoot an album cover here once," she says, recalling the '80s Raleigh-based rockabilly-pop band.
In the past few years, there's been some discussion within the nonprofit community about transforming the 31-bed motel into low-cost housing, but for now, King's Motel still reigns in the shadows of its industrial neighbor's looming pipes and machinery. —Sarah Lupton