The new movie “Monsters and Men” begins with a scene in which a black man singing along to his car radio is stopped by a white police officer for no discernible reason. The man keeps a steady expression, but his fear is unmistakable, and understandably so. He lives in a country where fatal shootings at the hands of the police are not infrequent, and he happens to be armed. It isn’t until he is given the clear and resumes his journey that we learn he is an off-duty officer himself.
The man, Dennis Williams (John David Washington), struggles to find his footing on the force, especially after his colleague shoots an unarmed black civilian. Dennis feels a duty to testify against the offender, painfully aware of the racial biases that plague his profession — as he later tells his partner, he has been pulled over six times this year, and it is only June. But he hesitates to speak up. Would he be ostracized as a result? Could he lose his job?
“Men of color within the police force, I believe a large number of them deal with that identity crisis,” said Reinaldo Marcus Green, who wrote and directed the film. “They’re fighting for their country, for what they believe in. But they understand that black and brown bodies are being stopped and killed at the hands of police. They are somehow still a part of that, even if they’re not the ones doing that.”
The internal conflict has been depicted many times before, such as in John Singleton’s “Shaft,” in which Samuel L. Jackson’s character memorably remarks that he is “too black for the uniform, too blue for the brothers.” An entire episode of “Family Matters” dealt with Reginald VelJohnson’s Carl Winslow, a Chicago police officer, coming to terms with the fact that two white patrolmen racially profiled his son.
But a wave of recent on-screen stories tackle the issue in a world permanently altered by the Black Lives Matter movement. Their creators acknowledge the difficult position black officers are in, while still critiquing the role some play in a deeply flawed institution, amid a national conversation on the role citizens can play in fighting systemic racism.
“The figure of the black police officer is another example of a type of double consciousness, of the struggle that W.E.B. Du Bois talked about in ‘The Souls of Black Folk,’ ” said Mia Mask, a film professor at Vassar College. “The difficult vision that African Americans have in their attempt to be both American and African American, to be recognized and valued in both arenas.”
“The Hate U Give,” released Oct. 5, begins with the Carter family sitting around their dining table as the patriarch (Russell Hornsby) gives his young children “the talk,” which, in this context, means teaching them how to survive a traffic stop.
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) recalls the lesson later, as a teenager, when she witnesses an officer pull over and then shoot her childhood best friend after allegedly mistaking a hairbrush for a weapon. Starr now has to figure out how to respond to the injustice while operating in two distinct worlds — Garden Heights, her working-class, predominantly black neighborhood, and Williamson, her wealthy, predominantly white private school.
She seeks guidance from her Uncle Carlos (Common), an officer who moved out of Garden Heights and into a posh house. He shares with her the quick mental processes officers go through when they see someone they pulled over — a potential threat — reach into a car window, as Starr’s friend did. But then she asks: Would he pull a gun on a white person who did something like that? And would that answer change if the person were black?
“He says it’s complicated, she says it’s not,” director George Tillman Jr. said, noting that Starr exposes Carlos’s implicit bias against his own race. “That conflict is there — there’s his oath to being a police officer, and his alliance to that. But also, Starr is his niece, and he’s an African American cop, where his community sees him as a bad guy. How does he deal with that? How does that play on his conscience?”
Tillman spent about eight months analyzing the protests that occurred after high-profile cases of police shootings in cities like Baltimore, Charlotte and Ferguson, Mo. While scrutinizing the footage, he heard protesters tell black officers that they were on “the wrong side,” a comment that made its way into “The Hate U Give.” Tillman also took note of the officers’ reactions.
The film includes a scene in which two black officers are among those policing a protest. “One guy had nothing on his face and another guy . . . is very conflicted,” Tillman said. “There are different dimensions, different sides. These are the things black officers go through, that we don’t really get a chance to see. Here’s a guy who may have his own family and may have the same beliefs you do, but he has a job to do.”
In the recent film “BlacKkKlansman,” a black officer named Ron Stallworth (also played by Washington) infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan via telephone — an obvious challenge. But he also becomes the target of racial slurs at his own Colorado Springs department. Ron sticks around, putting up with it to continue his sting operation. As Spike Lee told The Washington Post in July: “When you’re trying to fight something, are you going to do it from the inside and work with the system, or [from] the outside?”
Ron attempts to do the former. And the film’s favoring of his approach — over that of a more radical black activist group — was criticized by “Sorry to Bother You” filmmaker Boots Riley in a tweeted statement. He argued that the contrast makes Ron and his cooperative white counterparts “look like allies in the fight against racism,” which Riley finds “disappointing” and not true to life.
A potential drawback of debating black officers’ decisions, according to Mask, the professor, is it can shift attention away from non-black officers’ “complicity with white supremacy, complicity with an unjust criminal justice system.” These depictions seem to ask what black people are doing to solve the problem.
And “that’s not really the problem,” Mask continued. “The problem is white racism.”
Dan Goor, co-creator of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and Phil Augusta Jackson, a writer on the sitcom, kept this in mind while working on the Season 4 episode “Moo-Moo.” The plot centers on a white officer racially profiling Terry Jefford (Terry Crews) in his own neighborhood. Both Terry and Capt. Ray Holt (Andre Braugher), who initially warns Terry against filing a complaint in a well-intentioned effort to help preserve his career, are black officers and well aware of the racism that persists. But it was important to show that their non-black colleagues are just as angry about the incident, Jackson said, in addition to the fact that the white officer doesn’t think he did anything wrong.
“It feels like both of those things are beneficial,” he explained. “The hope is that when the audience sees the empathy, they say: ‘Oh, we should do something. We should be more compassionate. We should work on making this issue better.’ ”
And to the white officer, Jackson hopes the response will be: “That is an ugly shade for individuals to have.”
What has happened in the past, Crews said, is that “these guys have done heinous crimes and have gotten away with it, simply because they hid behind the cult, which was the police force.” In “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which does err on the idealistic side, Terry aims to change that system of complicity. He files the complaint, knowing he will probably lose his shot at a promotion.
In “Monsters and Men,” Dennis doesn’t quite get there. He (spoiler alert) decides against testifying in an effort to preserve his career and chooses not to get involved when he later sees a white colleague stop and frisk a black teenager — again, for no reason. On the other hand, Tillman said the scene between Starr and Carlos in “The Hate U Give” shifts the uncle’s journey in a positive direction.
“Ultimately, I wanted the character to have an awakening in himself and how he sees things,” Tillman continued. “That relationship with the community is very tough and very complicated, and I don’t see that changing soon, but that’s the line. He’s always walking that thin line in terms of how he believes in the system and how the system changes him.”