Aired on June 7, 2020 (Episode #803)
Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema discussed films that may help us understand the protests and street violence that followed the death of African American citizen George Floyd and the actions of the Minneapolis Police Department. The program primarily examined movies about African American life in general and Black Lives Matter stories in particular. But we cannot talk about this issue without also discussing the portrayal of law enforcement in cinema.
Law enforcement characters have long been a fixture of the silver screen and they are especially ubiquitous on television which is full of police procedural dramas and true crime documentaries. It’s no wonder why. Crime and punishment make for good stories. But the portrayal of law enforcement over the last half a century follows a troubling trajectory that aligns with developments in real life policing.
The 1970s saw the start of two distinct and yet overlapping film genres. The first was the renegade cop, best exemplified by 1971’s Dirty Harry. In this film, Clint Eastwood was cast as a police detective who played by his own rules and who was just as apt to execute criminals as he was to arrest them. The other genre was the vigilante picture, of which 1974’s Death Wish was prototypical. Death Wish was the story of a mild mannered architect, played by Charles Bronson, whose wife and daughter were assaulted by muggers. The architect trolls the streets and kills criminals with a handgun.
Dirty Harry and the original Death Wish were terrifically entertaining box office successes but they were also reactions to the social conditions of the time. In the 1970s, violent crime in major cities had spiked and serial killers became a pop cultural fascination. It was also a time of change for criminal law. The 1966 Supreme Court case Miranda v Arizona had changed the rules for confessions and following that case police officers were obligated to inform suspects of their legal rights once they had been put under arrest. The Miranda decision was quite controversial at the time and detractors claimed that the legal system was tying law enforcement’s hands and taking the side of criminals over the victims. Dirty Harry shared that sentiment. Eastwood’s character was a hard edged, old school cop who did not believe in rights for criminals.
Characters like Dirty Harry were not altogether original. They were the urban version of similar heroes found in westerns. That genre had been quite popular throughout the 1950s and early 60s with tales of outlaw heroes who saved settlers from bandits or Native Americans. The west, as depicted in these films and television shows, was a savage and lawless place that was made livable by rugged, blue collar individualists with a sidearm. When the popularity of westerns faded this character type was transplanted from the frontier to the urban streets.
Vigilante and renegade cop films continued in the 1980s. However, the action genre went through a change in the Ronald Reagan era. Actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris dominated the box office and the dark tone and credible scale of Dirty Harry and the original Death Wish were abandoned. That’s most obvious in the later sequels to those films which turned up the body counts and exaggerated the set pieces. In Death Wish 3, Bronson’s character wipes out an army of gang members almost single handedly.
This was again reflective of American society at the time. 1980’s politics were defined by tough-on-crime measures alongside the evisceration of social services. These actions did little to actually curb violent crime rates which continued to climb until the mid-1990s but tough-on-crime measures were in vogue. The cinematic images of white action heroes killing frequently non-white street criminals and terrorists were probably a relief to audiences bombarded with daily news reports of homicides and muggings.
The cop films of the 1980s overlapped with the super soldier action films of the time. Titles like Commando, The Delta Force, and the Rambo sequels were about elite warriors or teams of soldiers who are let loose on a foreign enemy and wipe them out in a blaze of superior firepower. The super soldier also frequently disobeys the orders of bureaucrats in order to complete the mission. The scale is bigger but the ethos of these super soldier films is essentially the same as the renegade cop movies; the independent and unrestrained agent is the only one who can save the day.
In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s the police genre went through another transformation. Following the success of 1987’s Lethal Weapon, the contemporary buddy cop formula was born and led to a whole library of titles like Tango & Cash and Rush Hour and Bad Boys. The buddy cop film almost invariably paired a straitlaced police officer with a wild card partner and together they solve a big case, usually with the straight cop giving in and breaking protocol, which usually meant shooting first and asking questions later. The formula continues today with movies like The Heat and Ride Along and 2 Guns.
The buddy cop films took the genre in a slightly different direction. The films of the 1970s and early 80s had been dark and humorless with the heroes sometimes as cold and sadistic as the villains. The buddy cop movies lightened the tone but with a caveat. The heroes still beat confessions out of suspects, threatened informants, and shot criminals with impunity but the action was punctuated with a joke. Especially important, the buddy cop films continued and deepened the concept that justice was not possible within the system. For these heroes, due process and civil rights were for wimps, at best, or, at worst, an obstruction of justice. But the use of force was accompanied by a laugh which made it seem okay.
More recent cop films reflect the militarization of the police. A good example of that is Bad Boys II. In this film two narcotics officers (Will Smith and Martin Lawrence) bungle their way into a DEA investigation and when a drug lord absconds to Cuba with a hostage, the detectives are assigned to the rescue team alongside CIA agents and elite soldiers. A more recent film displaying a similar ethos is 2018’s Den of Thieves in which a police squad operates somewhere between an antiterrorism unit and a street gang. The subtext of Bad Boys II and Den of Thieves is clear. According to these movies there is no distinction between local police and the military.
It’s not a coincidence that these militarized depictions of law enforcement emerged over the last twenty years. Since the September 11th terrorist attack, a steady stream of military hardware has flowed into urban and suburban and even rural police departments. And big Hollywood films are made with the cooperation of law enforcement, the intelligence complex, and the military. It is in Hollywood’s interest to maintain those relationships; they cannot get access to military hardware or locations or advisors without them. That means telling stories suitable to their collaborators.
Today’s feature film market is dominated by superheroes and while most of these titles aren’t as grim as Dirty Harry they do share important ideas with the cop and vigilante and super soldier genres. Batman and Captain America and Spider-Man operate outside of the law while also frequently collaborating with establishment characters. To their credit, the makers of some of these films have tried to address this issue (namely Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy) but usually with contradictory messages. Superhero films almost always return to the same idea: our only hope is an exceptional individual who operates outside the law.
Don’t take from this brief history of film that Hollywood has uniquely warped the minds of our police officers. The notion that a single film or even a series of films cause otherwise well balanced people to take up violent antisocial behavior should not be taken seriously. What’s really happened is actually more pernicious. After decades of Dirty Harrys and Lethal Weapons and Bad Boys, Hollywood has normalized the use of force and the abuse of authority by law enforcement and it is has done that for the entire culture.
Movies and stories have ethical and social implications whether they are intended to or not. Stories are a way of saying what life is like. If good prevails in the end, the storyteller is saying that we live in a just universe. Whether the hero wins by intelligence and wit or by endurance and brute strength is a value statement. And how the filmmakers depict people or specific groups of people communicates something about the world as well.
Hollywood’s police and military movies have consistently endorsed an authoritarian agenda where the ends justify the means no matter the cost. Furthermore, Hollywood movies have conditioned audiences to accept the idea that beating or coercing suspects is a normal part of police procedure. They have also advanced implicitly fascistic ideas that rule of law is secondary to shows of force and that only an untethered authority can save us from what’s coming.
Hollywood did not singlehandedly transform law enforcement and it’s not up to Hollywood to fix this country’s policing problems. That’s the job of politicians and community leaders and law enforcement officials. But at the very least the movies have been a barometer of the creeping authoritarianism and militarization of civilian life. Hollywood has also been an enabler, dressing up the abuse of power in slick clothes and spandex and turning institutional violence into a glossy set piece climaxed with a killer punchline.