An Essay on "Trapped In The Closet"

Trapped In The Closet is a film, of sorts, by R'n'B monstrosity, R Kelly. If you haven't watched it, it can all be found online and really should be watched by everyone.

Via the Wikipedia page I found this something awful page with mock notes on the piece. It included essay questions, so I decided to answer one.

Why does Chuck[1] look for R. Kelly under the dresser? How big do you imagine the dresser to be?

"Trapped in the Closet" by R. Kelly is a convention-defying film which has forced us all to redefine what we mean by art. In creating a new genre, the hiphopera, Kelly has surely rendered many of the old artforms redundant. It is perhaps not surprising given these seismic shifts in society that "Trapped in the Closet" remains to this day a controversial and sometimes misunderstood piece. It has raised many important questions for our world today, and leading amongst these is "Why did he look in the dresser? How big does he imagine a dresser to be?". It is this cliff-hanger which this essay will attempt to address.

Some Kelly-sceptics find the scene in which the cuckolded Rufus looks for his wife's lover [Sylvester, who is at this point quite literally "Trapped in the Closet"] in the dresser in their room, risible. They would contest that it would be impossible to hide a fully-grown man in a dresser, and on face-value this seems true. However this literal interpretation of the work merely betray the critics own philistinism.

These same critics presumably rolled their eyes in Chapter 9 when the policemen went to look under his sink. However this turned out to be a very intelligent move by the officer, probably informed by years of police training, and led to the discovery of the midget who was having an affair with his wife. Indeed in this later, and most post-modern of chapters, the policeman also looks behind a refrigerator. As unlikely as this may seem, it is clearly an intertextual reference to the film "se7en"[2], in which Kelly is asking us which of the deadly sins have been committed in this kitchen[3]. We should perhaps, therefore not be too quick to judge the recurring theme of searching in unlikely places in "Trapped In The Closet". Nothing, in the masterful hands of R. Kelly, happens by accident, and so it may be better to examine, in a serious way, why he had the character look in the dresser, and what deeper point R Kelly is trying to make.

As mentioned above the critics assume that Rufus is searching for the fully-grown man he believes to have been intimate with his spouse. However there are a number of ways in which this assumption may be flawed.

As shown in Rufus's own private life, to assume that the affair would be with a man could be erroneous. Although we the viewer know that the transgressor is Sylvester[4], we should not assume that Rufus knows the same. However we shall discount this avenue of investigation as even a fully-grown lesbian would not fit in a dresser.

However, the assumption that Rufus is looking only for a fully grown man is also open to doubt. It may well be that Rufus knows that his wife is involved in the sordid underworld of the midget-sex trade. Perhaps he suspects Big Man or one of his cohorts may be his rival. Would a midget fit in a dresser? It would be a tight-fit for sure, but probably merits academic testing if funding can be found. Furthermore, it is possible that Rufus is looking for an even smaller form of life; perhaps a small animal or pixie, who may have retreated to the closet for post-coital reflection. It is to R. Kelly's credit that he is not explicit about this. He leaves some canvas for our imaginations to wander into, allowing the viewer to make the viewing of "Trapped In The Closet" an intensely personal one, and to hang from cliffs of our own devising. As Noam Chomsky has written, "Kelly invites each of us to open the closet within, and within each other".

It is questionable indeed whether Rufus is aware that he is looking for a person at all. The director (R. Kelly) has decided to expose to the viewer that Sylvester (R. Kelly) is "Trapped in the Closet". However all Rufus has heard is a phone ring. This heightens his suspicions of an amorous intruder, but he may be checking in the dresser merely to see if that is where the phone is hidden.

When examining the motivations of Rufus, it is important to take his character into account. Although a pastor, Rufus has been carrying on a homosexual affair with Chuck, his deacon. In his own home. We are therefore dealing with someone who is himself highly deceptive and probably projects these qualities on to others. Is it not possible that Rufus has had the dresser altered with the specific intent of hiding his gay lover within? If this were so it would be natural for him to look for fellow adulterers in the same location. Adultery is one of the central themes which are delicately inter-woven throughout the work.

It may be advantageous to take a step back in our considerations and look not at, "what is Rufus looking for?" but rather "what would be in the dresser?". The obvious answer to this in the white middle class world of Kelly's critics is clothes. However in the gritty urban landscape so beautifully evoked by Kelly in "Trapped in the Closet" (could this landscape itself be considered a socio-economic closet which is the absent father of the sexual closet?) there is one obvious answer to this question - guns.

The mostly like reason that Rufus checks the dresser is that this is where Rufus keeps his guns, and wants to check that they undisturbed before he confronts the intruder in his closet. Rufus miscalculates in this instance as he discounts the possibility that Sylvester may have his own weapon, which of course he does. However in the heat of the moment, his judgement clouded by anger, fear, and no doubt some homo-erotic desire, this is a minor flaw. It does not overshadow the fact that looking in the dresser was an eminently sensible idea. Rufus is not foolish enough to confront armed man with a spatula, which is what sets him apart from Rosie the nosy neighbour.

If we discount The Gun Theory for one moment, there are other similar motivations that can be found. Rufus, by his own admission, intended to kill his wife's lover had he not had a gun. That would instantly turn his home into a crime scene. A murder committed as a crime of passion is certainly potentially embarrassing to a pastor, but he may have wished to limit the damage to his career. Primary amongst his concern must have been to check that pornography and other erotic paraphernalia did not remain hidden under the dresser, before continuing with his assault.

Lastly, "The Dresser" may be a metaphor for Sylvester himself; a man who has sex fully-clothed. By looking in the dresser, perhaps Rufus was examining the very soul of Sylvester, and indirectly, himself. There are, therefore many and varied reasons why Rufus may look in his dresser, and the size of said dresser really doesn't enter into it. While Rufus's motivations are unclear, in keeping with his character, they are no doubt profound. By treating the dresser merely as furniture rather than a literary device, we are doing R. Kelly, and ourselves a disservice. In this sense The Closet becomes Trapped with Us, and only by setting it free can we come to a true understanding of the moral issues raised by Kelly in "Trapped in the Closet", however unpalatable they may be to our cosy middle-class lives. It is this challenge that is the global-cliff-hanger

[1] It wasn't Chuck it was Rufus
[2] In this 1995 film starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, the director took the unusual decision to have each character speak their own lines.
[3] On this occasion Lust seems more likely than Gluttony as the cherry pie is largely untouched.
[4] This is not a cliff-hanger.

"Trapped In The Closet", R Kelly.
"Trapped In The Closet, or Cosseted In The Trap: The Duality of R. Kelly", Tracey Cox
"Trapped In Iraq: the role of hiphopera in Geopolitics", Shaggy, Ice T, et al.
"Closet Smarts", E Neil
"Closet Monsters: Zombied Out and Tales of Gothrotica", Dan Kelly
"The Other Side of the Closet: The Coming Out Crisis for Straight Spouses and Families", Amity Pierce Buxton Ph.D.