Let's Never Be Cops: Art and Reflection in Ferguson
WARNING, SPOILERS AHEAD:
Aisha Harris argues in her online Slate film review that "the timing of the release of the buddy cop comedy, Let's Be Cops, couldn't be worse." Not for its sophomoric jibes and weathered material, but for its painful inability to garner even a sliver of social or political self-awareness. In the wake of Mike Brown's tragic shooting in Ferguson, Mo., the film's release could certainly not have come at a more inopportune time. His demise continues to hover over the heartbroken community like an indefinite nightmare, an all-too-familiar outcome for an embattled community fraught with deep racial tensions and a growing economic divide. The deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin at the hands of law enforcement (or self-appointed law enforcement) have ignited a radical sea change not only in Missouri, but the entire country as a whole. Given the film's recent box office success, it's possible we could be seeing "Let's Be Cops Again" very soon, which begs the question: can Hollywood still tackle racial oppression, fear, and mistrust without alienating mainstream audiences? If such a film could honestly and effectively satirize the horrifying reality of police brutality and corruption, could it ever successfully secure a distribution deal with any of the major studios?
It might seem unfair to criticize a film solely for its dearth of cultural and political relevancy, but most filmmakers, producers, and writers nowadays have been forced to whitewash their material to get ahead. Spike Lee's 1989 feature film "Do The Right Thing" was an explosive and timely narrative, not only for its depiction of racially motivated anger and violence, but because it forced the audience to hear some of the worst things imaginable coming from their next door neighbors. Lee had his finger on the bigoted pulse of the Post-Civil Rights era, and articulated a painful reality imbued in his Brooklyn-based microcosm of America. 25 years later, you'd be hard pressed to find anything as poignant and stirring directed by Spike Lee, John Singleton, Allen and Albert Hughes, or other any of the other great Black auteurs that had seen their work flourish in the 1990's. Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" (2012) was an exceptionally rousing big screen spectacle that pitted black vs. white, and in many cases black vs. black and white vs. white. Told through the lens of a Caucasian filmmaker, the movie's success relied on a climactic revenge fantasy of a freed slave slaughtering his oppressors in a swashbuckling Spaghetti-Western shootout. Could Spike have gotten away with such an ending? Perhaps, but certainly not with a hefty $100 million dollar price tag. Would Spike have written such an ending? Never, because Django's freedom is hardly his own. His sole means of fighting back is bestowed in the form of a gun, which leads to even more systemic carnage. Mookie by contrast doesn't require a pistol to ensure he'll be paid for his job at the pizzeria. He'd rather protest and trash the place. He stands up for himself and his community, reclaiming the power he and his slain friend were rightfully entitled to without firing a single shot.
Ryan Coogler's 2013 debut film, "Fruitvale Station", also proved to be an incensed, pivotal recital of unrestrained police misconduct. It told the true story of Bay Area resident Oscar Grant III's final moments on New Year's Eve 2008, shortly before being shot and killed by a member of the Oakland B.A.R.T. Police Force. The accused officer, Johannes Mehserle, claimed to have been reaching for his Taser when 22-year-old Grant was struck in the back with an errant bullet. Yet Grant's very public execution is made all the more agonizing given his earlier attempts in the film to pursue a better life for himself and his family, a luxury which is swiftly hijacked by the officer's cold-blooded negligence. Oscar's death echoed a universal frustration shared within the African American community, one that unjustly paired a person's skin color to his or her own grimly predetermined destiny. For too many young Black men in America today, mass incarceration, long-term poverty, and early graves are not only sanctioned, but bolstered by those that are meant to protect and serve their community. Ken Burns' documentary, "The Central Park Five" (2012), delves into nefarious police practices even further by revisiting the infamous 1989 case of Trisha Ellen Meili, a jogger who was brutally raped and beaten in New York City's impregnable Central Park. By applying unauthorized and illegal interrogation tactics, the New York City Police Department knowingly coerced five innocent Black and Hispanic teenagers into pleading guilty to a grisly offense they didn't commit. It was a palpable death sentence for the young men that had the rest of their lives ahead of them... And would take another 13 years for the group to be exonerated in 2002 through DNA matching and a fellow inmate's hauntingly reposed confession.
If director Luke Greenfield was able to predict such an emphatic, resounding call for social reform in the aftermath of Ferguson, Mo., then "Let's Be Cops" might not have had such a difficult time trudging through its own synthetic, charmingly disaffected waters. With a little more satirical bite, civic ambition, and farcical efficacy, this regrettably timed summer release may have easily emerged as a parable for the current vitriol brewing within the nation. Unfortunately, artists today who have the means to join the progressive roundtable, such as Tarantino and Burns, are also (unintentionally) silencing the very communities they support by denying them the access and authority to tell their own stories. Perspective, or lack thereof, can have a tremendous effect on the way non-colonialist art and fiction is consumed. If those attempting to reconstruct their own narrative are stifled, the status quo remains utterly intractable. Angling for justice in the face of racial intolerance is after all, not unlike anything we've seen before; when only 22 years ago the infamous L.A. Riots managed to put an entire city on hold. A six day free-for-all buoyed by calibrated rap melodies and obscenity-laced hip hop choruses epitomizing the sentiments concentrated and forged in the hands of the oppressed, rather than those witnessing the plight of the oppressed from a safe distance. The intended target of a much larger racial agenda finally had a way to fight back, and when all was said and done, it felt like the cops were getting a beating for a change.