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Let’s Be Real

‘Let’s Be Cops,’ cop movies, and the shooting in Ferguson

All movies choose their moment. It’s called a release date. Some moments, however, choose their movies. And it looks as if the moment has chosen Let’s Be Cops. But let’s be clear: No one should choose this movie. It’s a title in search of a plot. It could also have been called Let’s Be Funnier, Let’s Be Directed, Let’s Be 15 to 30 Minutes Shorter, Let’s Be 22 Jump Street. Right now, though, this is our only movie starring law enforcement run amok, at a moment when much of the nation is outraged that actual law enforcement is doing the same.

Last Saturday, police shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old from Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb 20 minutes northwest of St. Louis, just east of the airport. Reports that he was unarmed, that his dead body was left on the hot August street for four hours, and that he was less than a week away from his first day of college have incited days of protests, spiked with outbreaks of looting, rioting, and arrests. Not long after Brown’s death, his mother, Lesley McSpadden, wailed in the streets. His stepfather, Louis Head, found the composure to hold up a cardboard sign. “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son,” it read, with three exclamation points. Police suggested that Brown was a suspect in a robbery and physically confronted the officer who tried to detain him. On Friday, the police released a report identifying him as a suspect in a convenience store incident involving the theft of a box of Swisher Sweets cigars. 

The ensuing six days of unrest have escalated to the point where the police are launching canisters of tear gas, seizing journalists, and shooting protesters with rubber bullets.

Brown’s shooting followed the death last month of Eric Garner, of Staten Island. He died in a struggle with police officers who aimed to arrest him. The New York City medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, which caused police supporters to cry politics. But even before that, Al Sharpton, long missing in sustained on-the-ground political action, hopped down from his perch at MSNBC and into the streets to demand justice. A half-dozen New York congresspeople of color want the Justice Department to open a federal inquiry into whether law-enforcement practices unreasonably target blacks and Latinos. And earlier this week, police in Los Angeles shot and killed Ezell Ford, an unarmed 25-year-old whose family said he was living with “mental problems.” This came after a widely circulated July 1 video in which Daniel L. Andrew, a white California Highway Patrol officer, could be seen straddled atop Marlene Pinnock, a 51-year-old homeless black woman, and punching her with a force that falls somewhere between Cartoon Network and UFC. In Chicago, there’s a separate epidemic of black-on-black shootings that sometimes involves the police.

The president, who has spent his annual vacation on Martha’s Vineyard issuing statements about the assortment of deadly political fires burning around the world, appeared Thursday before the press to address the latest log to hit the pyre. Standing in what appeared to be a school cafeteria, he first offered a detailed update of the recent military operation in Iraq, particularly concerning the current fate of the persecuted Yazidi people. It was surreally sobering to watch a world leader segue from militarized chaos in the Middle East to seemingly militarized chaos in St. Louis without having to adjust his tone. President Obama noted that the Justice Department is on the case, then called for calm and transparency. Looting is inexcusable, he said. Excessive force is, too. He left the stage, having taken no questions and leaving few lines to read between, beyond making one humanitarian crisis seem an echo of another. To the extent that the equation was at all a conscious touch, it was deft.

It’s possible that in the coming days or, God forbid, weeks, the president could have something more specific to say about the freighted decades-long history of political imbalance at work, in this case between a mostly black working-class town and its majority white government and police force. But this is a black man who must choose his words about race, governance, and law enforcement even more carefully than a white politician would. And this is the third summer in which, as president, he would have to do so.

The first time came in 2009, after Sergeant James Crowley, of the Cambridge Police Department, arrested the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates on the porch of Gates’s home. Obama’s curt remarks and the ensuing apologetic “beer summit” among the sergeant, the professor, the president, and the vice-president over mugs of Sam Adams Light, Blue Moon, and Bud Light (Veep sipped alcohol-free Buckler) was an event only The Onion could love. Obama’s second attempt to address race and injustice came just over a year ago, following the hand-wringing after George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the shooting of Trayvon Martin. The speech Obama gave worked, largely because the president seemed to be making different conflations: between himself as both a black, formerly young male and as president of the United States, and between black people who wanted him to say something and white people who needed to hear what he’d say. Sadly, most of what he said then could easily apply right now.

Let’s Be Cops has no comparable outrage on its mind. It has very little mind at all. What it’s got is Damon Wayans Jr. and Jake Johnson as Justin and Ryan, friends and roommates from the Midwest, who are stagnating in Los Angeles, desperate not to be losers. Justin works at a gaming company. Ryan barely works at all. Not far into things, Justin arrives at the apartment after his boss rejects his idea for an all-cops video game in favor of something like firefighters vs. zombies. The box Justin carries home contains a pair of police uniforms, presumably for the presentation. But the roommates are due that evening at a college masquerade ball, for which Ryan mistakenly presumes that costumes are required, and cops are cooler than bed-sheet ghosts, so cops it is.

The party — for Purdue in L.A. — turns out to be just a stuffy soirée clogged with the sort of privileged white zombies the movies typically trot out for depictions of prep schools, Princeton, or almost any American movie about dystopia. Almost none of them seems to know or care about Justin and Ryan or their uniforms, except as an opportunity to ask, “What happened to you?” Ryan used to be a star quarterback; now he’s the out-of-shape coach of little boys who can’t stand him. The two leave the Purdue event dejected, but on the streets, still in costume, strange things happen. Streams of (mostly white) girls run up and kiss them. When Justin and Ryan approach a group of adolescents getting high, the kids turn terrified. Ryan takes a hit from their joint, and it’s as though he’s hit on the head in one of those amnesia movies. He believes he’s a cop.

The gag runs aground quickly. Justin and Ryan get mixed up in an in-progress hardware store robbery and an insulting domestic dispute between black sorority sisters that ends with Justin being slammed through a glass table. Mainly, they try to bring down Ye Olde Ethnic Drug Cartel (Russians this time!) with the help of an actual cop (Rob Riggle), who’s charmed enough by Justin and Ryan’s stabs at competence to say stuff along the lines of “You guys are crazy.” A humorless Andy Garcia is here. So is the goatee that’s wearing him. And the head Russian goon (James D’Arcy)? Justin has just started dating the waitress (Nina Dobrev) at the restaurant that’s the front for his operation. And she’s gonna be so mad when she finds out he’s not a cop!

Director and cowriter Luke Greenfield has lain other eggs, the most rotten of them being the so-jealous-of-her-wedding comedy Something Borrowed. But he also produced the comedy Role Models, which should have marked the beginning of Seann William Scott and Paul Rudd’s domination of the buddy comedy. This movie has neither Role Models’s writing nor its comedic zing. Wayans and Johnson share a television home on New Girl, but they have the movie chemistry of two people whose previous movie would have been about an odd couple who learn to tolerate each other.

There are some random funny bits — featuring Keegan-Michael Key as a dreadlocked, wildly inked cholo, and Natasha Leggero as a stoned sexpot whose apartment the not-cops use to stake out the Russians. The movie just doesn’t take this premise anywhere new or smart enough. It’s an incompetent comedy hidden behind incompetence. The level of visual ugliness warrants a Jackass- or Sacha Baron Cohen–style social-prank approach. A lot of those random funny bits involve people’s reactions to having a police officer in their midst. I’d watch a movie in which Wayans and Johnson tried that same gag on real civilians. It could get ugly, but who knows. After Justin is dropped through that table, the woman who does it looks down at him and says, “That’s what you get.” An unscripted version might also end with someone crashing through furniture, but what you’d get with that movie would seem worth it.

This would just be more flushable summer waste (and, please, don’t let me stop you from jiggling the handle), except Let’s Be Cops somehow doubles as a fantasy that knows its social limits, limits that connect it to the turmoil in Ferguson, and those limits ease on down the road of race. The movie doesn’t want to make a big deal about this, but Justin is black and Ryan white, which is newsworthy in that, despite one guy’s annoyance with the other, they appear to have been friends long enough for racial osmosis to set it. Justin speaks the way black comedians — like Wayans’s father, Damon Sr. — do when they’re impersonating an uptight white guy. Ryan occasionally twists and spikes the cadences of his speech so it sounds comedically black. Justin says “dude” a lot. Ryan likes “bro.” Permeable racial identity becomes a kind of running gag, especially once Key and his impersonation of a loopy Mexican gangsta shows up.

The ethical tension firms up over whether to end the ruse. Justin repeatedly tries, but over and over Ryan stops him or Justin stops himself because the spoils prove hard to resist. But the ecstasy of power never takes over black Justin the way it does white Ryan. The movie’s many assholes are put in their place, and uniformed Ryan is the one who places them there. He throws the lingo around and gets mistaken for a sergeant. Being a cop empowers him. But it stresses Justin out. For one thing, Justin’s name plate says “Chang.” His awareness of other people’s awareness of race keeps barring him from settling into character.

At some point, these two wind up in a precinct, and Justin takes the opportunity to turn himself in. Implausibly, the attempt goes nowhere — well, implausibly, this movie also makes it past the 15th minute. Still, it’s striking how attuned to racial temperature the film is. Two of the little boys on Ryan’s football team — Joey (Joshua Ormond) and Ron (Ron Caldwell) — get a load of Ryan as a cop. Joey’s white, Ron’s black, and until they see the uniform they’re both fed up with Ryan’s immaturity. But it’s Joey who joins Ryan on a stakeout. You’re free to wonder about the point-of-view options. Riggle’s officer has a black partner who bends over and sticks his head in the camera frame. He’s barely heard from again. Ron gets one other scene, but it’s a telling one. Ryan shows up at the field and Ron gives him stink-eye. “He’s a cop,” says Joey, just as if he were Opie Taylor talking about Sheriff Andy. “He ain’t shit,” says Ron, with all of the contempt and wisdom he can muster. It’s astonishing to hear a child so knowingly twist himself around three words.

Who knows what was on anyone’s mind when this movie was being made? But inasmuch as realism exists in a dumb farce, the whispers of race relative to the police resonate. American popular culture harbors the same richly mixed feelings about law enforcement (the heroism, the villainy, the foolishness) as it does about black men (rinse and repeat the previous aside). Occasionally, the mixed feelings meet in the same film, as they do with Sidney Poitier’s three outings as Detective Virgil Tibbs and during a lot of the career of Denzel Washington, whose highlights include explosive stints on both sides of the law.

If you’re a black actor in Hollywood, you’ve probably played a cop. (Men like Yaphet Kotto and, of all people, Ice Cube barely play anything else.) It’s a seemingly frictionless, race-blind job that lets a black guy be the star without having to do a lot of explaining. (What? He’s a cop.) Often he’s playing a detective on a case that involves white corruption and multinational intrigue, not kids walking to their grandmother’s house. In Bad Boys II, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence take on the Ku Klux Klan, but also Russian gangsters, Haitian killing machines, and Cuban drug lords, and Lawrence spends the movie in a stress-induced nervous breakdown. 

Rarely do movies and television show officers of color doing police work in their own communities, grappling with the personal, psychological, and social complexities of having to protect and serve people predisposed to distrust you. Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh came under gang-banger attack in Lethal Weapon 3, but the movie had bigger, whiter fish to fry. A movie like Training Day goes the extra mile, having Washington turn into a monster, who, by his own queasy admission, is bigger than King Kong.

There are far more attempts to understand police on television and in the movies than there are attempts to empathize with black men, whether or not those men happen to be cops. It’s worth noting that the theme song of TV’s longest-running glorification of a particular style of law enforcement, Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys,” has been infectiously misinterpreted as referring to the enforcers themselves. The enduring watchability of Cops, which has been on television for a quarter of a century, comes from the conflated appeal of power, stupidity, and justice, nearly always at the expense of the poor, often against black men and Latinos. But it’s also a show you watch to see where the line is and whether or how often the officers have crossed it.

Once in a blue moon, you get a film that leaves the necessary self-policing zone of blaxploitation, which was, in part, devoted to black boots in black populations; you get a movie like Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield, in which a black officer in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department stops and thinks about what it means to be part of a force going out of its way to persecute black men. The Wire committed itself to a quiet investigation of black law enforcement working in black neighborhoods. But hip-hop has gone for sophisticated, if scandalous, skepticism in the matter. There’s the conspiratorial narrative in KRS-One’s rat-smelling “Black Cop,” which goes as far as to assert that black police officers are the sell-out pawns of a white police force. Police work, hard as it is, is a good job. But neither the guilt nor the satisfaction is what you feel from Damon Wayans Jr. In Let’s Be Cops, there’s an allergic reaction to even pretending to understand what it takes to be a cop. Police Shooting Missouri

On Friday morning, the identity of the officer who shot Michael Brown was disclosed as Darren Wilson, after a week of silence. Calls for the official release of the officer’s name were near the heart of the protests. The police chief’s persistent refusal to do so until today further infuriated residents. But the protection of the officer’s identity seems apt for clannish communities. Law enforcement is similarly aggravated by “stop snitching” campaigns in black neighborhoods.

Until this point in the turmoil, the absence of the crucial second face in the incident seemed to heighten the distance between police and the people they serve. It grants them both an anonymity and autonomy that matches the bizarre transformation, in Ferguson and elsewhere, of police into troops. The riot gear turns 2014 into a dot on a Jim Crow–era timeline. Since the officer’s name wasn’t made public more immediately, it should have seemed urgent for the police to lose the riot attire and take steps to minimize distrust, to dispel the contagious assumption that silence equates racism.

Meanwhile, there is a new face of law enforcement on the scene. Late yesterday afternoon, Missouri’s governor, Jay Nixon, put the highway patrol in command of policing in Ferguson. The captain in charge is Ron Johnson, a bald, goateed black man and Ferguson native, who has taken the disarming step of walking among the protesters. Reports from the scene, which all week garnered comparisons to events in Gaza and northern Iraq, have observed a change in the emotional weather. A heat wave has broken. The question, of course, is what happens to community-cop relations once Captain Johnson and his officers exit.

Nonetheless, whenever I see masked and helmeted police in photographs and movies or on the street going after protesters, I wonder, as I did during a battle royal between peasants and cops in the summer’s class-war sleeper Snowpiercer: “Who are these hidden people?” It crosses my mind anytime I see a helmet swing a nightstick at a skull. The movies, especially dystopic science fiction, have gotten really good at siccing human drones on human beings or just showcasing warfare as stacks and stacks of computer-generated menace. Ferguson demonstrates how good life has gotten at turning into science fiction. That collapse of the real and the morally unreal took place in last summer’s Fruitvale Station, which dramatized the 2009 shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant on an Oakland train platform. It opened the weekend before the president made his remarks about Trayvon Martin and race, and bears a subdued kernel of resemblance to the events happening now in Ferguson.

What is so affecting isn’t just that 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed when he was barely a man. It’s other things as well. One was how many reports of the incident that first day mentioned that he was about to start college. That’s a rite that’s universally emotional. But for a black male from a poor family, the first day of college is a freighted day that usually requires the sacrifice of more than one person. Black people know the odds of getting to and graduating from college, and that they’re low. That Brown seemed to be on the right path compounded the parental, local, and national outrage over his being wiped from it.

Another is the effort to combat the momentary attempt to present Brown as a kind of thug. The galvanizing garment after Martin’s death in 2012 was the hoodie. George Zimmerman said it corroborated his suspicion of Martin. It remains a loaded aspect of black urban style. One of the resonant images in the wake of Martin’s death was of the Miami Heat gathered with the heads of its players lowered, their faces obscured by hoods. This week 300 members of the student body at Howard University might have topped that when they gathered for a photo in which they held up their hands in a “don’t shoot” pose.

When a photo circulating of Brown flashing a sideways peace sign was loosely (and apparently erroneously) interpreted as a gang symbol, young black Americans went to Twitter and pushed back, posting compare-contrast, split-screen photos of themselves, under the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. In the image on the left, the subjects are, say, at a firing range or flashing an approximation of a gang sign. In the image on the right, they’re holding a saxophone, a baby, or a cat. The project was not unlike something out of the conceptual photography of Lorna Simpson or Glenn Ligon’s playful, solemn journeys through black culture and identity. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown was meant to correct and curb demeaning journalistic presumptuousness and reroute the narrative of Brown’s victimhood. But occasionally, in a moment like this, art happens. This was art.

The intent of those photos crossed my mind as clean-cut Justin gets talked into infiltrating a gangster event while made up to look exactly like the drug dealer that Keegan-Michael Key plays. Justin looks miserable in that costume, too. But it was interesting to think about which photo of him news organizations would run were he to die on the job that he was pretending to have.

This summer happens to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s magnum opus Do the Right Thing. Radio is the big Brooklyn lug with the flattop haircut who hauls around a boom box that blasts only one song (“Fight the Power”) all over the movie’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. He gets on the nerves of Sal, the middle-aged Italian American who owns the pizzeria, and perplexes the three older black guys who sit outside and shoot the shit. The Korean couple who own the bodega find him obnoxious (he’s not not). Even the teenagers find Radio strange. On his right hand is a four-fingered ring that spells “love.” The ring on the left hand spells “hate.” It’s basically the mirrored dichotomy of #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Radio steps up to the camera and boxes his way through an explanatory monologue.

The movie’s racial pot has been simmering the entire film. After Sal and the neighborhood activist Buggin’ Out scream at each other, Sal smashes Radio’s radio, the pot boils over, and the moral cubism of all the movie’s canted angles threatens to send all of the characters sliding into a racial abyss. Radio lunges at Sal and pulls him from behind his counter, onto the floor and eventually outside, where he chokes Sal until three white police officers pull him off and restrain him by securing a nightstick against his neck. The shot is framed just wide enough so that you can see the cops and Radio all struggling until the young black man with the flattop and finger rings ceases to struggle. There’s a cutaway to his sneakers, which have been wriggling off the ground the entire altercation. One of the cops pleads for the officer with the nightstick to loosen his grip. But it’s too late. Radio’s breathing sputters, then stops. He falls to the street, his lifeless face in background, his felled right hand at the center bottom of the screen: Love.

This fictional death, the events that led up to it, and the riot that ensued were devastating in 1989, the same year that introduced Cops. That they’ve continued to find real-world corollaries in the decades since defies comprehension. Ferguson ought to be a freak occurrence at this point. But the unrest there is no such thing. It’s yet another dispatch from the abyss. 

Filed Under: Movies, Michael Brown, Ferguson, shooting, police, let\'s be cops

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris