This is a guest post by Donna Jay. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect mine, although they’re obviously sympatico enough for me to post this piece. Content note: racism, racist violence and murder. -GC
I fulfilled my duty as a white-appearing middle-aged liberal woman. I went to see the latest Michael Moore movie, Where To Invade Next? I had heard mixed reviews but, fitting the core demographic for his films, I headed down to the local Alamo Drafthouse to catch an afternoon showing. It focuses on Michael traveling Europe finding ideas he would like to bring back to America – better prison systems, free higher education, free medical care, etc. Some have described it as watching a recent college graduate go to Europe for the first time and return with the belief “everything is better there – America sucks.”
Starting off the movie Moore shows the multitude of problems in America through a series of film clips. How best to set up the premise and show why these European ideas would be better for America. Moore relies on humor to get his message across. In his films, he may lay out the facts; however, he wants people to laugh along the way, making social commentary more palatable through comedy.
In the series of America-in-ruin clips he included the video of the death of Eric Garner. We were shown the video of multiple police officers standing around Eric on the ground. We’ve all seen it. Collectively, we watched a snuff film. The officers hold their stance, glaring at the people around them, almost challenging them to make a move. Try to help Eric, you will be on the ground next to him. Eric repeats, again and again, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I. Can’t. Breathe.” The movie cuts to a different clip before we see Eric die, but we know what the end result is. They do not show his final breath. But we know this man lost his life because he was poor and black and selling single cigarettes to other people who are poor and black and cannot afford a pack of cigarettes, his death the result of systemic racism empowering a police force that saw no reason to treat him as human. A minor crime was turned into a death sentence. He was black and poor so he must be a dangerous criminal. His life was viewed as having no value. His pleas for help were meaningless to the officers because he did not matter to them. He could not breathe and no one who could or should have helped him cared. So he died on a street surrounded by people who were sworn to protect him. He died within minutes of when the footage shown was filmed.
Moore did not expect us to laugh specifically at this scene. It was a short clip in a series of clips, a rapid fire series of issues in the US. But we were expected for find some humor in the seemingly out of control state of things in the US. With the music and the voiceover, we were supposed to find absurd humor in this series of events. And Eric Garner was in that mix, dying on a sidewalk.
And people laughed.
I found myself wondering, have we really moved away from the days of lynching for public entertainment? This was a lynching of sorts. Eric died unable to breathe. A group of men decided his life was valueless and tossed it away. As they stood around him, ignoring his desperate cries for help, they made it clear that they held power over him and everyone like him. This act served as a threat to an entire community. And now his death was part of the entertainment. Bring the kids, get some popcorn and watch a man die.
By including this clip, his life and his death was again devalued only this time it wasn’t just done by those who allowed this to happen, those who perpetrated this crime or the people who defended the officers’ actions. Eric Garner became part of the joke. The filmmaker, in using this clip, determined that Eric’s death, while tragic, was something that could be made light of.
By including this video in a film that claims to show problems in American society but is not addressing racial inequality and holding this event up as murder, are we not accepting the ideals that led to his death? He is not valued, not valuable, poor, black, useless, criminal, a drain on society, dangerous, not human. His death is the set up for a joke, a throwaway bit in a long montage. The only problem is Eric Garner and so many people like him are not around to laugh.
The movie did not address the issues of police brutality, racial profiling or the great disparity in treatment by police based on the perceived race of the person. Eric’s death had no relation to the ultimate solutions being put forth. This video was not shown because a way to avoid such deaths was being proposed. It was the set up for a punch line that did not match, but it was still shown. So when do we call this out? When do we say enough? If we include this video in a movie that is not addressing this horror, are we not complicit in his death? If we are going to show a man’s death it needs to be for a better purpose than setting up the next laugh. Eric Garner’s family and friends deserve better. A community traumatized by his death deserves better. Eric deserved better.
Donna Jay is a bi-racial, queer, feminist living in San Francisco, CA, who can easily masquerade as a middle-class, middle-aged, straight, white woman when necessary, a skill honed by working in technical consulting for too many years. According to the church, she is a confirmed Roman Catholic (They are so slow to excommunicate these days. They lost the taste for it with the end of public stoning). However, she cannot remember a time when she actually believed in a deity. She recently became a Humanist Celebrant to be help foster community through celebrations and ceremonies.
She is currently accompanied in life by two formally furred felines, Badger and Skinny Pete. Donna enjoys writing about atheism, fundamentalism, feminism, social issues and reality TV. The cats enjoy sitting on her when she writes but get mighty annoyed when the horrible off key singing starts on the fundamentalist church programs she follows.
Image of Philips DP70 (AAII) at the Egyptian Theatre, Hollywood, afternoon of March 12, 2014, by Leo Enticknap, via Wikimedia Commons.