Race Relations in GTA 5’s Cinematic Introduction

As perhaps the most famous urban/street game, Grand Theft Auto is one of the most played and quoted game in our class (and across the country.) This game log marks my first experience with the Grand Theft Auto series. I found the introductory mission helpful in learning basic controls of the game, but I was surprised when the mission ended and cut to a very cinematic introduction to the game. Complete with music, title cards, and crew credits, the intro could easy be that of a hollywood film, aside from the characteristically video game graphics.

The introduction follows Michael as he lurks in the shadows of his own funeral and, at some later point in time, attends a therapy session. The intro then follows Michael (our current protagonist) as he walks down the street along the beach in LA. From Michael’s therapy session the viewer gets the sense that he had a rough upbringing and is experiencing a sort of mid life crisis. He passes an older homeless black man (who has just been scolded by a police officer) stumbling around with an empty glass alcohol bottle and says to himself “I know just how you feel.”

Upon seeing this I wondered if Michael actually knows how the homeless man feels. Sure he had a rough upbringing and presumably came from a low income background, but Michael can now afford a nice suit and a therapist and is still much younger than the homeless man. Furthermore, Michael is white. Can he really know how a homeless black man feels after being yelled at by police? By saying he knows how the homeless man feels Michael denies his own privilege and erases the black man’s struggle. I think the developers’ selection of a black homeless man and a white cop, whether intentional or not, comes with many codes and connotations of race relations.

Michael then sits on a bench and two black men (later introduced as a playable character Franklin and friend/business partner Lamar) walk past. Lamar calls Michael homie and asks for directions to the Bertolt house. After sizing them up Michael replies sarcastically “No, homie, I cannot.” A few seconds pass before Michael stands up and calls the men back, saying “Actually, yeah,” he can give them directions. He points them to a house on the nearby row. I read Michael’s initial refusal to offer directions and use of the word “homie” as him profiling and mocking the black men. His tone suggests that they are not worth his time. When he does point them to a house, I believe it could be out of malice (perhaps the house was wrong and I have not yet uncovered that in my gameplay) or out of the same “sympathy” he felt for the homeless man.

Another scenario in a cinematic cut scene that highlights race relations occurs towards the beginning of the game when Franklin and Lamar arrive at Simeon’s auto shop for the first time. Franklin (the current player character) enters the shop as Simeon yells at a customer calling him a racist and a neo-nazi. Lamar yells at the customer asking “who you calling a n*****,” to which the white male customer replies “no no I’m not calling nobody a n******.” Lamar yells at the customer some more before Simeon concedes and says maybe he is not a racist, but that he “[doesn’t] think he is man enough for a car like this.” Simeon and Lamar continue to emasculate the customer, and as he turns to the side his neck tattoo comes into clear view.


It reads “Entitled” in large script.

Franklin leaves the shop before Lamar and Simeon swindle (or at least that seemed to me what was about to happen) the customer.

The player does not know exactly what was said between Simeon and the white customer, but his slip up with the n word and his large (possibly telling) tattoo don’t paint the customer too favorably. In the presence of the two black characters the customer does not act overtly racist (aside from his seemingly accidental use of the slur), but he easily could’ve changed his tune upon their arrival. Or perhaps Simeon made it all up as a way for Lamar to further emasculate the customer, making him even easier to deceive. It is clear though in this situation that the power is not in the white customer’s hands.

Within the first few missions and minutes of Grand Theft Auto 5 players have the opportunity to play both as white and black characters and experience situations where relations between races furthers the narrative. I am interested to see how the game progresses narratively and how themes of race continue to develop. As this is my first time playing GTA I am not sure how the characters I have written on fit together and whether or not they will reappear/ if some of the questions I am pondering will be answered.



One comment Add yours
  1. You’re definitely onto something with this look at race relations in GTA. Probably heavily intertwined with questions of race (and privilege) in the game are questions of masculinity. Curious to see where you go next with this!

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