I think I’m a resident of the Capitol

The first time I saw an ad in the subway for the movie Mockingjay, my first thought was, “oooh… should I put that date in my calendar?”

It’s an unusual thought for me about a movie opening. I don’t make it to the movie theater that often, but I LOVED the Hunger Games books. The movies based on the first two books in the series, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, are the only movies I’ve seen on opening day since An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.

Like many great pieces of fiction, The Hunger Games story is compelling because it’s well written enough that as the reader, I want to insert myself into the story.

Movies News Prison and Criminal Justice

Yes, this is like Minority Report, but not like you think

How awful to use the phrase, “cannibal cop” but if you’re in NYC, odds are you know what I’m talking about: Gilberto Valle, convicted this week for conspiracy to commit kidnapping. I can’t comment on any of the specifics of the case, although it is true that the phrase “ugly thoughts” doesn’t begin to describe how repulsive his actions were prior to his arrest, and he is not denying his actions as part of his legal defense.

My big complaint about most of the mature public dialog (setting aside all the lurid news coverage that is just for shock value) is that it’s still mired in a false dichotomy. The two presumed choices are:

1- He should be punished harshly (in this case, a single conviction can possibly lead to a life sentence in prison) because what he was doing is really messed up, or

2- Whether there should be no consequence at all for starting to possibly lay the groundwork for a horrific set of crimes because he hadn’t yet actually tortured and killed anyone.

Let’s be honest: #2 is simultaneously weak and horrifying when you factor in any of the real-life women on his list. Option #2 mostly makes sense to people who are not the target of someone’s hateful planning, and by the way, pretty much cedes the ground that we should never try to prevent a crime. And that’s where the problem comes up: option #2 is pretty repellant, so it suddenly makes option #1 seem like the only real option. Except then we’re punishing people for horrible things they haven’t actually done.

There’s a similar dichotomy presented in the 2002 movie “Minority Report” (inspired by the Philip K Dick short story of the same name, but I didn’t read the short story). I loved that movie (so did Roger Ebert). In the movie, cops in the future arrest people for murders they haven’t yet committed, and so that produces the central dilemma: is it ethical to punish people for things they haven’t actually done? But murder is bad, and if we can prevent a murder, we should, so it seems like the cops should do this… and there are many futuristic gadgets as well to make it a great movie adventure.

But the movie presents the same damaging falsehood: that even if we can prevent crimes, somebody has to pay. And in the case of a conspiracy crime or Minority Report’s pre-crime, a harsh punishment is justified because the crime would’ve been horrible. In the movie, people are intercepted as they are about to commit murders, then placed in a drugged stasis an underground prison where they relive the murders in their minds in perpetuity (in the movie it’s called being “haloed”). So the movie plot revolves around ending the program that prevents murder, because these harsh punishments make no sense if a person could possibly not commit the crime. Which is true — a harsh punishment doesn’t make sense if a person hasn’t actually committed a crime.

But the problem is what we’re ignoring here, a different choice:

3 – We have to intervene to prevent crime, to remove someone from the situation, and we have to do so in a way where no one, including the perpetrator, gets hurt.

There could be an effective intervention that prevents the crime but isn’t based on a harsh punishment or a long prison sentence. There’s an article on Slate that comes close to arguing that Valle may actually need mental health treatment, but most discussions about the Valle case don’t even mention that possibility.

Because yes, something should happen when someone — especially a police officer — spends their spare time talking about torturing and killing his wife and other women he knows. (For starters, she should be able to get a divorce if she wants one.) He should not have a job where he is armed and has the right to stop and detain people. He should get help — non-judgmental, effective help that is non-optional for him. He may need monitoring for an extended period of time, and help finding the right job. It’s possible that some of this will be unpleasant and uncomfortable for him. But it doesn’t have to be deliberately punitive.

But in real life, though, there is little talk of this third option. Because this case is handled by our criminal justice system, prosecutors respond as they generally do: with a prosecution focused on getting as long of a prison sentence as possible. And then we wind up talking about civil liberties and “was this really just a case of someone paying a high price for having bad thoughts?”

Really, we should be talking about how to prevent violence against women in general, these women in particular, what to do about online communities where people may be conspiring to murder women, and how to respond effectively to the threat of violence in a family with something other than a prison sentence.

As long as the choice is between something and nothing as a response to the threat of violence, many reasonable people will favor doing something. But it should be something that is still fair and just to all involved, not just the empty victory of someone spending life in prison.

The image is a still from the 2002 film, Minority Report.

Movies Prison and Criminal Justice

What was really missing from the movie “Lincoln”

Like many people, I found the movie Lincoln absorbing. And, overall, there were two glaring omissions that pained me.

First off, yes, I was transported by the great performances by the lead actors, and a bunch of the supporting cast as well (I especially liked Tommy Lee Jones as the white abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens).

I would have been even more absorbed if the two great African-American actresses in the supporting cast (S. Epatha Merkerson and Gloria Reuben) could’ve gotten more than a handful of lines between them. Saving up the revelation of the existence of Lydia Hamilton Smith was a bit insulting to me. Her character is less than a footnote to the whole story.

This movie can be placed squarely in the category of “movies about how white people ended slavery while Black folks looked on.” The gratuitous opening dialogue between Lincoln and two African-American soldiers aside, there is little in the film showing even a Black face, much less the leadership of anyone other than white people in the political and social changes that propelled the 13th Amendment forward.

The other omission is how the 13th Amendment brought us one of the greatest problems of our era: our country’s role as the biggest jailer the world has ever seen. Although on the surface the 13th Amendment appeared to eliminate slavery from the U.S. Constitution, many modern-day activists have noted that it wrote slavery into the Constitution:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (emphasis added)

Once it became clear that convicting individuals of a crime would offer an opportunity to treat people like slaves, all sorts of laws came into existence that could be applied to people based on the discretion of police and prosectors. From the Black Codes to Jim Crow to our modern War on Drugs (a war that criminalizes Black and Latino drug users out of the proportion to the rates that Black and Latino people are addicted to drugs), we’ve seen a full court press of this strategy for over 100 years.

This push to “convict people of crimes” so that we can maintain a conviction-based caste system has horrible effects on Black and Brown communities in this country. The 13th Amendment didn’t just “end” slavery — it also laid the groundwork for where we are now.

The 13th Amendment is a critical part of American experience, and I’m glad that people with great cultural influence made a movie about it. But from my vantage point, these omissions are glaring. Since Tony Kushner has already made clear he’s indifferent to criticism about his inaccurate depiction of the roll vote for the 13th Amendment, I think it’s unlikely he will ever move to address these omissions from the story, or craft a more complex, less “white” story about how that moment in history has brought us to the moment we are in today.

If you happen to know a better film about the 13th Amendment, let me know so I can go see it.

Movies News

A Sad Day for this Trekkie

I finally went and saw the new Star Trek movie, and enjoyed it…  and that’s the problem. Great visuals, cool gadgets, beautiful faces, a driving plot that kept my eyes riveted to the screen… but Gene Roddenberry’s gift for holding out a hopeful vision of the future? Gone, baby. And two of the most important topics taken up in the Star Trek canon,  racism and genocide, get short-shrift in this cupcake of a movie (**beware for spoilers**)

The original series broke ground on the topic of race, which I was blissfully unaware of as I sat next to my big brother watching the series in the 1970s. Gene Roddenberry’s “western in space” balanced the familiar and the unfamiliar in just the right mix for this little girl.

The familiar:  ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ guns, a ship run like a naval vessel (except with photon torpedos!), the red-shirt crewman to let us know danger was lurking (by dying in the first two minutes after you see them).

The unfamiliar: a multiracial bridge crew that included a Russian (we were fervent anti-communists in my family, so this was a big deal) and a guy with pointy ears from some other race. A different race, not as in, from Asia or Africa, but a completely different race! This Spock guy could knock you unconscious by pinching you, he had a mind like a computer… and he could read your mind if he touched you!

Star Trek made certain that Spock was fascinating, which brought us kids back to what is true but was obscured by racism in our everyday lives: that people different from us can be interesting to get to know.

In Spock, Star Trek gave us lessons about racism without talking about racism.  The multiracial bridge crew taught us that in the future, racism as we know it now will be a relic: there was a black woman on TV who was not a maid.  Star Trek offered us more than the familiar when it came to race.

When Roddenberry ‘rebooted’ the series in 1987, it was with the “Next Generation” (STNG to us Trekkies), and it too, found a way to balance the familiar and unfamiliar. A Klingon was now on the bridge crew, to re-invoke the theme that enemies eventually become allies. Given how race had changed, STNG now had multiple Black recurring characters.

STNG was explicit in its view that we would learn to get along, or perish. It offered mild rebukes to the original series, with more profound roles for women (up to a point), and a captain who preferred to talk before firing the photon torpedos. STNG mirrored the timing of my own life, as I left home in 1987 and left behind some of the conservative ideas I had about war, peace, and cooperation. I was an adult just in time to appreciate that I was watching a moral tale with cool special effects.

STNG needed scarier villains, and tougher topics to take on, and wound up with the genocidal Borg, who brought us fear, homicidal nano-probes and mass destruction for many seasons. Then came the episode, “I, Borg” in which the Enterprise has an opportunity to destroy the entire Borg race, and are forced to acknowledge that they would, in turn, be committing genocide. You can try watching just that episode, and maybe you’ll get it, but some of it would be lost on you if you haven’t seen all the evil that the Borg do. They’re the enemy! Then comes a moment when we get to know a single Borg, and our certainty about what is the right thing to do dissolves.

The Star Trek franchise, at moments like that, is science fiction at its best: offering just enough of the familiar for us feel like we know what we would do. Then the perspective shifts just enough to force us to question what we think and believe and eliminates the easy answers we thought we had.

But the 2009 film has rebooted by jettisoning Star Trek’s chance to take on anything tough. It takes all the hard-earned prestige of the series and spends it all on pretty effects and cool outfits (excuse me, extraordinary effects and outstanding outfits). Forget tough looks at race or genocide.  Okay, sure at first Spock and Kirk don’t get along, and by the end of the film, they do. But it’s a personality conflict, and not even a particularly deep one. If this were an episode of “Moonlighting” I would expect more tension then the whole, “you cheated on my test” conflict they begin with.

There is the same multiracial bridge crew that was radical in the 60s, but now is a cultural status quo. There is no conversation about race that is even vaguely unfamiliar.

Genocide comes up, but hardly as a moral issue. 6 billion Vulcans are killed by a Romulan villain, but there is only screentime for Spock’s immediate family. Genocide is a prop in this movie, and the Vulcan people have become the infamous “red-shirt” characters from the original series, who die to let us know that someone who really counts is at-risk (in this case, Earth).

And what should happen after this genocide? “Let’s go get that m—-f—r” guides the day.  As the viewer, we get to wallow in our righteous anger at the villains, and that’s  about it.

This movie is like a light and fluffy cupcake topped with two inches of buttercream frosting. I savored details like the new bridge design, the nuanced acting, and those cool parachutes. I am sure I will see it again, and enjoy it.

But some part of me feels like I’ve let Gene Roddenberry down, for loving this movie’s bling instead of being loyal to the heart of what he did for so long: teach me to question myself if I want to become something new and better.

As one person who has been changed by Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, I can’t help but feel like it’s a sad day when I enjoy a Star Trek movie where the future is pretty much like the present, but with better effects.