On Sunday night, John Oliver said his HBO show Last Week Tonight would be devoted to one topic: “You probably know what, and you probably know why.”
Among other remarks, in a scathing, long monologue, he said, “If police are trying to convince the public they’re not guilty of displaying excessive force, it’s probably not a good idea to repeatedly display excessive force on national television."
Excessive force isn’t, of course, the half of it. As we enter the third week of protests against anti-Black racism and police violence, here are three must-see productions to enlighten you.
When 16 Shots (Crave) was first released last year on Showtime (and in a few theatres), the Hollywood Reporter review concluded with this: “It is a worthy addition to what has sadly become a proliferating documentary subgenre.” The subgenre is police brutality against Black people and the systemic support for their actions.
16 Shots feels like a thriller in part because the story unfolds crisply with a few shocking twists. It also feels remarkably familiar – the fatal police shooting of a Black suspect turns into a very twisted story filled with lies. The bedrock story is simple enough. In October, 2014, police in Chicago get reports of a man trying to break into cars and that he might have a knife. They head to the scene and find 17-year-old Laquan McDonald walking down the street. They report later that he wielded a knife at an officer and was shot dead. Case closed, in the official version.
A lawyer hired by the victim’s family figures the shooting took place near a Burger King and asks for their security footage. He’s taken aback when told police had seized the footage without a court order or subpoena. Next, a reporter gets a tip that dashcam footage exists, and it’s shocking. He gets the autopsy report. It reveals McDonald was shot 16 times and it appears he was on the ground when all the shots hit him. Then witnesses are found. They confirm they saw McDonald on the ground being shot over and over. What they told police is exactly that, but the police say that account doesn’t match video footage and say, “It’s not good to lie.”
A significant twist is the release of footage by accident, it seems. Such is the multilayered bureaucracy of the Chicago PD that one department was confused about a request and released footage without realizing where it was going. There are two things about the case that seem uncannily familiar. First, yes, McDonald had drugs in his system and was carrying a knife. And, the officer who shot him 16 times, Jason Van Dyke, had 20 misconduct allegations recorded against him, but had not been disciplined once. 16 Shots was nominated for a Peabody Award.
When They See Us (Netflix) was released last year and I called it “the most disturbing drama of the year.” It’s about what happened after the rape and attempted murder of a young woman who was jogging in Central Park in New York one April night in 1989. The five boys charged with the attack on her are the focus here; how they were coerced into confessions, threatened and intimidated.
The four-part miniseries is superbly made and startling in its anger and invective. That anger is aimed with blistering intensity, not just at a justice system that allowed a miscarriage of justice, but at all of American society. The point of the title is that nobody actually saw the boys, who became known as the Central Park Five, as who they were. They saw Black youths and wanted to convict them.
13th (Netflix) is a full-length documentary made by Ava DuVernay, who also made When They See Us. Released in the summer of 2016, it’s a visceral, indignant look at American history through one issue: the prison system. The title refers to the 13th Amendment, which officially abolished slavery in 1865, “except as a punishment for crime.”
The doc argues forcefully that this was a loophole to incarcerate Black men on minor charges, label them criminals and use them as labour. Skipping from the late 19th century, decade by decade, the doc links the amendment to the war on drugs, the Central Park Five, Jim Crow laws, the use of Willie Horton in political ads, police shootings, mandatory minimum sentences and the ever-expanding prison system. 13th is like one powerful, exasperated speech, filled with facts, figures and evidence to support its main and frightening thesis.
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