Twelve years after the iPhone first began putting a video camera in the pocket of the average American and six years after the founding of the official Black Lives Matter organization, there’s an uncomfortable understanding in this year’s recent slate of crime thrillers that we fear the ones who we’ve hired to patrol our streets. When asked in an interview if he felt conflicted about portraying a black police officer in 21 Bridges, Chadwick Boseman said it required a balanced approach: As someone with police officers in his own family, he knew his portrayal needed to be nuanced, but as a black man in America, he said he’d been stopped for basically no reason just a couple weeks prior to the interview.
Recent movies like Black and Blue, 21 Bridges and Queen & Slim have centered their plots around police violence in a time when it’s been dragged into the light by years of sustained protest and activism. But while they show sense in naming the problem, what they mostly lack is any boldness in framing the problem realistically and saying what we should do about it.
Black and Blue puts Alicia West (Naomie Harris) in the deep end as a rookie cop in New Orleans, with plenty of reminders that Katrina wrecked the place and it’s never recovered. “Nature can be a bitch sometimes,” muses one of her colleagues, when it’s clear it took more than just nature to turn the place into a hopeless slum. When she witnesses other police murder a drug dealer to cover up their own crookedness, her body camera’s footage becomes the hottest MacGuffin in the city. With the local drug kingpin convinced she’s murdered his nephew and betrayed by every last one of her colleagues, Harris turns to Tyrese Gibson’s sympathetic liquor store owner for help. We’re introduced to him mere moments before police barge into his store after his own distress call, immediately treating him as if he’s a burglar and showing absolutely zero remorse after they’ve put a gun on him and scared him witless.
After prolonged chases and betrayals, Harris and Gibson manage to survive long enough for the footage to be uploaded and instantaneously make it to the police chief’s inbox. (It must have been flagged as urgent in Outlook because the chief opens it right away and immediately has the crooked police neutralized.)
Through it all, Harris is met multiple times with other characters’ cynicism about why she even bothers fighting so hard when she could just turn the other way and be fine. Murder’s murder, she insists.
The movie opens with Harris’ character in civilian garb, violently stopped by her fellow officers because she’s a black woman in an affluent neighborhood. It acknowledges that tension, but it also boils down its ultimate conflict to a criminal conspiracy whose villains you can ultimately just shoot. The hot-head officer who hassled Gibson, though, gets one good scare and then is never heard from again.
A recent news investigation in Chicago conducted over the past year showed that Chicago police have a verifiably raided the wrong damn houses, destroying property and terrorizing children even after they’ve realized that, whoops, they were given the wrong address. So it’s important that 21 Bridges establishes that NYPD detective Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) is ready to step in just at the right time to stop his fellow officers from roughing up two people who have next to nothing to do with his investigation after they’re woken up from sleep and handcuffed in their own home.
That’s perhaps the most eyebrow-raising moment in the movie, which in its first five minutes establishes Boseman as some sort of destined warrior cop, crying as he buries his father (slain in the line of duty). As soon as the movie skips ahead, we see him remorselessly glare down an internal affairs board that points out he’s killed eight people over the course of his career.
He’s justified in his manhunt, though: He fights tooth and nail to bring his suspects in alive when a cocaine robbery gone wrong ends in the two triggermen slaughtering eight police officers and immediately putting the entire island of Manhattan into lockdown. The slain officers’ superior (J.K. Simmons) is adamant that the guys just die. It turns out, as we know it must, that the reason he wants this is because the robbers inadvertently stumbled upon a vast criminal conspiracy among the police narcotics unit.
The movie treats Boseman’s fellow police as nearly as great a danger to his mission as the criminals. It frames them as willing to plant evidence, kill inconvenient witnesses, and gun down unarmed people. Again, though, it’s in service to a criminal conspiracy—a grand plot in a movie rather than any of the various reasons police can and have used violence on unarmed citizens with no good justification.
It was 2015, and I heard somebody utter “I just think all lives matter!” mere days after my day job duties required me to compose a letter on behalf of elected officials demanding answers in the case of a Black woman who died in police custody in Texas after what should have been a routine traffic stop. (It was ruled a suicide.) Four years later (and a few months after newly released cell phone footage has prompted calls for a new investigation in that same death, incidentally), I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard it in person.
The argument that a black woman is at greater risk of police violence at a routine traffic stop is so normalized that it forms the premise of Queen & Slim’s cold open: What happens if the tables are turned, and a seemingly random act of unjustified police violence ends with the young couple killing the officer and going on the lam? From there, the movie becomes a mournful, beautifully shot love story with Oscar-worthy performances from its leads, Daniel Kaluuya and newcomer to the silver screen Jodie Turner-Smith.
The framing of the cold-fish Tinder date that brings the two leads together and the unsettling plausibility of the danger they find themselves in during what should be a routine traffic stop give some immediacy to a story that ultimately feels like a fairy tale or epic poem. It’s hard to tell whether Queen & Slim wants to provoke debate or to be another mythical American road movie like Easy Rider.
At one point, the couple shares a romantic moment, juxtaposed with scenes of a protest-turned-riot that’s arisen from stories of their exploits. It’s supposed to mark their love as doomed and star-cross’d, to foreshadow the ending that we all know, right from the first scene, is coming. It has precious little to say about the people protesting in the street, and nothing of any depth to say about the police they’re angry at.
Each of these movies, even the exceptional and lyrical Queen & Slim, feels as if it’s consciously walking an extremely thin line. Every one of them acknowledges that a Black man feels at risk of death every time he’s near an armed officer. Every one of them acknowledges that yes, you have reason to distrust the men and women whose job it is to protect you. Not a one of them want to say what we should do about the actual violent or untrustworthy police who have killed unarmed and innocent people. The thrillers like 21 Bridges and Black and Blue prefer instead to tie everything to grand, clear-cut criminal conspiracies, which are not the sorts of police conduct our friends and neighbors are afraid of.
“Let the good cops shoot the bad” is not an answer in that case, nor is living with tragic endings like Queen & Slim’s conclusion. I don’t know what the answer is either, when we’re daily forced to face up to the fact that too many Americans justifiably do not trust their community police not to kill them and walk.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies.