Fictional Police Brutality, Real Emotional Toll
In the stylish comedy-drama “Blindspotting,” Collin (Daveed Diggs), a felon with three days left of probation, is the only eyewitness to the shooting of a young black man by a white police officer. Collin, stopped at a traffic light, locks eyes with the officer, but once additional officers arrive, they demand he leave immediately. He tries to forget the event and carry on (as he reasons, he can’t call 911 and say, “I’d like to report a murder you just did”), but Collin is haunted by what he saw.
“Blindspotting,” which Mr. Diggs wrote with his co-star Rafael Casal, is a project nine years in the making, but in some ways its arrival is right on time. Earlier this month came “The First Purge,” a prequel to the successful schlock series in which nearly all crime is legal for 12 hours, and which explicitly depicts police brutality and the resurgence of white nationalist ideology. In the fall, a movie adaptation of the best-selling novel “The Hate U Give” centers on a teenager’s struggle to cope after seeing a police officer kill her friend. These follow shows like “Atlanta,” “black-ish” and “Being Mary Jane” that have also wrestled with the emotional toll of police brutality in manners both subtle and pronounced.
With an increasing number of black filmmakers and performers taking advantage of the explosion of streaming platforms and other outlets to address the national conversation around police brutality and Black Lives Matter, this engagement feels necessary, a way of helping us cope with the helplessness we feel whenever black people are thrust into the media spotlight solely because they were killed by law enforcement. These productions are an opportunity to bring systemic inequalities to light via established characters and force viewers who may otherwise choose to ignore the news to at least contemplate the disparities, if even for a moment. Yet as more artists — especially those who are not black — wade into this sensitive territory, the line between thoughtful examination and clumsy exploitation can become muddled: How are the creators tackling these issues? What is their intent? The answers to these kinds of questions strongly determine whether the movies and shows are effective.
Police harassment and violence against black people have been addressed through the years, including “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” in the ’70s, “Do the Right Thing” in the ’80s and an episode of the ’90s sitcom “Family Matters.” With a new generation of artists, sometimes what’s most impactful is what you don’t see: “Queen Sugar,” created by Ava DuVernay, has proved to be one of the more affecting and meticulously crafted expressions of this issue. The family drama, now in its third season, has taken a slow-burn approach, building on an event at the start of Season 2 when a white police officer arrests the teenage Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) driving an expensive birthday present from his parents. We see the tense exchange — the officer swiftly draws his gun on Micah after asking to see his registration — but the scene ends there.
The experience lingers with Micah throughout much of the season, as he tries to process the wrongful arrest mostly through silence and withdrawal. Eventually in Episode 8, the tension is unleashed when Micah’s father asks what really happened that day. Micah breaks down and reveals that the officer also threatened him and forced a gun into his mouth.
What Micah describes is never onscreen, but for me, the resonance of seeing and hearing the pain expressed through his body is enough on its own. “Queen Sugar” airs on OWN, a network catering largely to women of color, and it’s as if the creators thoughtfully considered how their audience, painfully familiar with the violent videos that circulate after a police killing, might feel about witnessing another gratuitous visualization of violence against a black body, even if fictional. Following this cathartic moment, Micah inches toward political activism. In “Queen Sugar’s” current season, he transfers from his predominantly white private school to a predominantly black public one, and there he befriends student activists outspoken about racism in their community. Micah’s evolution is handled delicately and naturally; the attention is carefully focused on the recovery, not the offending act itself.
On other shows, the fear many black people have of law enforcement is less magnified but still resounding. In Season 2 of “Insecure” on HBO, Lawrence (Jay Ellis) is pulled over for an illegal U-turn. Instinctively, he switches his radio from a loud, thumping hip-hop track to a soft piano tune. While the white officer goes to check his license, Lawrence, still in the driver’s seat, reaches into his pocket. The stern voice of another, previously unseen white officer then implores him to keep his hands visible; his body stiffens as he snaps his hands back on the wheel. Lawrence is eventually let off with a warning, as the first officer cracks an unrelated joke, and Lawrence, caught off guard, laughs uncomfortably.
On “The Chi” on Showtime, Brandon (Jason Mitchell) has a tense encounter of his own when he’s stopped by a black officer and a white one while walking down the street one evening. As they pat him down, the white officer is antagonistic until Brandon tells him he works at a buzzy restaurant where the wait for a reservation is months. Brandon does the officer a favor, and he’s let go.
I know the long list of black names that have become social media hashtags, and have heard many friends and family members relate uncomfortable interactions with the police, so these screen moments achieve a distinct weightiness. Both scenes play off my awareness of real-life altercations, expecting me to recognize how the situations could turn perilous at any second, and to feel the same sense of dread Lawrence and Brandon feel. Yet there’s no fussy camerawork or ominous music overpowering these moments; instead, the scenes come and go, and the look of utter relief the men feel when they recognize they’ve avoided becoming the next rallying cry against police brutality is chilling. And when the narratives move on, the scenes are that much more powerful, highlighting the resigned nature of it all. (On the other hand, sometimes the approach can read as almost too casual: In “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee’s forthcoming feature, a black activist played by Laura Harrier is at a bar recounting an event from earlier in the evening when she was groped by a white officer during a traffic stop. There’s barely a sense of how the assault affected her, and the scene abruptly shifts to a musical interlude on the dance floor.)
Relying on our expectations sometimes backfires, however. In the case of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” (2017), which dramatizes an incident involving the police torture and killings of several young black men during the 1967 riots, the meticulous attention paid to the cinematic detail of the black characters’ pain is voyeuristic. The violence serves as the centerpiece of the film, with Ms. Bigelow, a sharp, deft filmmaker, magnifying the horrors with extreme close-ups on the faces of the men in torment, and vérité shots to connote an air of authenticity. Her intent seems to be to draw out empathy by placing us directly in the line of torture ourselves. But the black characters in Mark Boal’s script are so thinly drawn outside of their suffering, unlike those in “Insecure” or “The Chi,” that “Detroit” fails to make a strong case for their humanity.
“Don’t Be Nice,” a new documentary about young slam poets preparing for a national competition, similarly calls into question the repeated imagery of black suffering. A controversy arose earlier this year when some of the subjects complained that police-killing footage, inserted by Max Powers, the director, over scenes of them looking at their phones or computers, was used out of context. As one of the producers, Nikhil Melnechuk, told The New York Times in May, the imagery was added because when the poets are seen reacting to the news of the killings, test audiences had been confused about the details.
When videos of the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, which occurred while the movie was in production, are shown in the film, I found the effect jarring. Yet there is a bit of emptiness there, too — a feeling that we’re revisiting these deaths for pure spectacle rather than a deep interrogation of the forces behind them. In the film’s final act, when one of the poets stumbles during competition, forgetting his next line, the image briefly cuts back to the video of Mr. Castile’s death, a visual of the officer’s arm pointing the gun at him through the car window. While the poem is about racial profiling, the cut feels uncomfortably misguided, as if the filmmaker is equating this fumble on stage with Castile being shot.
It’s worth noting that Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Powers are white. While their identity doesn’t automatically preclude them from being able to tell these stories, it does make their attempts to do so a more difficult needle to thread. One drawback to this proliferation of dramatizations is that the focus on black trauma sometimes overwhelms the narrative — consider, for example, that the majority of films and performances centering on black stories that have been recognized at the Oscars focus on macro-level struggles tied to race (slavery, the civil rights movement, and so on). For black people who experience these horrific headlines in a manner different from white people, to avoid dwelling on the suffering isn’t just an aesthetic choice, it’s an act of self-preservation.
On a spectrum running from “Queen Sugar” to “Detroit,” “The First Purge” and “Blindspotting” lie somewhere in the middle. “The First Purge,” directed by Gerard McMurray, who is black, is unabashedly exploitative, depicting mostly black and brown Staten Islanders being hunted down by trained militias of white nationalists and Ku Klux Klan members. The climactic showdown involves the movie’s black hero, Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), against an army of officers wearing garish masks as they murder people of color throughout an apartment building. Dmitri kills many of the attackers, Rambo-style, and strangles one as his eyes bulge from behind a blackface mask.
The characters in “The First Purge” are one-dimensional, the dialogue is cartoonish, and the visuals dangerously close to turning black pain into a simulated video game. But its triumphant revenge narrative manages to balance out such shamelessly manipulative elements.
The black trauma in “Blindspotting” is more sensitively considered: While we do see the shooting, Mr. Diggs and Mr. Casal are more concerned with the aftermath and how some of us may become numb to the news cycle. Collin matter-of-factly reveals what he saw to his best friend, Miles (Mr. Casal), and Miles’s girlfriend. Miles muses, “It ain’t like they shot him 14 times,” presumably referring to the killing of Dontre Hamilton in 2014. Just a few moments later, they’re all bantering as usual.
“Blindspotting” stumbles a bit in an ambitious dream sequence in which Collin appears in a courtroom in a jumpsuit and chains, Miles is a lawyer, the officer is a judge and the jury is made up of black men in hoodies. As red and blue lights flash, Miles raps furiously and Collin imagines himself choking up actual bullets, the scene’s symbolism doesn’t feel specific enough to move beyond the realm of shock. (A scene in which Collin jogs through a cemetery and the black men in hoodies stand among rows of headstones is less cluttered and more emotionally stirring.)
But the fantastical elements in “Blindspotting” hint at the promising ways film and television artists can take a subject that has now become familiar to further creative heights. The first episode of “Random Acts of Flyness,” the filmmaker Terence Nance’s forthcoming HBO series, is a meditation on police violence and racism that is wildly inventive, jumping between realism and the absurd. One segment imagines Ripa the Reaper (Tonya Pinkins), the host of a show called “Everybody Dies,” who is eager to welcome black children as her guests, dragging them kicking and screaming into the afterlife.
Eventually the weight of each new killing brings her to tears, and it’s difficult not to identify with her sadness and exhaustion. In real life, some of these deaths have taken on a disturbingly meta feel: Antwon Rose II, an unarmed 17-year-old who was shot in Pittsburgh while fleeing law enforcement in June, reportedly wrote a poem in which he expressed fear of growing up black in America. (“I understand people believe I’m just a statistic, I say to them I’m different.”) And in the time since I first began writing this piece, another black person’s killing by a police officer, that of 37-year-old Harith Augustus in Chicago, has made national news and led to protests. Ripa the Reaper’s breakdown is instantly recognizable to me, an apt reflection of the weary feeling that comes with confronting these images on a loop, in a seemingly unending fever dream.