In the years since the Black Lives Matter movement began addressing the long-standing problem of violent, unwarranted police action targeted at black people, American entertainment media has gradually gotten bolder about fictional depictions of the physical toll racism has on black citizens.
But recently, there’s a new trend around police-brutality stories. In addition to dealing with the psychological effects of violent institutional racism, they’re addressing how the victims are burdened with a decision tethered to a crisis of conscience. Even as black victims deal with the aftereffects of violent confrontations with police, they’re being forced to make moral choices about their responses, and to consider how asking for justice might affect their relationship to their communities.
2019’s Black and Blue and 2018’s Monsters and Men both open with scenes where a cop confronts a black protagonist. In the former, Alicia West (Naomie Harris) is jogging through a predominantly white neighborhood; in the latter, Dennis (John David Washington) is driving while singing along to the radio. Both undergo tense altercations with white policemen, and both characters reveal that they’re also police — the obvious point being that even working in law enforcement doesn’t protect them from racist judgments.
Both characters believe in their roles as keepers of the peace and agents of justice, but both films suggest that a black cop is a kind of paradox. In Black and Blue, Alicia is framed for a police murder of a black boy, then tracked down by both the police and members of the black community. The movie doesn’t go for subtlety; Alicia’s tiresome, 108-minute ordeal is framed with characters who try to forcefully pigeonhole her into one camp or the other. Other black characters call her an Uncle Tom, and one cop asks her, “You think they your people? … You’re blue now.” The nexus of Alicia’s conflict isn’t that she witnessed a crime, but that she refuses to choose between her identity as a black woman and her position with the police. In the end, her dedication to the truth saves her, so she doesn’t have to choose. She can remain a part of her community while also retaining her honor as a cop.
In the infinitely more artful Monsters and Men, the issue isn’t so easily resolved. A fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man affects the whole community, and Dennis uneasily faces protesters, learns of seemingly retaliatory police murders, and attempts to defend himself and other police officers during a tense dinner, as a friend grills him about police accountability and hints at his complicity. When he’s brought in for questioning during an investigation of the white cop who killed the black man, Dennis decides not to speak. It’s unclear why — whether he’s siding with his profession, worrying about retributive action, or some combination of the two. But the movie trains the audience to watch his face through every exchange, looking for clues about how the scales are tipping for him, and how he’ll inevitably act.
The cycle of martyrdom
Still, these “conflicted black cop” types are familiar and predictable. The more surprising trend of these movies is how the sufferers of police brutality — not cops, but regular individuals — are caught up in similar moral dilemmas. In Monsters and Men, Dennis’ story is just one of a narrative triptych, all linked by the same shooting. In the first, a witness named Manny (Anthony Ramos), a friend of the victim, films the killing on his phone. Then he has to choose whether to expose the truth on behalf of his friend’s memory and the community, or to stay safe and not make waves.
The last story of the film asks a similar question of a young athlete, Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who has a bright future as a pro baseball player, but struggles to decide whether he should take action in the protest movement against police brutality, and if so, how. He wonders whether he should risk his future for something he deems morally important. Monsters and Men seems in favor of action, but it doesn’t make Dennis a villain for deciding not to expose the white cop. Neither does it glorify taking action; Manny acts, but suffers the consequences. What’s surprising is how writer-director Reinaldo Marcus Green styles their choices as tantamount to witnessing the actual initiating violent act — and perhaps even more personally devastating, as they face the external or psychological repercussions of their election.
A similar decision sits at the climactic cruxes of two other 2018 films. In Blindspotting, a young man named Collin (Daveed Diggs), who’s on his last days of probation and spends his days working for a moving company with his best friend, sees a white cop shoot an unarmed black man in the back, and must decide whether to take retributive justice when he later encounters the cop in a vulnerable position. In The Hate U Give, a girl named Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a teen sneakerhead perched on the line between her predominantly white, upper-class school and her black, lower-class community, sees her childhood friend get shot by a policeman, and must decide whether to speak out. In the film’s final moment of conflict, she literally stands in the middle of an armed standoff between black community members and white policemen. Like Alicia West, Starr is granted the fairy-tale award: Her worlds are neatly consolidated into a hopeful resolution because of her loyalty to justice and truth over all.
But we’re meant to pay attention to these characters’ strife and interrogate their response to this kind of trauma, even when they choose what seems like the most moral option, and it only compounds the complications. The protagonists of these films become versions of St. Sebastian, or Prometheus, trapped in a cycle of martyrdom. Filmmakers who position their black characters in the middle of moral quandaries, saddling them with a psychological test of merit atop their trauma, face a tricky conundrum. In order to depict a complex, nuanced picture of police brutality and its effects on the black community, artists have to consider how individuals internalize and process that violence.
Yet creators also have to recognize that art portraying tragedy and trauma can be a kind of violence inflicted on the audience. At best, it can be a necessary pinprick, enough of an injury to open the audience to the hurt being artfully captured on screen, in order to bring them catharsis and heal them afterward. At worst, it’s a grotesque shadow play, re-creating the injury in order to position the audience as the victims. In stories where there’s no catharsis or resolution, audience members who empathize with the depicted may end up feeling that blackness and victimhood are synonymous.
Escapism and tragedy
2019’s Queen & Slim is an exception to these rules. At times, it’s almost buoyantly defiant, liberating and indulgent to the point of being gratuitous, in its story about a black couple trying to survive. Its characters also suffer from racially motivated police brutality, but when they act, they don’t brood over the moral implications, or worry about how they might redefine themselves in relation to their community.
In the movie, two black strangers, Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya), meet up for a Tinder date. But when they’re pulled over on the drive home by a white cop with an itchy trigger finger, the altercation ends with Slim shooting and accidentally killing the cop in self-defense. Queen promptly decides they have to run, because the racial dynamics ensure they have no hope for justice. The subsequent cross-country escape from the law also figures as a budding love story. Apart from some brief reflection, the pair don’t linger on the moral implications of the confrontation. Their imperative is clear — to save themselves while the media labels them as criminal cop killers.
Though the film doesn’t question the morality of the shooting and escape through its protagonists’ minds, as those other recent films about racist police brutality do, it does comment on the topic via its ancillary characters. Other black characters — a female bartender in a hole-in-the-wall bar down South, and a hilariously blunt, snappish man outside a fast food place — both praise the protagonists’ choices. A young black cop who discovers them sides with them instead of with the police. A grousing, no-nonsense car repairman tells the couple he won’t help them because he disapproves of their actions, but his starstruck young son has a radically different response.
Though the situation is inherently political, and the people around them respond politically, Queen and Slim are more focused on themselves and their relationship. While planning their escape, they take time out to drink and slow-dance in a bar, and talk about what they each hope for in a lover. As protests sparked by their journey erupt nearby, Queen and Slim have sex for the first time. One character says it doesn’t matter how their story ends, because either way, they’ll be immortal, and it’s true; we see their images later, re-created as a political message.
Unlike the other films in this subgenre, Queen & Slim doesn’t emphasize the moral significance of the victims’ actions. At first, the film’s romance and moments of laughter make it feel like an escapist fantasy: Two black people aim for a life free of racist brutality and its consequences. But it’s an escapist fantasy in a psychological sense as well. They’re in love, free of guilt in a racist world where their defensive action was warranted. They’re chasing freedom and pleasure where they can find it.
That fantasy is what makes Queen & Slim’s final moments so devastating, and perhaps even damaging to black audiences who watch. It’s not simply that the story ends in tragedy; it’s that a narrative of black love and fantasy of black freedom is necessarily destroyed with a drama befitting Greek tragedy. Even more, it’s a story incited and bookended by white violence, reinforcing the idea that there is no space for blackness to exist outside the bounds of white antipathy. Is a narrative about black love and blackness that’s largely free from the physical and psychological effects of systemic racism an undeliverable fantasy, even in fiction?
Indicting the audience
All these police-brutality movies, in their varying degrees of quality and measures of success, question the protagonists’ moral responsibilities. What duty do the filmmakers owe to the issue, the Black Lives Matter movement, the real-life victims of police brutality, and the black audiences who watch these black deaths on screen? Unlike the industry’s Green Books, which deliver white saviors and other “white good guy” stereotypes as a kind of reassuring fan service to white audiences, so many of these police-brutality films seem angled toward black audiences more than white ones, though in their more sensationalist moments, it can certainly seem otherwise. In creating and focusing on the moral crisis that their victim-protagonists face, the movies may seem to indict their viewers, too — particularly black audiences, who might question how they would act in the face of this kind of violence.
If catharsis is the aim, the escapist redemptive fantasy of Queen & Slim or the retributive justice fantasy of Nate Parker’s still-unreleased American Skin are undercutting the intended emotions for the sake of grit and relevance, potentially injuring black audiences in the process. That isn’t to say that there’s no place for such films, or for difficult work. But if part of the central premise of these films posits that black Americans must bear the weight of not just their injuries, but also the moral double bind of deciding whether to demand justice for them, these films are potentially putting their audiences through grim ordeals just to perpetuate damaging tropes.
What this genre of films needs is stories that also hold white audiences accountable, and stories about black tragedy that go beyond rote suffering. Sometimes, we need films where blackness does translate to freedom and escape, comfort and mirth. Blindspotting, Monsters and Men, and Queen & Slim are undoubtedly executed with mastery and finesse, but it’s easy to fear a trend of movies where violence against black people and their subsequent moral entanglement are the only modus operandi. Perhaps there are no black love stories that can end in joy. Perhaps there are no black stories of racist violence that can unburden its heroes of the moral crisis that comes with it.
Ideally, we’d see an even broader spectrum of films on the subject. They shouldn’t gloss over the violence and pain of systemic racism, because that reflects real life for black America. But they also shouldn’t have black characters being brutally picked off for the sake of Hollywood showmanship, their deaths fetishized and sensationalized to create a fantasy of a noble black victim gunned down in slow motion to a maudlin score. And ideally, we’d be presented with emotionally complex figures who face their complicated moral questions without being wholly defined by their victimhood. Or characters empowered to act out against or in spite of the damaging systems at work, without being burdened by paralyzing moral quandaries incited by other people’s violence. In short: variety.
What we’re seeing instead is a kind of Newton’s third law perverted into a racial cinematic politics: For every violent white action against black people, a black person will face an equal and opposite ethical burden. A large degree of labor — physical, emotional, mental, psychological — comes with simply being black in America, so it’s easy for fiction to compound those issues, or dramatize them in the guise of realism. But at some point, we could imagine, and even hope, that filmmakers could learn to include fewer wearying tropes, more nuance, and perhaps even joy.