Over 111 years ago, D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, a cinematic adaptation of the novel The Clansman, that told an ahistorical account of the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era. Like the source material, the film positioned the Ku Klux Klan, one of the first domestic terrorist organizations in the nation, as valiant defenders of the South besieged by savage hordes of predatory free blacks and corrupt carpetbaggers. In essence, Griffith whitewashed the White Knights of the Klan, whose reign of terror led to countless deaths of free black families and US soldiers stationed in the South. The film was a resounding success both critically and commercially.
Though many critics were negative in their appraisal, the film was a resounding commercial success. It helped pioneer storytelling and editing methods in the film industry, a legacy still seen in cinema to this day. Even organized boycotts by the NAACP were largely unsuccessful in preventing the film’s release. To add the cherry on top, the white supremacist propaganda became the very first film projected in the White House for then-President Woodrow Wilson – a notorious white supremacist and admirer of the Confederacy.
However, its worst legacy is how it inspired the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915, who continued their reign of terror against black Southerners while also targeting immigrants, Jews, and Catholics. It took decades for social justice activists and the United States government to cull the terrorist organization into its current incarnation, which is but a shadow of its former self.
Griffith’s film is supposed to be a reminder of the dangers of propaganda and why artists must avoid valorizing iniquity and injustice. Unsurprisingly (and unfortunately), that advice has not always been well-heeded.
Police procedurals frequently excuse the acts of brutality committed by law enforcement against suspects. Whether it’s Law & Order (particularly SVU with Christopher Meloni’s Detective Stabler) or Chicago P.D., we see cops torture suspects into a confession. To ease any discomfort within the audiences watching, they portray the suspect as being a complete monster whom no one could forgive. Of course, Chicago P.D.’s use of brutality is particularly disconcerting in the context of their real-life counterpart’s less than saintly history. Whether it was former detective Jon Burge, a white supremacist who tortured over two hundred black men into false confessions, or homicide Detective Richard Zuley, who tortured suspects both in the Windy City and Guantanamo Bay, the real-life Chicago P.D. has had no shortages of their own individual monsters.
But CPD’s crimes aren’t limited to individual badges, but the entire institution as well. Last year, the Guardian reported the CPD’s use of black sites in Homan Square, where they kidnapped hundreds of suspects (thus denying their rights to habeas corpus) and tortured them into issuing confessions (which is unconstitutional). The Intercept also released a series of investigative reports that revealed the rampant corruption within the city’s department, including ripping off drug dealers, beating on random people, and covering up their criminal cop brethren. Needless to say, all these violations of the public trust only fosters an atmosphere of distrust between the police and the rest of the population they’re supposed to protect. As such, it’s completely irresponsible to have Sergeant Voight (played by Jason Beghe) routinely hold and torture suspects in basement cages.
Which brings me to the upcoming film Dragged Across Concrete (2018), which stars Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn. The official synopsis reads:
“A stolid, old guard policeman, Ridgeman (Gibson) and his volatile younger partner, Anthony (Vaughn), find themselves suspended when a video of their strong-arming tactics become the media’s special du jour. Low on cash and with no other options, these two embittered soldiers descend into the criminal underworld to gain their just due, but instead find far more than they wanted awaiting them in the shadows.”
It’s still unknown if this is going to be a comedy buddy cop film or if it’s going to be a serious drama (though the latter seems more likely given Mel Gibson’s strengths). However, it cannot be stressed enough that the film emerges in the context of recent events, including smartphone videos capturing police killings of black men, the three years of #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations, and the visceral reaction by conservative orthodoxy and the far-right fringe. This film is attempting to capitalize off the current social and cultural conversations taking place, which will likely spur a multitude of controversy when it gets released in 2018.
Now, it would be easy to point out the history of Gibson’s past behavior, including a racist tirade directed toward his ex-girlfriend, suggesting that she would be to blame if she got “raped by a pack of niggers” (reminiscent of how Griffith imagined blacks only a century prior). That incident, along with his antisemitic rant during a traffic stop effectively blacklisted him in Hollywood as a director and a producer for almost a decade. It is only with his recent success in Oscar-nominated hit Hacksaw Ridge, his first directorial feature since Apocalypto, that his status as a pariah has more or less subsided.
Yet, Gibson’s personal history is not the issue with the film nor is Vaughn’s outspoken support for Trump – a President who is content with (and even encourages) police brutality against suspects. It doesn’t even matter what race the “criminal underworld” of the film will be. The issue is the likely possibility that these “two embittered soldiers,” both of whom violated their oath to protect and serve, will be treated as anti-heroes for the audience to support. Therefore, they get the usual treatment from a trope that goes back to hardboiled detective stories printed in pulp magazines during the 30’s – the tradition that portrayed the necessity of police violating the constitution and being violent against criminals. This willingness to operate outside the highest law of the land to uphold order (re; the State of Exception by Carl Schmitt) is a poisonous mindset that’s helped lead to the rise the authoritarian madness exhibited in Donald Trump.
Pro-police propaganda is almost always uncritical of its central subjects – the police. After all, they just assume that everything law enforcement does is an act of benevolence that the people should feel gratitude towards, regardless as to whether or not their methods are illegal harmful towards their communities.
Now here’s a question worth pondering – in the context of #BlackLivesMatter and police brutality, would Hollywood dare to produce a film of a present day Black protagonist who takes their revenge on a corrupt police force? Would producers be willing to take on a project that channles the rebellious spirit of songs such as “I Shot the Sheriff” or “Fuck Tha Police?” Would Hollywood risk the backlash of #bluelivesmatter fanatics that have a sway on the Oval Office?
Well…BET certainly will.