Posted on July 31, 2018

Fictional Police Brutality, Real Emotional Toll

Aisha Harris, New York Times, July 20, 2018


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. {snip}

{snip} “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.

{snip} 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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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.

{snip} (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.)


It’s worth noting that Ms. Bigelow [“Detroit”] and Mr. Powers [“Don’t Be Nice”] 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. {snip}

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. {snip}


{snip} 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. {snip}