Do Black Lives Matter at Your Theatre? In Your Films?

philando-

Philando Castile in a yearbook photo. He worked as a nutrition services assistant for the Saint Paul Public School District.

I had intended to write about the Philando Castile verdict. Philando Castile was murdered because an officer claims he believed Castile was reaching for his gun when he was reaching for his ID as instructed. That officer walked free. Had Castile been white, I believe that officer would have heard and believed him when he said he was reaching for his ID, and my plan was to write about the narratives we put into the culture that created the officer’s belief that Castile was dangerous.

charleena_lyles

Charleena Lyles, in a photo released by her family.

Before I could even sit down to write the piece, Charleena Lyles was killed, and Seattle police responded by issuing a statement bragging about their “deescalation training,” as if to say, “We tried deescalating, but it didn’t work! We simply had to shoot and kill a tiny pregnant woman holding a knife. We were scared for our lives!” Yet somehow, when it’s a white woman with a knife– or a GUN– officers aren’t scared at all. Billings, Montana. Chattanooga, Tennessee. What creates that difference?

Radicalized white men are one of the most violent groups in the US, yet violent white men are routinely deescalated. Take a look at this photo AP released, taken at a white supremacist rally in 2015:

Confederate-Flag-Rally-3-AP

A protester confronted a man– a man at a white supremacist rally celebrating the Confederate flag, so basically a hotbed of radicalized white men– and the white supremacist reaches for his gun. The officer’s reaction? Look at his face. He seems to be saying, “Whoa there, buddy. Calm down, sir.” The officer clearly believes the white supremacist poses no immediate danger. A white man literally reaching for a gun does not alarm an officer, but a Black man reaching for a wallet does. What creates that difference?

tamirrice

Tamir Rice in a family photo taken shortly before his death.

Tamir Rice— a child with a toy gun in a park near a youth rec center– was gunned down by an officer within two seconds of police rolling up. Two seconds. The officers did not take any time whatsoever to find out what was going on, let alone deescalate. It’s pretty hard to be an active shooter when your gun is a toy, and Ohio is an open carry state, so he had every right to hold a gun in public. Then those officers let this child bleed out on the ground while they chit-chatted and waited for the ambulance instead of providing the medical assistance that could have saved his life. Those officers walked free without even so much as a trial, even though the entire incident was videotaped. The person who called 911 told the dispatcher that the gun was likely a toy and that Tamir was likely a juvenile, but as soon as the dispatcher heard “Black male,” she categorized it as an “active shooter” and gave it the highest priority code. Why did the dispatcher automatically assumed “Black male” meant “DANGER,” and why did the officer gun down a child in cold blood before even taking a second to assess the situation? The answer is of course “racism,” but where does that racism come from?

Every time a Black person is shot by police, even when the Black person is unarmed, complying, has their hands in the air, or is just going about their business, the officers say they “feared for their lives.” Look again at the officer in the photo above apparently saying, “Whoa there, calm down, buddy” to the white supremacist. Why isn’t he fearing for his life? Why do officers routinely fear for their lives when faced with a Black person but so seldom fear for their lives when faced with a white person?

 

Our culture is saturated with the narrative “Black = DANGER.” As content creators and gatekeepers, white people used that narrative to justify slavery (stating that if slavery ended, former slaves would erupt in bloody uprisings and chaos), and after the passing of the 13th Amendment, which limited slavery to convicted criminals, we use it to justify the mass incarceration of Black people. We flood our culture with these narratives, either through the content we create or through the content we choose to produce. It is one thing when a Black person writes a song that speaks the truth of the violence in their own lives. It is entirely another when a white gatekeeper gets wealthy by producing only songs that depict Black men as dangerous. White people have profited both culturally and financially from the brutalization and murder of Black bodies for centuries, and we have created and carefully maintained a narrative superstructure to justify it.

It takes one generation growing up with a narrative trope to see that narrative trope as “natural.” Spinning out from the narrative trope “Black = DANGER” are the racist cultural notions that Black people are tougher and do not feel pain like we do; Black people commit more crimes; Black people ruin property values; Black fathers abandon their children. Our culture is saturated with these slanders, and they are quite literally killing people.

When a police officer makes a split second decision whether to fire his weapon or to say, “Whoa, there buddy,” he has to deal with a lifetime of inundation with the trope “Black = DANGER,” as well as a lifetime of inundation with the trope “white people are basically OK,” which not only dictates how Caucasian-appearing people are treated but also fuels white resistance to our complicity– all our complicity– in the systems of oppression that maintain white supremacy.

My fellow purveyors of narrative, we can either work intentionally to disrupt these tropes or we can work to reinforce white supremacy. There is no in between.

When Tim Burton cast his film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, he cast all the roles with white people except the villain, who was Black. There was an outcry, and the predictable fragile white reaction– “It’s just a movie,” “He should have artistic freedom.” Of course he has artistic freedom. We all do. But don’t we also have a responsibility to understand and control the messaging we put out in the culture? We vet our work in every other way, so what makes race different?

We can actively fight white supremacy with the narratives we put into the culture, or we can continue to be complicit in creating the culture that leads to the deaths of people like Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Tamir Rice, and so, so, so many others. It’s not enough to just cast Black artists and produce Black work (although that is an excellent start). White supremacy itself needs to be pulled up from the roots because we are hurting all people of color.

Native American people are murdered by police at an even higher rate than Black people (as a whole; Black men 15-34 are killed at the highest rate), a direct result of the centuries of dehumanizing stereotypes we put out specifically to ease our consciences about treating Native American people like vermin to be exterminated or expelled, like savages to be civilized, like magic spiritual conduits that exist for the benefit of white people. From Moby Dick to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the trope “I exist to take white people on a journey TO THEMSELVES,” centering white people in Native lives, has permeated our culture. And in the case of TNG, it pains me to relate, the Native character below (from the 1994 episode “Journey’s End”) was a white guy in disguise all along! The white actor playing The Traveler (Eric Menyuk) soon replaces the First Nations actor, Tom Jackson. This example is the ultimate in cultural appropriation– a white dude appropriates a Native body and Native culture to bring another white dude spiritual enlightenment, then they both abandon the Native village in peril, because it’s “not their fight.” I love you, TNG, but this was egregious, even for 1994.

wesleycrusher

Shut up, Wesley

The dehumanizing tropes we create and disseminate through our plays, films, TV shows, video games, books, web series, music videos, fiction, and nonfiction are quite literally getting people killed. I wrote this earlier, for my article about Tim Burton, and it still applies:

When we talk about police “retraining,” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives – which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before Black people with their guns drawn.

As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better.

Narrative is the most effective way to create cultural shifts, which is why it’s the favorite tool of politicians. Our narrative-based industries are the biggest bats and loudest loudspeakers in our culture. We are numerous and powerful. All we have to do is agree to approach our work with intentionality.

Examine what messages your work puts out into the culture, both in its processes and its product. Who are you hiring? Who are you casting? What stories are you telling, and how? Whose work are you choosing to support?

We examine our products and our processes in every other way. We always create with intentionality, so adding “examine messaging about race (and gender, ability, etc)” isn’t burdensome. We have the power to change the culture; in fact, nothing else has ever done it. Every cultural movement, for good or for ill, had a master narrative at the back of it, created by artists and writers. Examine the master narratives behind the work you produce, because they’re there, whether you examine them or not.

 

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14 thoughts on “Do Black Lives Matter at Your Theatre? In Your Films?

  1. Mardith says:

    Amen!

  2. dehelen says:

    This post is so powerful. I once thought retraining might be the answer, or wearing video cameras, but have come to believe we are such a racist country that the only answer is a radical one. We need to disarm the police, like the UK, like Australia, in addition to retraining and body cameras. If we don’t disarm the police, we will continue on this path until we are all being policed by the military. That’s my opinion now.

  3. The difference is FEAR. If white people REALY believe they are WHITE-when in fact they are mostly PINK or mauve-lol and Brown people run around calling themselves BLACK-Think cup of coffee with one white drop of cream-this is REALLY how it is world wirde. Read the book the Next 100 Years-written in the 80’s preparing White/Pink people for an awakening-and a HUGE jump in brown -skinned so called Latinas-mexicans etc ALL brown -skinned no matter what you convince them to call themselves-(Black) This is FEAR-the suggested divisons via tags-brown hispanice vs brown africans -could only last for so long-this is why we were forbidden to read-write-etc during slavery. You were NEVER the majority-brown people were NEVER a minority-it has been simly the power of suggestion. But your MEN-(some women also) Feel they have treated us SO badly-that we would most likely dothe same back -once awoke. Fear compiles weapons-bombs-etc. TO many Black millionaires. To mauch money in the black community.White men in back rooms say-it’s only a matter of time. Read the book The Next 100 Years by George Friedman. The interent is largely responsible. When I grew up-the only picture I ever saw of African was with a bone in their nose. And Egypt was taught as a place seperate from Africa. -Now for the biblical-Who are the 200 watcher that chose earth over their given state.

  4. jailynsherell says:

    Thank you for writing and sharing this. I don’t know if you consider yourself an ally but it’s always nice when voices that don’t belong to black bodies speak up about this issue. I’ve been trying to avoid new about the Philando Castille case for my own mental wellbeing so I was hesitant to read your article, but I’m glad I did. Especially as a performer, it’s important that we are mindful about the types of images we are putting out there in the name of “representation”

  5. madmegsblog says:

    YES YES YES!!!!! We know it’s racism, but why does it continue to have such a stronghold on supposed professionals!?? I can’t even begin to describe the deep anger and humiliation I feel as a white person when I see, time and again, the senseless MURDERS of anyone, especially when I know it is because of the colour of their skin. Deep shame washes over me because I cannot escape the reality that for many to be out in public or pulled over by police, causes a tremendous amount of fear. And for good reason. They have no rights, even though the constitution says they should. This is so wrong on so many levels. The fact that we can have blatant video evidence proving officers were not ‘fearing for their lives’ yet still walk away without a single charge, is mind blowing and shameful. Absolutely shameful.

  6. Valerie Fachman says:

    Why might a white person respond with disproportionate fear and/or aggressive behavior, when a person of color is not threatening? Maybe, just maybe it’s internalized guilt. Whites realize how justified black rage is, regardless of whether they would ever personally admit being, or feeling guilty, and regardless of whether the person of color they see at the moment is actually angry. They’re responding to, and rebelling against, the imagined retribution they know their racist forefathers (and possibly they themselves) deserve. As complicated as this was to describe, I actually don’t believe it’s a far fetched notion.

  7. Heston says:

    What’s going on has nothing to do with white guilt or fear or institutionalized racism or any other postmodern feminist critique. And approaching the problem from a top down perspective and calling on cops and white people to examine their inner supremacist will not solve the problem.

    Why do cops profile black people? Why are cops violent against blacks? Blacks make up 13% of the population and commit 50% of the violent crime.

    Why? They don’t do it because they’re black. They do it because they’re poor.

    Why are black Americans poor? We understand their historical marginalization. Why are they poor *now*?

    3/4 of blacks are raised by a single parent. Being a single parent is the number one predictor of poverty in America.

    But why are there so many single parents in these communities? Its not an organic part of the black culture. And 25% of whites are in the same position, for the same reason: welfare.

    So, what is it that makes parents on welfare not want to get married?

    They will lose their benefits. We have essentially de-incentivized nuclear families in poor communities.

    If we stopped cutting off benefits for parents who marry until they reach some kind of reasonable threshold, we could address the core problem, not some white supremacist conspiracy theory in a country where more whites are on food stamps. If someone ran for mayor of a Chicago and this was their entire platform, I would knock on every door and nominate them for the Noble Prize.

    We must address actual issues to change things. Postmodern critiques aren’t cutting it.

    And for god’s sake, Sam Jackson was cast not because he’s black and it was a villain. He’s the most bankable star in the world and one of the most beloved. And the kids were from Wales in the 40s. Think.

    • There is so much erroneous and simplistic reasoning in this reply I do not know where to start. The disparity between blacks and whites committing crimes is because of racially-biased law enforcement are prosecution. Police target and profile blacks at a higher rate than whites, and black people are often arrested and prosecuted for crimes that white people are not. Many of the statistics you point out are the result of institutionalized racism. It’s true that government programs, including welfare, which in states with smaller black populations is more generous and less onerous (why is that?).is racialized. After all who makes welfare policy? It’s not black people or persons-of-color? Why does it favor single-motherhood over families? it’s certainly easier to oppress a minority group when you undermine a support system like the family. Furthermore, white supremacy doesn’t solely oppress people of color, it also oppresses poor whites. If you think American society is not racialized,you live with blinders on.

      • Heston says:

        I didn’t say we aren’t racialized. But if you think these programs were intended to harm black people even as they harm white people…you are operating on an Alex Jones level of conspiracy theory.

        Black people don’t make welfare policy? Baltimore. Need I say more?

        It favors single mothers because it was intended to help single mothers because they tend to NEED HELP. These programs were started in the sixties to address a 25% single mother rate in black communities, which was considered a massive crisis at the time. Now it’s 75%. And its 25% for whites.

        Why not address this? What is racist about that? He’ll, even if I agreed with you that the entire cycle of poverty and goal of law enforcement and WELFARE was intended and designed to disenfranchise blacks, why not change it?

    • johnpen1 says:

      Not to be rude but their are a few major leaps in logic here. You claim welfare is the cause of single parent homes, (Which seems like an absurd proposition) then give absolutely nothing to support it. You say 50% of the crime is committed by blacks, and assume that’s the reason they are profiled, but you don’t consider the reverse which is that perhaps blacks are arrested more BECAUSE they are profiled more. you know, driving while black on a Friday night.

      Finally I do agree we have de-incentivized nuclear families in black communities. Mostly by locking a lot of black men up with draconian drug laws.

    • johnpen1 says:

      One of the reason I LOVED the movie Fruitvale station was because of how thoroughly the filmmakers humanized Oscar Grant.

  8. chasbelov says:

    @Heston – Yes, Sam Jackson was cast without thinking of the damage it would do. If you’re going to pull the historical authenticity card, you need to pull it both for the good characters and the villain. You don’t get to pull it just for the good characters.

    • Heston says:

      What damage? People love Jackson. What possible damage are you talking about? A boatload of money for everyone involved and a movie people love?

  9. John Pennington says:

    Tamir Rice was the one that really made me sad. They all do. But with a child they couldn’t be bothered to say from a safe distance, “Whadya got there in your hand son?” before they riddled him with bullets. The Bundy ranch was another thing that I think illustrates your point. An armed militia in defiance of the feds with a stand off and no one gets shot. Excellent article.

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