Working Within the System: Spike Lee and the Hollywood Idealization of the Police
The past month has seen the American public — particularly the white American public — reckon with the role of the police in nearly unprecedented fashion. Despite the risk of a still-uncontained global pandemic, civilians across the country have taken to the streets to protest the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers, elevating notions of defunding and rethinking the police to the level of national conversation. We’ve seen this before in recent history: notably the Rodney King beating in 1991 and the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014 both prompted significant civil unrest and urging for police reform. But those reforms have ultimately proven to be little more than lip service given how completely they have failed in achieving what should be a very clear goal: preventing police officers from murdering Black Americans. This time around, the response at certain policymaking levels seems to represent — at least on its face — the beginnings of a more significant shift in how the police operate in a society that has long relied on them to maintain a status quo built on a foundation of systemic racism.
Not that such a shift will be easy, or even guaranteed, despite political promises. The Minneapolis City Council vowed to dismantle and rethink their Police Department, but doing so will involve an extended process and eventually require voter approval; San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced a plan for reform that in theory removes police presence from any non-criminal complaints or disputes (which is a good start), but doesn’t address the fact that state penal codes tend to help prop up racist structures as well — limiting police response to only criminal matters only does so much when the term “criminal” can be so broadly brandished. That’s not to say we should downplay the fact that these conversations are happening — again, this is fairly uncharted territory at the legislative and executive level — but it's important that this is merely the beginning of the conversation and not the final word on a complex and thorny situation.
Part of that process may involve having a cultural reckoning alongside the political one. As has been discussed extensively in recent weeks (and years), the police remain ubiquitous as characters in popular culture, particularly in film and on television, and more often than not are held up as the heroes of whatever story they happen to be a part of. We have seen an uptick in antagonistic depictions of the police that draw from the reality faced by Black men and women, with films like Blindspotting and If Beale Street Could Talk leading the way, but it was also only two years ago that Sam Rockwell won an Oscar for his portrayal of a horrifically racist cop in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a character who the audience is pretty clearly expected to be rooting for by the end given that he’s received a comeuppance of sorts and apparently seen the error of his ways. If anything, television is even more complicit, presenting an ever-growing number of police procedurals with unambiguously heroic police officers with precious few alternatives — even shows about dirty cops (e.g. The Shield) tend to portay them as antiheroes, characters whose actions you condemn even while you can’t stop watching them.
Art, especially that produced for a mass audience, has real power when it comes to shaping how we see the world. That power is often used for good — film, for instance, can present new ideas, provide exposure to different cultural values, and make us think more critically than we might have otherwise. But, of course, there is a flip side: film is rarely impartial, and what we see on the screen has a tendency to be sanitized — the art of the righteously angry often comes up against the brick wall of a studio concerned with making a profit and operating under the assumption that audiences don’t want to pay for forced introspection. This sanitization has arguably impacted this country’s police forces more than any other group, helping entrench the notion among the masses that, by and large, the police are unambiguously heroic, worthy of respect and honor for their unerring commitment to protecting and serving Americans — even when daily events make it abundantly clear that when it comes to the criminal justice system, “Americans” is a term that is often selectively applied. Even when filmmakers look to show the uglier side of policing, more often than not the result manifests itself in a manner exemplified by a film like The French Connection, where abhorrent narcotics detective “Popeye” Doyle is still unquestionably the hero of the story.
Within this context, Spike Lee makes for a fascinating case study. His 1989 breakout third feature and nearly unassailable masterpiece Do The Right Thing contains one of the most searing depictions of police brutality put to film — one that is, if anything, more horrifically resonant now that instances of police violence are frequently recorded and endlessly replayed on cable channels and social media — forcing us to watch helplessly as Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem is choked to death by uniformed officers, onlookers screaming in terror and protest. It’s a devastating scene, and one that doesn’t shy away from reality — a reality that hasn’t changed in the thirty plus years since the film was released, a point driven home by a video Lee himself released at the end of May, cutting between the deaths of Radio Raheem, Eric Garner, and George Floyd (the video can be found here, but note that the content is of course extremely graphic).
Based on Do The Right Thing, it would be fair to assume that any future films Lee made involving the police would be just as unsparingly critical in their depictions. But Lee, never known to conform to any expectations other than his own, went on to direct three films over the course of the next three decades that didn’t just involve the police, but featured police officers as sole or co-protagonists.
His first foray into the genre was with 1995’s Clockers, an adaption of Richard Price’s novel (Price also wrote the initial version of the screenplay, which Lee revised once he came on board the project), which follows Ronald “Strike” Dunham (Mekhi Phifer), a low-level drug dealer whose brother Victor is incarcerated for a murder Strike was supposed to commit, and Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel), a homicide detective who suspects there may be more to the incident than it initially seems. From their first moment on screen, the New York Police Department is shown to be filled with bad eggs — they’re a callous bunch, harassing young Black men without any real cause, conducting a flippant and mocking autopsy on the street amidst a crowd of bystanders.
On balance, Lee’s opinion of the force comes across as a negative one, and Detective Klein doesn’t escape that brush: he’s shown to be just as racist as the rest of them, even in moments of ostensible empathy — at one point he refers to Victor as “one of the good ones,” a statement that says less about Victor’s moral fortitude than it does about Klein’s lack thereof. But yet: you walk away with the sense that Klein is a man of integrity, despite his flaws; a contradiction that can be hard to stomach when you consider his flaws include perpetuating dehumanizing behavior.
John Turturro is the other above-the-title actor playing an officer in Clockers, but the more interesting supporting character is Keith David’s André, a Black beat cop living in the same housing complex as Strike. André seems to view his role as one rooted in tough love — it’s his job to try to protect the young Black men in the neighborhood by using his authority to steer them straight. But fundamentally, there’s a tension between his place within the community and his place within the police force. It’s a tension that Lee would foreground more in Blackkklansman, but for his next cop thriller it would remain filler despite moving the focus to a Black police officer.
Inside Man (2006) is perhaps Lee’s most conventional film by Hollywood standards, but one infused with his characteristic energy and visual stylings, a showcase for his genre versatility. Denzel Washington stars as Detective Keith Fraiser, an NYPD officer dispatched to handle negotiations with a criminal outfit holding a mess of hostages in a Wall Street bank. The film sits squarely in heist thriller territory, and is much more plot driven than Clockers, but under the surface shows similar interest in providing an unsanitized depiction of the police. Frasier is a good cop, but not a perfect one, and he’s been jaded by his years on the force and the sense that he’s been denied appropriate opportunities for advancement for reasons that are more-likely-than-not related to the color of his skin.
Lee takes time to show us some of the inherent trauma that comes with being a Black police officer in a department whose actions run the gamut from casual racism to a clear disregard for non-white lives, but he also doesn’t shy away from highlighting that Frasier and his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are often participants in inappropriate police behavior, engaging in racism and harassment alongside their colleagues. It’s at times a complex portrayal of the police, but again the cop is the hero and the one we’re there to see — even if Lee wanted to paint a darker picture, he’d likely have been hamstrung by both the studio and the genre, but the end result does play into the dilemma of the police on screen: even when showing the systemic issues within law enforcement, the tendency is to give the audience a “good” cop to follow, who becomes a stand-in for the police in their minds long after the credits have rolled.
The same charge could be levied at 2018’s Blackkklansman (and was by some, including director Boots Riley), a movie based on the true story of Detective Ron Stallworth who, as the first Black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, led a 1972 operation to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. The film is primarily concerned with Stallworth and his partner in the operation (Adam Driver), leaving the other cops to play mostly ancillary roles — as with Inside Man, we are privy to the implicit and explicit racism exhibited by the police in general, but (a) it’s not the focus and (b) we’re provided with at least two positive representations of police officers to latch on to.
We do see a reflection of Clockers’ André in Stallworth as he spends a portion of the film attempting to reconcile his role as a cop with his responsibility to the Black community, but in the end the Colorado Springs Police Department seems like a relative paragon of tolerance. Perhaps the only sequence in the film that doesn’t ring true is the one in which the entire investigative squad seems to come together to run a sting operation against the most overtly racist officer on the force, who is promptly arrested for racially-motivated police brutality and taken away to cheers — coming on the heels of a scene in which Stallworth is beaten by other officers who don’t realize he’s undercover, the feel-good moment doesn’t quite square.
Now, none of this is to say that Lee is under some special obligation to unsparingly rake the police over the coals in every movie he makes, or even to refrain from holding up individual officers as the protagonists of his films. But it is telling that the man who made Do The Right Thing would go on to make the cops and criminals thrillers that he did — it speaks less to Lee’s sensibilities (especially given how much criticism he does imbue these films with) than to just how entrenched the police are as heroes in Hollywood. I’m also not arguing that any of these films are failures because of this: quite the contrary, I consider all of them to be universally excellent. To take it a step further, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have a personal soft spot for a wide variety of police thrillers — I unabashedly love Point Break and Speed and Miami Vice, to name just a few.
The problem isn’t that there are films about heroic police officers — not least because there are heroic police officers, or at least ones who are genuinely committed to doing the right thing — it’s that the majority of films about law enforcement and the criminal justice system tend towards valorization of the police, a depiction that simply doesn’t speak to the fact that the institution of policing in America, as a whole, is fundamentally flawed. Part of the depiction problem likely stems from the continued lack of diversity in Hollywood: not just in front of and behind the camera, but in positions of financial and decision-making authority. Increase the diversity of voices in the room and in power, and you’ll hopefully increase diversity of the types of stories being told. There's room for nuanced portrayals of law enforcement in film, just as there is with any subject — good cops and bad cops both have their roles to play in the stories we tell. But until the power balance in Hollywood dramatically shifts, it might be worth taking a long look at just how often we're telling one type of story at the expense of another.