Protest Demonstrations in Recent TV and Film
Two recent productions -- a TV miniseries and a movie -- point to issues in the depiction of social protest and civil disobedience in the entertainment media.
CBS pushed hard to launch a future series with its pre-summer mini-fare, The Red Line, a sudser about crime and racism set in Chicago. Sadly, this series was lacking in vision, insight, or even common sense, as well as in ratings.
Exploiting headlines about police shootings in various cities, particularly in Chicago, it began with the heartbreaking killing of an African American doctor, trying to help an injured clerk in a convenience store, at the hands of a young police officer (Noel Fisher, in an excellent performance). The doctor was the same-sex husband of a white high school literature history teacher, Daniel Calder (Noah Wyle) and they had adopted an African American daughter, Jira (Aliyah Royale) now a teenager and a student at Daniel’s school.
Facing the horror of the African American dad’s death, Jira wants to find her birth mother, for she has lost her black role model. (She had scientific and pre-med interests that she shared with her deceased dad.) Though she cherishes her living dad, she senses that she requires deeper roots in order to overcome her great loss.
The Red Line set an ambitious agenda for itself, both in character development, social commentary, and psychological and political probing. But it unabashedly and, I think, unreflectingly chose the afternoon soap opera genre rendered with any and every politically correct scenario with which its many writers could come up.
I admit that this series could be quite moving at times and in parts. This had a lot to do with Royale’s affecting performance as Jira. But the series was generally maudlin and bursting with bathos. Right off the bat it let us know that the feisty black woman running for alderman, Tia Young (Emayatzy Corinealdi), was Jira’s birth mom.
Tia decides to see Jira sooner into the drama than one might expect, despite the dangers of bad publicity for the campaign and stress to her devoted husband and young son. Clearly, the writers regard the reunion as a plot and political positive. For one thing, Jira is a formidable ally in any public forum. She is a skillful “closer” in any debate, and an engaging attention getter along the way. Also, her return to Tia’s life is an asset with the African American and other churches because, as one character points out, Tia chose to place her baby rather than to abort the child.
As for Jira, she remains a bright spot when things get ugly, though she is subject to depression and to a rebellious and selfish spirit just like most people, particularly teenagers. Her closest two friends, who are obviously intended to be types or even stereotypes not given much voice in TV fare, are generally better than her dad at navigating her though the tough places of life. But it is annoying that, at every turn, the writers allow teen culture to rule the plot and character development.
The would-be alderwoman has her hands full fighting the political machine, represented here by a black alderman who has falsely imprisoned a black man in order to save his own son. Did the writers think it politically correct to represent a black politician as a vicious power broker in order to create a strong black leader? Of course, they have him saying and doing nasty sexist things.
Nastier than the depiction of the black politician is that of the Roman Catholic family of cops. It seems that the young officer is the son of a prominent police officer, abusive and dishonest, and the brother of an officer rendered paraplegic after being shot by a criminal. The father urges his son to perjure himself in court by testifying that the slain doctor was wearing a hood, and then berates his son at every turn. The writers seem purposely ambiguous as to whether the young cop wanted to kill a black suspect. But the point they want to make is that police cover up is a family matter, both literally and institutionally.
And speaking about institutions, the Catholic priest is depicted here as insensitive and unresponsive, and his church as a gossip mill where the parishioners involved in the police force share confidential and privileged information. Of course, there is a requisite joke about sexually abusive clergy.
Indeed, religion does not fare well in this series. Jira’s biological father also returns into her life, explaining that he is a different person because of his recently embraced Evangelical faith. When he expresses some qualms about gay families, Jira dismisses him out of hand.
One of the major moments of truth in the series is Jira’s decision to call for a student and faculty walkout from the high school in order to protest the inaction of the state’s attorney to file murder charges against the cop after a video of the shooting goes viral (due, you guessed it, to Jira’s downloading it onto the internet).
In a tense and moving scene, many students and faculty take to the streets after being warned by the school administration of the legal and professional consequences. There are placards against police brutality. For a while it is unclear whether the cops will step in when white supremacists attempt to block the protesters, who are joined by Tia. In the end, the cops do their job, but the series exploits, for dramatic effect, the question of their loyalties.
Strangely, even laughably, the premise on which the drama supposedly devolves -- the hiding of a video tape of the shooting by the young cop’s female partner (who happens to be romantically linked to his disabled brother) -- is totally beside the point. After all, the store clerk is still around to testify as to whether or not the doctor was wearing a hood, if that was relevant. No one thinks of that? Also, the video does reveal the image of the original criminal, the would-be robber, who was black and who had a gun and who at first thought to shoot the doctor but then decided to give him a pass after the doctor pleaded for his life, saying that he was married and a father.
That initial robber decided to beat up the clerk who was not African American. (Did the writers intend this as an irony of reverse racism leading to circumstances that created a possible racist shooting of an innocent man?) But now that the face of the initial robber is revealed, shouldn’t there be an effort to bring him to justice and to emphasize that his violent acts played a role in setting into motion the fatal shooting that followed? Isn’t that a lesson in responsibility sorely needed in today’s American society? It would seem that both the educators and the students and their protest failed by not introducing this point into the protest plans.
In his film, The Public, another look at a protest demonstration, Emilio Estevez plays Stuart Goodson, a librarian in the main branch of the Cincinnati Public Library who bonds with homeless individuals who congregate there and who makes the decision to join them in their refusal to leave the facility during a night of dangerous cold. The Public is a thought-provoking film, and its heart is definitely in the right place.
The film gives insight into the homeless individuals as people, who deserve compassion and guidance despite their foibles, faults and levels of functionality. One man’s delusions are utilized well by the librarian to defuse a potentially perilous situation. There are valuable sparks of vision and social betterment in the perspectives and plans of these individuals even when an individual is psychologically unable to follow through.
The film does not require us to agree with the perspectives and even illusions of the characters. One homeless man says, “I don’t have anything that anybody wants or can take. That’s freedom.”
For some reason, though, the film’s depiction of certain female characters makes them appear less sensible than the mentally ill among the homeless. A female black TV reporter (Gabrielle Union) is depicted as particularly insensitive and even stupid and as intent on distorting events, even if they are carefully explained to her. Would reporters really prefer a hostage narrative to a human-interest story? I’ll leave it to African American critics to discuss the treatment of this character.
The women characters assisting the librarian, Stuart, are depicted as naïve and unprepared. Who trusts only one reporter with important video evidence? These women rally outside the library without gloves. Doesn’t that undermine the protestors’ -- and the filmmakers’ -- basic point that it is unbearably cold outside?
Estevez’s librarian utilizes encounters he has had with mentally ill homeless people to ensure the safety of the would-be protesters. This includes a decision at the end to literally strip them of any appearance of force so that the police will not feel compelled to resort to violence. The librarian understands that the protest originates in a crying out of the heart, a cri de coeur, that must be met with a plan for safety.
This film even invokes biblical concerns well, emphasizing Christian scriptures, but without pointing to their roots in the Hebrew Prophets. Jews are mentioned only once, by a delusional elderly woman at the library door who is certain that Jews are keeping her out of libraries, and that anyone who wants her to follow the building’s opening and closing rules is a Jew.
It would seem that with this vignette, Estevez demonstrates that he understands the conundrum at the heart of his own film. For the film is very much a critique of “legalism” and rules even as it acknowledges that without laws circumstances can quickly degenerate into violence and chaos that are more dangerous even than brutal weather.
Speaking about politics, the law-and-order candidate here (Christian Slater) is painted as an out-and-out villain and cad, but the well-meaning librarian rather cruelly hides important personal information from the chief negotiating cop (Alec Baldwin) in the name of rules of confidentiality for library patrons. Is he being “legalistic” as well? Paradoxically, the information that the librarian withheld could have defused the situation much earlier and even more safely -- but without the fanfare ending that the filmmakers wanted.
The attacks on legalism and rules do not ring true because the dynamic of true civil disobedience is to modify rules and laws which, overall, are deemed necessary. This film is all about the protest, but not about the goal of the protest. If that goal is to bring attention to the plight of the homeless who utilize the library as a shelter, then why not open discussion on the function and improvement of shelters? Surely, the libraries are not equipped to become shelters.