When Will Movies About Police Brutality Start Asking Harder Questions?

The Hate U Give, Monsters and Men, and Blindspotting don’t have anything to say beyond police brutality is bad. (Warning: spoilers.)

Posted on October 19, 2018, at 12:12 p.m. ET

Photo Credit: Erika Doss

Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give.

As high-profile police shootings have begrudgingly become a national concern, movies about police violence are changing. Drawing from events in cities such as Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago, films like Detroit, Fruitvale Station, and Straight Outta Compton explicitly portray the lives and communities affected by police violence. These movies aren’t supplanting established subgenres that center law enforcement — buddy-cop comedies, crime thrillers, and noir aren’t going anywhere anytime soon — but they are importing ideas and images from the dashcams, court cases, and cellphone footage driving real-world conversations about the nature of policing, and in the process showing policing in a new light.

This year, the emerging microgenre received multiple entries. July’s Blindspotting, September’s Monsters and Men, and The Hate U Give, which comes out in wide release on Friday, depict characters who observe police abuse and are changed by it. As they step up to share what they have seen with the public, they transform from onlookers to witnesses. Deviating from the procedural dramas of the past, these movies explore police brutality as an experience rather than just a crime. It’s a refreshing shift that allows for a more intimate view of how police violence ripples through the lives of individuals and communities. But the police overreach that’s depicted in these films can be limiting. By focusing so narrowly on bystanders affected by individual shootings, they end up having little to say about police brutality beyond it being upsetting.

Photo Credit: Erika Doss

From left: Russell Hornsby, Regina Hall, Amandla Stenberg, and Common.

The Hate U Give, adapted from the best-selling young adult novel of the same name, presents police brutality as a disruption and an opportunity. Black high schooler Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) has her life upended after a police officer shoots her childhood friend Khalil during a traffic stop while she’s in the car. Starr is forced to choose between contesting Khalil’s killing and keeping quiet to protect the fictional gang King Lords, who employed Khalil as a dealer. The climax of the film is a melodramatic reimagining of the shooting of Tamir Rice. In the scene, Starr’s youngest brother, a child, turns a gun to the leader of the King Lords and is then confronted by two cops, who arrive with their guns drawn. Starr saves the day by strategically raising her arms and placing her body between her brother and the cops. This convinces the cops and her brother to drop their guns. As a character arc, the moment is fitting. As a witness rather than a bystander, Starr feels empowered to directly intervene in police violence. She literally steps in to stop the violence, placing her life on the line in the process.

But the politics of the scene, and Starr’s arc, are less clear. There’s no interrogation of why Khalil’s car was stopped or what traffic stops actually accomplish. There’s no exploration of why Garden Heights residents might feel reluctant or insulted to have to constantly show cops deference. Nor is much consideration given to the long-term personal danger Starr incurs by stepping up so publicly to the police. There’s a real chance she could be surveilled or placed on a no-fly list or bullied by the same press that glorified Khalil’s killer. Ultimately, Starr’s journey boils down to seeing her friend killed, and being changed by it. Questions of institutional reach and tactics go unasked and unanswered, flattening Starr’s pain and undermining the urgency of police brutality as a public concern. In The Hate U Give, police violence feels impossibly self-contained.

Courtesy of Neon Studios

Anthony Ramos (left) and John David Washington in Monsters and Men.

Monsters and Men, written and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, is a bit more panoramic, but just as limited. Framed around three intertwined yet distinct perspectives, it expands the number of people affected by a police shooting without making clear why that’s important. Set in Brooklyn, the film tells the story of Manny (Anthony Ramos), Dennis (John David Washington), and Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), three men of color with various relationships to the police killing of Darius Larson (Samel Edwards), a black man modeled after Eric Garner.

Manny is the primary witness. He captures Darius’s murder on his smartphone and eventually uploads the video to the internet, a decision that leads to his jailing under shady circumstances. The cost of witnessing is high.

Dennis, a patrol officer from the same precinct as Larson’s killer, has an ambivalent relationship to his precinct and his job. Through a one-way mirror, Dennis looks in on Manny being set up, and from there Dennis settles into a pattern of inertia. He bristles when a family friend complains about police shootings; he says nothing when he sees a neighborhood boy he played basketball with being stopped and frisked; he deflects an Internal Affairs investigator away from his colleagues. Green’s direction renders Dennis as helpless rather than complicit, and it’s humanizing, but it also feels pat. Dennis’s inaction has greater consequences than Manny deciding whether to upload the shooting video, and the emphasis on Dennis’s individual shame minimizes that power disparity. It’s another instance of a character arc curling inward rather than stretching outward.

Monsters and Men concludes with Zyrick, the neighborhood boy who once hooped with Dennis, finding his place within this ecosystem of witnessing. At first he resists getting involved in demonstrations, but then he becomes more involved, designing posters protesting police brutality at a community center, visiting Manny’s family, and attending a rally in Prospect Park.

By focusing so narrowly on bystanders affected by individual shootings, these films end up having little to say about police brutality beyond it being upsetting.

The various paths Manny, Dennis, and Zyrick take following Larson’s death form a jagged triptych. All of them watch the recording at some point, and it’s deft how Green uses phone screens, mirrors, and their own gazes at each other as points of refraction: Manny faces the one-way mirror as Dennis stands on the other side, and Dennis and Zyrick eye each other during Zyrick’s arbitrary detainment. The things they see and don’t act on ricochet until an opening forms — or one is made. This skillful storytelling buoys the film, but its core still feels hollow. Like The Hate U Give, Monsters and Men does not address police brutality as a systemic issue. And its focus on multiple perspectives falters when taking into account the virality of police shooting footage. The proximity between Manny, Dennis, and Zyrick is certainly compelling, but these videos reach millions of viewers. Monsters and Men misses an opportunity to explore action and inaction following police shootings on a grander, more disconnected scale. These videos travel much farther than the neighborhood, so it seems strange that Larson’s death only affects a few blocks. Isn’t the point of sharing these videos the fact that every viewer becomes a bystander?

Ariel Nava

Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting.

Blindspotting also establishes a restrictive link between geography and police violence. Claustrophobic to a fault, the film uses Oakland as a crucible for interracial friendship, gentrification, and police profiling. Cowritten by Daveed Diggs, who is black, and Rafael Casal, who is white, the dark comedy follows two childhood friends and coworkers, Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal), as they navigate their changing hometown. The story begins with Collin, a convict, three days away from being discharged from a halfway house and finishing his probation. Collin is cautious but loyal, accompanying Miles to purchase an illegal gun, but insisting it’s a bad idea. On the same night the gun is purchased, Collin witnesses a police officer shoot an unarmed man and ends up violating his court-ordered curfew. The sequence of events feels karmic.

As a timer counts down his remaining days on probation, the shooting dominates Collin’s dreams and thoughts, replaying as he jogs through a cemetery (a recurring motif), and as he traverses Oakland with Miles. There’s a slight hint that gentrification is a form of violence, but the direction never threads the needle. In the film’s key scene, the crime that got Collin convicted is told by a spectator. At the retelling, Collin’s ex-girlfriend Val, who witnessed the crime, is in earshot, and Collin, too, is an eavesdropper. As the spectator details a bar fight that turns violent, Collin is embarrassed by the polar contrast between the speaker’s thrilling narration and Val’s stunned horror. It’s as if he’s watching multi-camera surveillance footage of himself.

That moment and a humiliating series of fights and confrontations on his last day of probation lead Collin to eventually confront the police officer who shot the unarmed suspect. Holding a gun to the officer, he raps about his paranoia and anxiety as a black man in Oakland. It’s a perplexing, stilted scene. Not only is the rapping painfully earnest and overwrought (survivors of Hamilton, in which Diggs played Thomas Jefferson, might experience flashbacks), but as in Monsters and Men, the police shooting takes the backseat to bystander pain and closure.

But this approach also flounders because of how narrowly these movies render police overreach. There’s something evasive and unimaginative about consistently fixating on shooting as the apex of police violence. There are so many underused indignities left on the table, from wiretaps to “rough rides” to groping to traffic stops to tickets to tasings. Police violence extends further than life and death. It raises fundamental questions about personal autonomy, citizenship, and the contours of state power. In terms of storytelling, the sky should be the limit, but the police brutality in these films is so singular, so ripped-from-the-headlines, that it feels like stock footage.

There’s something evasive and unimaginative about consistently fixating on shooting as the apex of police violence.

This approach is clearly intentional. These films prioritize showing the effects of police violence. They take real-world images of protests, activism, and violence, and connect them to pain and suffering beyond victims and perpetrators. These are stories of trauma and transformation. At best, they show how justice is being redefined by the survivors and bystanders of police violence. At worst, that’s all they do — represent.

It’s disappointing that these films concentrate on depicting police abuse more than examining it. Despite their warmth, when compared to movies with more scope, their collective disinterest in exploring policing as a system feels like a missed opportunity. Last year’s Detroit, for example, was poorly received by critics because of its overly villainous cops and lurid gaze, but it made those elements central to its story. The extended torture scene at the center of the movie is built on the empty justifications the cops make as they conduct a lethal probe. By focusing on the emptiness and excessiveness of torture, the film renders police violence as both horrifying and Kafkaesque. Similarly, this year’s Sicario: Day of the Soldado, explores the ad hoc nature of policing the US–Mexican border. The agencies and institutions that regulate the border come across as bureaucratic and free-wheeling, strictly following codes yet constantly finding ways to violate them. There’s certainly a sense of desperado edge to the film, but crucially it has a point of view. Monsters and Men, The Hate U Give, and Blindspotting mostly have empathy. Their hearts are big, but their ideas are small. ●

Stephen Kearse is a freelance writer and critic. He has previously contributed to the Baffler, Pitchfork, and New York Times Magazine.