On Detroit

Robocop Classified“Motherfuck a Robocop.”

When I first heard Dopehead blurt this in late 2013 I didn’t know if he was dismissing the remake arriving the following spring, or the upcoming statue, or the entire series,  but I knew why he picked Robocop in particular.

The original Robocop  tells the story of Murphy, a victim of corporate exploitation of the working class. Caught in the crossfire between crime and crony capitalism, Murphy morphs from dead cop to blue collar cyborg, rising from the post-industrial detritus to take back his city. The film is remembered for its gore and dark humor, but I’m always struck by its cinematography. Paul Verhoeven frequently employs a POV shot that shows the world through Murphy’s eyes. Wired by data and directives, Murphy sees Detroit through a glitchy interface, his entire sensory experience mapped and coded in deference to the law. The film mourns the agency that Murphy loses as a result of his mechanization, insisting that this augmented reality, a cop literally restrained by the law, is a tragedy. The man beneath the machine is the real protector, not the law, the movie exhorts repeatedly.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit reproduces that mechanized interface and unplugs the human. Procedural to a tee, Detroit plunges into the 1967 Detroit riots with the cold distance of a drone. Flitting between crowds, buildings, and bullets, Detroit trades the empathy of most historical fiction for the clarity (or rather, the pretense of clarity) of modern surveillance. Bigelow’s eye is sharp but disengaged, zooming in and out of scenes of violence with a steely, inhuman precision. In her depiction of policing, a cop’s adherence to the law is a tragedy for an entirely different reason. Rather than constraining cops, law unleashes them, irradiating them with autonomy and power.

Much has been written about Bigelow’s decision to condense the chaotic sprawl of a riot into the organized terror of policemen torturing and killing the residents of the Algiers Motel. Detroit exploded for a host of reasons over those five days, and police abuse is only a single factor, the movie’s detractors note. This is true. Impoverishment, redlining, segregation, overcrowding, wage stagnation, and racialized job scarcity existed alongside the racism of the Detroit Blue. And Bigelow’s nods to these other factors do them little justice in terms of narrative or even comprehension. Detroit is certainly not a movie that will teach you about the history of Detroit or the year 1967 or anything.

But it will make you see a black body under a police state. Despite having a central cast, Detroit doesn’t really have characters. Its subjects are constantly depersonalized, their faces obscured, their clothes removed, their stories clipped.  It traffics in brutal, permanent reversals: the site of a welcome home party for two black Vietnam vets gets raided by cops and set aflame; an unarmed looter gets shot by a cop and dies under a truck; that same cop gets collared by internal affairs and then sent right back into the streets; a fake gun is fired out a window as a harmless act of resistance and is received as a declaration of war. There’s a  systematicity to all these reversals and there is never any doubt or ambiguity about their logic. The law always moves in one direction, with one force, toward one object, black bodies breaking in the northern breeze.  

The objectification of black bodies in Detroit isn’t dramatic. Wails and screams and groans spill out, but the violence isn’t pointed. No sweeping score or shots of troubled onlookers or Common raps are employed to ennoble the struggle against tyranny. Black pain is simply there, cops and security guards and National Guardsmen exchanging winces but never balking. Never. To watch Detroit is to confront the utter normalcy of black pain, to breathe the logic that inflicts it. The scenes at the Algiers Motel have been likened to torture, and yes, literally those victims were tortured. But cinematically Detroit doesn’t treat this as torture and that’s its skill. It treats black pain as logic, as the final product of a systemized domination of black lives. People are right to question the Algiers Motel Incident as a microcosm of the Detroit riots, but at its best Detroit isn’t making that claim. Its central claim is that police overreach is an inevitable result of systems—of law, of seeing, of thinking, of judging—that codify racism.



In the aftermath of lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, Hannif Willis-Abdurraqib wrote, “It’s vital that we look at a place as more than just the violence that has been done to it.” I love that line, and Detroit violates that edict, but I think it works because its gaze is unflinchingly honest. There’s an inherent lack of agency in choosing to tell a story so impersonally, so I wouldn’t fault any viewer for initially feeling that Detroit is constricted. But consider how most movies and shows, across time, zero in on agency as the locus of change.

From Selma, to Crash, to 12 Years a Slave, to The Wire, to The Butler, to Straight Outta Compton, to The Help, to Glory, to Narcos, to Dear White People, to The Battle For Algiers, our dramatizations of oppression and resistance are full of charisma and perseverance and cunning. These are the traits of individuals.

These individuals might represent collective conflicts, but the focus is inevitably on the battle, not the war. For some stories this works, but all battles aren’t pivotal. Tiny victories are vital and seeing them is thrilling, but what if they don’t add up to anything meaningful? What if it’s just as vital that we look at a place as exactly the violence that has been done to it? What will we see? Who will we see? What will be the locus of change?

Detroit doesn’t settle on agency. It’s more concerned with rationale. It asks us why police have so much power. It asks why something like the Algiers Motel Incident can even happen. It questions how citizens can be detained and tortured not just by a few rogue cops but by their fellow community members and the National Guard and state police. It asks why relative strangers would endure torture instead of yielding to police demands? What binds these tacit agreements—both those in favor and against black life—together? How is this normal?

Detroit doesn’t answer these questions, nor does it provide the strongest possible foundation for asking them (black women are also victims of police terror, as Angelica Bastien has duly noted; and pain has consequences, as K. Austin Collins notes), but it knows why they go unasked. It looks at racism collectively, as an aggregate system empowering some and depriving others. It’s not the best story, but it’s a riveting vista.


Detroit ends with a broken singer, Larry,  retreating to gospel for sustenance. Robbed of his best friend’s life, artistic inspiration, and of justice, Larry visits a church and sings to his community. It’s not clear whether religion will restore him, but there’s no uncertainty about why or how he became a broken man. Instead of delivering justice, the legal system absorbed his pain and reduced it to the tepid neutrality of testimony, his agency turned against him and his torturers acquitted. As his voice ascends toward the rafters, there’s no doubt who the enemy is.

Robocop ends with a CEO being shot out of a window.

No one has said that Detroit is Robocop, but its reception, that quiet clamor for neatness and character arcs and resolution, reminds me of an anecdote from Francesca Borri’s Syrian Dust:

“And so I hang out at the Ozsut [Cafe]. Which is a curious place. Only foreigners and Syrians. Because by now everyone knows that only we journalists come here, and so the others are all Syrians. They sit there with their banana cake, a slice of apple, pie, at the table next to yours, and you study, write. At some point one of them leans over your table, from behind, and tells you: ‘I have a child soldier.’ Like that, in your ear. He says: ‘And he’s the son of a shabia! Do you want the son of a shabia?’ he asks you. ‘No one has him.’ And the journalists, especially the ones who spend one week in Syria, one week in the Congo, who when the war in Libya starts again say, ‘Awesome!’ the journalists say: “Do you have a suicide bomber too? I need a suicide bomber, possibly drunk.’ ”

Sometimes the truth don’t rhyme.

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The Moonlit Prison

Everybody's Protest Novel

“Literature and sociology are not one in the same,” wrote James Baldwin in his 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” That essay is often remembered for its scalding criticism of Richard Wright’s Native Son, which Baldwin found to be so forceful it was dehumanizing, but if you read closely, the literary criticism is secondary. Baldwin’s real concern was the humanity of black people and how that humanity is jeopardized when black characters become objects. The characters of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight are beautifully rendered, awash in moonlight, sunlight, ocean water, and even darkness. Even as the camera swirls through projects and dingy apartments and the trap, black people just glow, every nigga a star. But as your eyes adjust to the star light, this beautiful, reverent black gaze, you realize that this beautified blackness obscures the black people, especially the main character, Chiron.

It begins with Chiron’s introduction in part “i” of the film, which is divided into three parts, each named after Chiron’s name at the time – “Little” for childhood, “Chiron” for teendom, “Black” for young adulthood. Materializing as a white streak racing across the frame, Chiron debuts in torment. Fleeing a mob of his peers, who gleefully pursue him, hurling insults and objects, he hides out in an abandoned drug den. At this point he is “Little,” a taciturn child. Juan, a drug dealer who Little darted past while escaping the mob, rescues Little and takes him out to eat, eager to help him find his way home. Little happily devours that free meal and then another soon after, but even as his mouth is occupied his eyes remain drawn, the torment never subsiding. When he finally returns home, escorted by Juan, he remains in anguish, his expression troubled even as he’s reunited with his worried mother. His humble Miami home is clearly not a home, and his discontent with that reality encases him, defining his every moment on screen.

Jenkins does a great job of contextualizing that discontent by slowly revealing the mixed messages that fill Little’s life. In one scene he’s measuring dicks with his peers, while in another he’s openly pondering the meaning of the word “faggot,” his face always contorted, skeptical. As Little matures into Chiron, a lanky, withdrawn teenager, his confusion reaches its peak. Following a title card, Chiron is again introduced in agony. Sitting in a high school class, he is humiliated by a bully. The scene is horrifying. Chiron and the bully sit on opposite ends of the classroom, the camera stretching to frame them both, but the bully dominates the image; it feels like a one-sided tennis match, each of the bully’s swings landing beyond Chiron’s reach. “My name is Chiron,” Chiron volleys, his name his only defense.

This section of the movie adds more to the pile of confusion, for the audience and Chiron. Juan is revealed to have died and Chiron’s mother has become a full-blown drug addict, turning tricks to fund her habit. Chiron’s feelings about these turns of events are unknown. He occasionally spends the night at the house of Juan’s widow, Teresa, who may or may not have continued Juan’s drug business, but neither this detail nor Chiron’s feelings about Juan’s death are explored. Jenkins leaves these threads to dangle, choosing instead to constrict the film around Chiron’s budding romance with his schoolmate, Kevin, and his growing tension with his bully, Terrel, a choice that climaxes in an entanglement of violence, intimacy, and betrayal.

This constriction is suffocating. At this point, Chiron’s entire character is defined by tragedy. Death, addiction, sexual frustration, alienation,  and humiliation shadow him at every turn, a chain gang of miseries. This could be the makings of a complex human, someone in rich thrall, but it’s so conspicuously contrived. Chiron’s entire world has been ground down into people and circumstances that let him down. He lives for nothing, he longs for nothing. He’s just an ornate receptacle of pathologies on a conveyor belt of ruin.

Little was a child so it made sense that his world was circumscribed, but Chiron has free reign and we never see it amount to anything. He is given money by Teresa, but we never see him spend it. He goes to school, but he’s only shown taking one class. He has a wet dream, but it’s about the only schoolmate he’s talked to that isn’t his bully. On the only night he’s shown as homeless, he just so happens to run into the literal boy of his dreams. To watch this movie, you can’t just suspend disbelief: you have to revoke it. Moonlight reveres black people and dwells on the tragedies that shape our lives, but it forgets about the quiet joys that are just as shaping: favorite foods, favorite shoes, favorite songs, favorite haircuts. Moonlight loves black people, but that love is a prison.

In the final section of the movie, Chiron is revealed to have served jail time and made his way to Atlanta. He is no longer scrawny. Now named Black, he is an adonis of muscle and gleaming skin, and the camera lingers on this new body. Black wears a gold chain and gold fronts, drives a muscle car, and traps. Black is hard. Jenkins spends this last arc of the movie deconstructing this hardness, first through a scene at a rehab clinic in metro Atlanta where Black’s mom apologizes, and then in an extended scene that spirits Black back to Miami. Sitting in a restaurant, slowly being seduced by Kevin, who summoned Black down to Miami through an apology, Black finds himself defending his new look. “Who is you?” Kevin asks him, a psychological undressing. Black is eager to explain himself. “I built myself from the ground up, I built myself hard,” he confesses. Kevin is appeased. Black is again Chiron, an object of pity.

But he’s not disrobed just yet. The unveiling isn’t complete until they make their way to Kevin’s apartment, where Chiron reveals that Kevin is the only person who has ever touched him sexually. This is supposed to be the saddest and happiest moment of the film, and that’s the problem.

Chiron has survived bullying, the prison industrial complex, and poverty and rebuilt himself as Black, but, the film insists,  Black is a facade. Black is really Chiron, that scared, alienated boy who just wants a home and someone to love him. This reveal isn’t implausible. Love and intimacy aren’t guaranteed, for anyone. But in order to take pity on Chiron, which is absolutely what the direction demands, we have to completely objectify him. We have to believe that the same boy who was beaten for being gay in high school was unharmed in prison. We have to believe that he had no lovers in prison. We have to believe that he has lived in Atlanta, a mecca for gay black men, and has avoided all intimacy. We have to believe that he has “Classic Man” on a CD, but doesn’t have Tinder on his smartphone. We have to believe that he believes himself to be a fake, that his life is a costume. We have to believe that, fundamentally, Black cannot be real, that a hard drug dealer cannot also be a queer man. We have to believe that Chiron is everything that the world has said him to be and that rebuilding himself, his only act of pure agency throughout the movie, is an illusion. I don’t believe.  

Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight is more delicate and nuanced than Richard Wright’s ghastly Native Son, but it’s got the same source code. Moonlight makes blackness and queerness beautiful by making the world ugly, a move that’s well-meaning but deeply dishonest. Reverence and reckoning are not one in the same.

The Hateful Word (The Last Thing I’ll Ever Write on Quentin Tarantino and the Word Nigger)

 

I’ve watched a lot of movies that were explicitly interested in racism. Of these kinds of movies, films about athletes or sports teams overcoming racial prejudice in order to succeed (e.g., Remember The Titans, Hardball, Coach Carter, Ali, The Great Debaters) tend to be the most explicit. There’s a rhythm to “race movies” that sports stories tend to follow very closely and I think that that’s worth thinking about in the context of The Hateful Eight.

The plot of race movies is usually something to the tune of idealism (racial harmony, individuals unimpeded by prejudice) facing up against reality and being struck down repeatedly until reality bends and realizes that the ideal is the only way forward. The march is long and hard but the bridge is always crossed.

This is clearly a myth, especially in the context of sports, an arena where loss is literally designed into the game, but it persists. In order to sustain this myth, especially within movies that aim for realism, racism and other deadlocked issues have to be reconstructed within the movie. I know this is obvious, but let’s dwell on it. Racism, like any other element in fiction, be it gender roles, family ties, or setting, has to be built piece by piece. It has to be washed, prepared, cooked up. Racism is never microwave-ready.

So how does one go about building a racist world? In a (American) sports movie, you dwell on those moments where Racism – big, scary R, with fangs, Klan sheets, badges, police cruisers, old and crusty Southern white men with bullhorns, smiling Southern white women with poisoned sweet tea – discards all manners and speaks directly, forcefully. I hate you. You are less than me. You are nigger.

I tend to frown and sometimes laugh at these movies because racism is just so conspicuous. Note that I didn’t say it’s fake – I still recognize it as real, plausible. But it’s a bit too in-your-face, too hideously ugly, too confrontational. Maybe I’m just a product of my era, but outside of a few rare instances I rarely have prolonged personal encounters with racism. This is definitely privilege talking, but I tend to catch it in glimpses, flashbacks, moments. Racism’s tendency toward evanescence is why I think most robust anti-racism movements have focused on structures of oppression: institutions, policies, laws, nations, doctrines. Now these I come into contact with everyday.

That said, I’ve never seen a movie [that was explicitly] about structural racism. I won’t say that the nature of structures makes it impossible for them to be narratively compelling, but I’ve never seen it done. Ever. Our current way of making movies and maybe even of just telling stories just seems to be too tied to character and individuals and groups and consciousness to deal with the inhumanity of structural racism. This isn’t a bad thing, but that’s the rub.

That said, some filmmakers try really hard to reproduce those structures, to mobilize them even in movies about individuals. Higher Learning takes aim at college. Training Day takes aim at cops. The Pursuit of Happyness takes aim at the economy. The Hateful Eight takes aim at the Civil War.

In The Hateful Eight the aim is scattershot (that’s my wide-screen joke) and it doesn’t always hit (the movie is deeply sexist, I think), but I’m not convinced it isn’t effective. The word nigger gets volleyed around over and over and over and I don’t think it’s in vain. Of course there are other ways to build a racist world, but in a world of speechifying, pissy, loquacious strangers, I think that deeply violent language is an awfully reliable brick.

Sure, the story as it was told did not have to be told this way and yes highly privileged white man Quentin Tarantino seems to use the word pretty comfortably, but all of this righteous indignation regarding the word nigger is starting to strike me as goofy. Structural racism is hard to produce on screen – there are people who don’t believe in it in real life, after all. And for better or worse the word nigger hits. And when it comes in unrelenting flurries the way it does in The Hateful Eight, I think it hits hard.

Cameron Kunzelman once made a video game called “My Rage is a Cloud That Will Cover The Earth.” The game features a cloud (of rage) that hangs over an avatar’s head and expands as sexist and condescending quotes linger on the screen. The cloud is explicitly meant to represent the avatar’s rage and frustration, but I’ve always thought it could also represent the quotes themselves, and their ability to slowly engulf the world, the universe, life itself.

Major Warren in The Hateful Eight seems to live in such a world and I think that the frequency and vitriol of the word nigger makes that apparent. Each utterance of nigger is a virulent droplet of hate in an atmosphere that’s already impossibly humid.

This doesn’t mean that the word nigger is necessary to convey racism against black people on screen.* Black strife now, then, and forever will always be larger than slurs. It just means that one particular filmmaker’s choice worked. This time.

I don’t think it will work forever or in all contexts. In Django, for example, the humor of the film made the word nigger and other forms of racism somewhat ambiguous, especially since nigger was used in all directions, by all kinds of characters. And that ambiguity can definitely come across as carelessness or insensitivity.

But beyond whether it will always work, I think the ultimate question about Quentin Tarantino and the role of race in his movies is who carries the burden of his representations? Who has to deal with laughs at racist jokes during his films? Who has to be pushed to the margins to realize Tarantino’s vision of black masculinity and American racism? Who suffers when Tarantino goes for indulgence over concision? The answers to these questions vary between his movies, but I think they are much better ways of engaging with his body of work and with his representations of black people than tallying up the occurrence of a word that he tends to employ quite strategically (in his films; in his interviews, he isn’t always so tactful).

In short, if you want to find the troubling racial undertones in Quentin Tarantino’s work (they are there!) please look beyond the word nigger. Your rage, your argument, and my experience of your argument deserve it.

*The defense that it is historically accurate doesn’t fly either. The accents in the Hateful Eight are free-wheeling and I’m pretty sure that Negro was a more common word than black during the time period when the movie takes place. Likewise, since fictional worlds are artificial, the idea that the word adds realism to a movie is also questionable. I think that the real strength of the word in his films is affect, not realism.

Further Reading: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Please Return to Sender (Dear White People Review)

Racism’s greatest power is its ability to drastically simplify the world. Through racism, literally all things – clothing, behaviors, desires, needs, potentials, friendships –  become ordered and recognizable, “obvious” and apparent. Racism provides answers by making the world unquestionable.

Given this alarming power, the fundamental task of all anti-racist work is to deny this contrived simplicity and undermine it, exposing the unrelenting complexity of the world and refusing to accept anything less, anything simple. There are many ways to oppose racism – after all, it does impact everything – but no matter the anti-racist technique or strategy, the goal is always to re-complicate the world. Thus, the rudimentary starting point for any fight against racism is to not accept its simplified, basic terms.

Dear White People, a movie about racism on a fictional college campus, does not do this. It is basic. Despite its expansive cast and bold ambitions, Dear White People wholeheartedly accepts the readymade conventions of racism. Both the main cast and the secondary characters are developed into overwhelmingly lame, straightforward caricatures. Sam is a biracial black woman struggling between two lovers, one black, the other white (ugh). Troy, a preppy black guy, is a pawn in his black father’s multi-generational conflict with his school’s president, a white man. Coco is an upwardly mobile black woman from the south side of Chicago who wants to rise above her background. Lionel is a gay black man who is ostracized by both the black and white communities on campus.

None of these characters are necessarily predisposed towards flatness. In fact, they are all potentially interesting, especially Lionel (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that cared about the college experiences of gay black dudes), but the film corrals each of them, and the secondary characters that they are connected to, onto either side of a very poorly-conceived racial divide: black vs white. There is nothing wrong with establishing factions and seeing how their ambitions collide, but the factions in Dear White People are never truly embroiled.

The characters each engage in their own racialized skirmish, but their actions are always predetermined by their position on the divide, their race. All the white characters are unrepentant or accidental racists; all of the black characters inevitably affirm their blackness. The only person who doesn’t get any resolution is Sam, but even her struggle is predictable: she is biracial so of course she cannot pick a side. (It was hard not to laugh when Sam decided to move off campus while the other black main characters all stayed at the black dorm)

The inevitability of all the characters’ outcomes and decisions is ultimately self-defeating. The film’s climax, a confrontation at a racist Halloween party, makes this most apparent. The white people are universally offensive and the black people are universally shocked and appalled. The outcome is so unsurprising that its narrative value is completely drained. Seeing the racist party after having already watched over an hour of dry conflict feels like walking around a haunted house with a copy of the floor plan. This isn’t to say that surprise is a necessary element of good filmmaking. Rather, it just felt strange for a movie that traffics in exploring inflexible racial destinies to treat an event it foresaw as something spectacular. It probably would have been more effective to highlight the banality of the party. For instance, I would have been much more horrified if I had seen two white students at the party using “nigger” in a conversation about Tolstoy.

The only particularly interesting thing about the scene is the presence of Asian and Latino students who allied with the black students to shut the party down. Their mere presence hints at more complex race relations on campus. Nevertheless, their presence also highlights their relative absence throughout the rest of the film. They appear only to advance the plot, which is kind of racist. Even within the film, it is not clear why they form this alliance. The film seems to imply that they ally with the black students simply because they are Asian and Latino. It was inevitable, I guess?

All in all, Dear White People is pretty weak. Though it is nice to see a movie that cares about black people and our experiences, mere care is a condescendingly weak threshold for a good movie or for a good perspective on race. Anybody can care, but what marginalized people need is people who care responsibly, intelligently, complexly. There are definitely sides in racial conflict, but they are absolutely not predetermined by race, and to think so is to buy directly into the simplifying logic of racism, no matter which side of the conflict you are on. Dear White People is clearly on the side of anti-racism, but it ultimately fails because it conflates allegiance, disposition, with action, decision. Anti-racism requires more than a sarcastically endearing address – “Dear White People.” More importantly, it requires acknowledging that those people and your relation to them, is much more complex than your sarcasm belies.

This Excludes Me: On the Dangers of “I Can’t Relate”

I can't relate

(Via ryaneagle.com)

“I can’t relate” is a common response to artworks, ideas, people and other things that just didn’t feel quite relevant to one’s experiences or interests. On one hand, it’s an alternative and somewhat polite way of saying, “I don’t care.” If a close friend or co-worker passionately introduced you to something or someone that gets them off and it just didn’t do anything for you, “I can’t relate” is perfect for claiming your disinterest without risking insult. On the other hand, “I can’t relate” is a very literal statement. For some reason, a person or idea that you encountered was unable or unwilling to establish or maintain a compelling relationship, like a bad first date.

I’ve often seen “I can’t relate” used in response to narratives or pieces of art that felt either exclusionary or just non-inclusive, the former pushing one away and the latter just not acknowledging one’s existence. I think that these feelings and this particular way of articulating them – “I can’t relate” – are completely legitimate, but I also think that “I can’t relate” has some noteworthy limitations that shouldn’t be overlooked.

The first limitation is the kind of relationship that “I can’t relate” tends to refer to. In most cases, the relationship is one of direct correspondence. People “can’t relate” because the person or object in question doesn’t directly connect with them on the registers that they find important. Another way to put it is that the object doesn’t present itself in the way one prefers. The show Girls (Full disclosure: I’ve never watched it) has been attacked on these grounds on multiple occasions because of its absence of women of color. SNL was recently attacked on similar grounds for its absence of black women. I sympathize with these attacks in practice because they call attention to problems with our media landscape, but I wonder how well they articulate what plaintiffs really want. In other words, could people [of color] not relate to Girls and SNL because 1) they saw no people of color or 2) because they felt people of color were actively written out of these shows? Or perhaps there are other reasons entirely. Whatever the actual case, “I can’t relate” always frames grievances in terms of direct correspondence.

There is a distinction between these two options (1 & 2) that “I can’t relate” can’t really address. SNL’s subsequent hiring of more black women, for example, changes the presentation of the show, but it’s unclear how [or if!] it changes the experience of the show, the actual relationship one has with the show. If it does, how does this happen? What about the presence of a black woman on a tv show makes the show palatable to black viewers generally and black women specifically? “I can’t relate” answers this question by saying that the presence itself is the important factor because the absence was the original problem.

I’m not entirely satisfied with that answer, especially when you consider the second limitation of “I can’t relate,” which is that it doesn’t quite account for people who in fact do relate to the object in question despite not being directly represented. For example, my stepfather, my stepmother and my stepgrandfather, who are all black and from the South, are all very fond of Westerns. On one hand, I’m sure this is a product of them growing up in a time where Westerns had the same prestige and ubiquity that action movies have today. But on the other hand, for whatever reason, the three of them are simply intrigued by the genre. I know from speaking with them that they would have liked to have seen more Westerns with black characters, especially black characters who weren’t servants, sidekicks, prostitutes, cannon fodder or menial workers. In fact, they all seem to know who the black actors were by name, implying that they had an enhanced relationship with those particular actors, much like a young black kid (like me) being able to specifically name-check black superheroes. Given these enhanced relationships, I think it’s fair to say that the three of them would have liked to relate to Westerns in a different way. That said, they each managed to relate to the genre anyway, despite its lack of direct correspondence and despite their very concrete incentives to actively shun the genre (i.e. being black in the 60s and before). That is important to recognize.

“I can’t relate” wouldn’t be able to recognize that persisting relation” because it posits our relationships with media as being direct, solid, when they are in fact much more liquid or even gaseous, impossible to grasp. Even if it is useful for framing grievances and is sometimes true – there are definitely things I like just because of one black character or one female character, etc. – “I can’t relate” is a tactic that I would use very strategically because it reduces relationships with media down to checklists that don’t reflect real problems with the media landscape. This is dangerous because these checklists are readily co-opted into the service of statements like, “This show has no white men. This is racist” or “All the men die. This is sexist.” As silly and pigheaded and just plain wrong as those statements are, I think that their ability to be uttered is also a function of “I can’t relate.” As a frame, it simply can’t reliably relay the complexity of legitimate grievances against our distorted, dehumanizing and disrespectful universe of media. So instead of saying, “I can’t relate” sometimes it’s better to change it up and say, “This excludes me” and insist that “excludes” is a very, very active verb.

Link

Building from the updated form of the Bechdel Test that is explained above and Alaya Dawn Johnson’s POC variation of the Bechdel Test, I would like to introduce the Crispus Attucks Test. A movie passes the Crispus Attucks Test if it has a person of color who:

1) Has a name.

2) Doesn’t die first.

3) Has their death mentioned later in the film.

4) Doesn’t die within the first 1/5 of the total running time of the film. (This one is optional)

If you’re familiar with the Bechdel Test, you’ve probably noticed that I have not included the typical requirement that there should be at least two members of the group being discussed. At first glance this is probably blasphemous, but allow me to explain. As I understand it, the ultimate goal of the Bechdel Test is to shed light on the entrenched and problematic practices of the entertainment industry. The test does this by highlighting the presences and absences of women (and now persons of color) in movies and then showing how these presences and absences indicate how the overall story values women. In other words, the Bechdel Test shows who matters to a story and how they matter. Though dying in a film is not precisely the same as being marginalized within it as the sole woman or person of color, or as a woman or POC who only speaks with or about men, I think that focusing on death is definitely in the spirit of the Bechdel Test in terms of showing who matters and how they matter to the overall story.

Death and when it occurs are a particularly meaningful point of insight because a death often makes explicit how relevant (or not) a character is to the overall events of a story. While a late death will often resolve or propel a story and profoundly affect how characters develop, early deaths often just set events in motion, rarely doing much else, especially in terms of character development. In fact, Law and Order has perfected this formula. Every episode of Law and Order begins with a death, and even though that death is central to the events of the story, the person who died is literally never fleshed out. Throughout the episode we will only see this person in a ghastly state of incompleteness at best and complete absence at worst. Yet the story goes on.

I do not intend for the Crispus Attucks Test to be applied broadly, especially to movies that do not have death as part of the story or that contain an entire cast of persons of color. My intention is for the test to be applied to movies in which a death advances the plot (or is at least supposed to), namely action movies, horror movies, thrillers and blockbusters.

Like the Bechdel Test, the Crispus Attucks Test does not necessarily say anything – whether the movie passes or fails – about the aesthetic qualities of a film. Rather, it highlights the social, political and economic circumstances under which films are made (which are certainly related to aesthetics, but not always directly). Particularly, it draws attention to the devaluation of the labor of POC writers, actors, producers and general workers within the film industry and the unrecognition* of POC characters as integral elements to the telling of a story, not mere cannon fodder or plot devices.

There are many movies that I love that fail the Crispus Attucks Test. Right off the bat, I can think of Scream 2, Aliens and X-Men: First Class. I can still appreciate and enjoy these movies despite their shortcomings, but I do recognize that the way that they told their stories did not have come at the expense of persons of color. The events of the stories could have easily happened otherwise and the Crispus Attucks Test is a small way of recognizing and encouraging that change.** That said, as Anita Sarkeesian says in the video, changes to the entertainment industry are ultimately in the hands of creators. All we can do is keep our hands at their necks.

*Unrecognition was coined by Audre Lorde in her open letter to Mary Daly to refer to the experience of being represented in an unfamiliar way by someone who was supposed to be a collaborator. It’s more than misrepresentation. Unrecognition is a feeling of being instrumentalized, of being used toward some end that you oppose. It is a feeling of betrayal, objectification and exploitation.

**The early deaths of Omar Epps and Jada Pinkett can be read as parody, but I’ve never really bought that reading. Who says parody has to be so straightforward? Another way to get the point across without slitting their throats could have been to have one of them fall asleep during the movie and imagine that they were murdered. I’m no screenwriter, but in a movie that is by definition an assemblage of other movies, I’m sure that other options could have been explored.

On Blue Bear and the Brutal Reality of Oppression


Portrayed by actual champion boxer Lucia Rijker, Billie the Blue Bear is a boxer and the primary antagonist of the 2004 movie Million Dollar Baby. Fighting with complete disregard for rules, decorum, honor and safety, she is a pure representation and enactment of all the contingencies underlying the sport of boxing. She exists solely to utterly destroy the body and the fighter that the main character, Maggie, has studiously developed throughout the course of the film. More than just Maggie’s foil, Blue Bear is the physical manifestation of all the danger that has lurked in each of Maggie’s previous fights. Blue Bear is the imminent destruction of the boxer’s body and spirit.

Blue Bear interests me because after she brutally and unfairly maims Maggie in their climactic fight, she never makes another appearance in the film. After their fight, the film solely focuses on how Maggie and her trainer never recover from this fight and respond to the impossibility of recovery. There is never a scene where Blue Bear is fined by the World Boxing Association or publicly scorned on ESPN or even approached by a muckraking journalist. Blue Bear directly ruins Maggie’s life and there are no consequences at all.

This is precisely how oppression works. In one brief moment, the forces that imminently threaten the fortified selves we build and maintain come at us from behind, sneaking into our moments of glory, pain, relaxation and just plain existence, and flooring us without warning or mercy. Most of us get up from these experiences, brushing off the dirt and staggering on, but I think Million Dollar Baby shows what’s at stake every time this happens. These aren’t just inconveniences or bad days. These blindsides threaten one’s very ability to exist, to regularly convince oneself that getting out of bed isn’t a dangerous existential decision.

Blue Bear disappears once her cinematic duty is done, but her brief appearance reminds us that there’s a reason why experiences of oppression can be so easily recalled. When these large and tiny tears in the social fabric materialize in the midst of our lives, we’re spectacularly (and sometimes mundanely) reminded of that fabric’s horrifying fragility. In other words, each of Maggie’s fights had Blue Bear in the ring. And while it’s easy to abstract Blue Bear as just a symbol of mortality and unfairness, I think it’s more interesting to also view her as the sheer, brutal reality of oppression: the blitz is coming whether the ball was snapped or not and justice will probably never occur in any form – neither judicial, nor social, nor poetic. This is a hideous reality, but knowing its contours is the first step toward imagining and later enacting different strategies in real time: punching back, dodging, dancing around the ring.

Above all, I think Blue Bear calls attention to the limits of strategies of preparation and risk management. Too often the response to experiences of oppression is, “Don’t go there” or “Don’t talk to that person anymore” or “Don’t shop there,” as if avoiding oppression is simply a matter of making better decisions, as if one actually decides to be cheated, robbed, maimed, disrespected and violated. All Maggie did was train. Her body was prepared specifically to endure unbearable stresses, whether hypothetical or immediate. But what she wasn’t prepared for was those unthinkable stresses, those things that can’t be anticipated. The unthinkable can only be endured, never prepared for. And though strategies of endurance aren’t foolproof because endurance is an inherently intensified experience, meaning that every moment of endurance is felt at heightened levels (Maggie actually abandons her strategy of endurance via assisted suicide because she can’t continue to endure),  these strategies fundamentally understand that fighting doesn’t occur on a plane of pre-coordinated abstraction. Endurance requires recurring reflexive improvisation, constant readjustment and response to Blue Bear’s brutal right.

This isn’t something we can train for or something we can endure for very long, especially when we encounter it in the form of Blue Bear, the crushing spectacle of violence, but when we have the luxury of being outside of the spectacle (this is always a fleeting position, of course), we have time to think about what enables this spectacle. For instance, as the provided clip shows, Blue Bear is allowed to wreak havoc despite her reputation because the fans love her, suggesting that the WBA values money over fighters. This is the world we live in.

Valuations are made and reified in the form of privileges, preferences, prejudices, accessibilities, and institutions, but we encounter these valuations as manifested in the surfaces of the world: people, media, events, discourses, imaginations, histories. It’s incredibly difficult to tussle with these surfaces, so we should celebrate when we win, but there’s levels to this shit* and Blue Bear is like the bottom floors in Game of Death. All the floors are dangerous, but if we linger on those bottom floors for too long, we’ll never get to the top and throw the boss from the roof. As Maggie’s experience shows, getting to the top isn’t necessarily about having an iron will or strength or determination. Sometimes terrible things happen without reason. But for those of us who’ve been lucky or privileged enough to be spared – for now – I hope it’s clear what’s at stake.

*I sincerely apologize for linking you to a Meek Mill song.