Redmond (2017) has noted that, in order to garner support for the punitive policies of the War on Drugs, Americans were presented with stories that framed those impacted by the war on drugs as enemies of the state. In the 1980’s, media outlets released a surge of stories covering the “crack crisis” that presented crime and drug use with a black face. Stories presented black males as “gangbangers” and played on historical stereotypes of black men being dangerous, predatory, criminals (Alexander 2012).
Films on the experience of inner city black Americans also reflected a negative image of these communities and their residents until around 1990. Before the 1990’s many films placed the blame for inner city problems primarily on the criminal actions of young black males (Alexander 2012, Brooks 1997). For example, in the 1970’s, directors made movies about the experiences of black inner city Americans. These films were subsequently criticized for their exploitive depictions of urban black experience. This criticisms was in part due to the fact many of the these movies had white directors. This perception by commentators lead to the term “Blaxploitation” being coined in reference to films made in the era (Brooks 1997). Black character representation during this period was often as criminally deviant characters (Bausch 2013). It would be another 20 years before those subject to War on Drugs policy would start to be depicted as sympathetic characters (Brooks 1997).
In 1990’s Americans were reintroduced to the issues of the inner city by black directors that had more creative freedom than in the 1970’s allowing for a different narrative to be presented to the public. In these movies Americans were given a chance to understand the choices that young black men had to make in their social context (Brooks 1997).
In movies such as Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society, we were reintroduced to gun violence and drug use, without the glorification these issues were presented with during the 1970’s. Through this reintroduction audiences had to consider if individuals that aren’t equally protected by the law should be equally subject to punishment. Films of this era that depicted the urban ghetto shed light on the experience that had been historically overlooked by news media outlets and Hollywood depictions. These movies were criticized for their “raw” presentation of the urban ghetto and the issues therein, issues most Americans don’t face or understand such as poverty and police brutality (Boylorn 2017; Brooks 1997).
1990’s era films were made by individuals that had actual experience with the material they were presenting. John Singleton explained that the plot of Boyz N the Hood was based primarily on his personal experience and the experiences of those close to him (Brooks 1997; Jones 2016). When asked when he had the idea for Boyz n the Hood Singleton remarked, “I think I was living this film before I ever thought about making it”(Jones 2016). Instead of presenting young black men that resided in the inner city as universally criminal, as news outlets had been suggesting since the 1980’s, directors presented audiences with characters that were pushed into difficult situations by poverty, trauma, and a failing justice system (Alexander 2012; Baylon 2017). Through the use of film, stories that in the past could only hope to make it to the back of an unknown local paper were now being shown in theatres across the U.S. (Brooks 1997).
A New Narrative: from crime prone to poverty stricken
While Spike Lee predicted in a 1995 interview that black directors would move away from making movies on the Urban ghetto experience, this has not been the case. This is fortunate as this genre of films has been an effective method for bringing poorly understood social problems into the public eye. As Brooks (1997) states, “even if these films do not represent the life experience of the majority of African-Americans, the stories are no less important because they do represent the obstacles that many African-American children face growing up in urban America.”(p.4).
Not only are black directors continuing to make films on the urban black experience, they are also addressing a wider range of social problems. “2000s and 2010s hip-hop film centered black men who survived the hood and were trying to be responsible fathers and citizens” (p.148; Baylorn 2017). An example of this expanding narrative on the urban minority experience can be seen in the movie Imperial Dreams (2014). In the film we follow the protagonist Bambi, a reformed gangster, as he re-enters his community and attempts to take care of his son with no resources in his old neighborhoods. The movie goes beyond issues of drugs and violence. Instead of only showing the most graphic inner city issues like murder and police brutality, we also see the more widespread issues that result from a failing social safety net. These issues aren’t necessarily deadly, but they do have the power to reduce the characters quality of life significantly.
Director Malik Vitthal has explained that the goal of Imperial Dreams was to depict the experience of living a few days in American project housing. The movie is filmed on location in the Imperial Court Housing Projects in Watts, California. The Los Angeles Housing Authority attempted to prevent on site filming, on the grounds that the movie made the community look bad. Residents petitioned for continued use of the location, expressing a desire to have their story told (Williams 2017).
The story we see is one that shows explicit violence, but also the slow violence of poverty that is present in the neighborhood of Watts. Slow violence is described by Rob Nixon as, “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (Nixon 2011; p.2). In the following examples we will see how despite paying his debt to society Bambi is left to navigate a system that a best is indifferent to his attempt at re-entry and at worst seems to be designed to see him fail. In the movie we see Bambi struggle with a number of different problems that threaten his ability to re-enter his neighborhood. Unlike films from the 1990’s that showed characters struggling to avoid violence and criminal involvement, all of the problems Bambi faces result from his impoverished position or punitive aspects of social service institutions (Fairfax, Sperling, Schwartz, Booth 2014).
Bambi reports to his parole officer. This is his first on-screen interaction with a state representative and it sets the tone for how all subsequent interactions go. The PO is unsympathetic and ready to punish. The PO is not interested in the legitimate issues Bambi might face in finding a job, he simply there to tell Bambi what he needs to do and then report on if he did it.
PO:”I need to know where your at at all times, I’m gonna need for you to get a job ASAP, if you can’t figure it out I’m gonna crawl in your ass, which is a violation, which means I’ll issue a warrant and back you go.”
Bambi: ”I just got out so…”
PO: ”DO WE UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER?”
When Bambi tries to get a driver’s license in order to get a job, he is again presented with a problem resulting from his lack of capital. This is illustrated through a conversation Bambi has with a DMV worker. In response to being told he can’t get a drivers license because he owes $18,000 in child support.
Bambi: “I gotta get a job to pay child support, to get a job I gotta have a driver’s license, but to get a driver’s license I still need to pay child support.”
Clerk: “I’m confused by it as well, it’s a messed-up system.”
In this film we also see an example of theft that results from desperation. In the movie we see Samaara, the mother of Bambi’s son, is in jail for stealing. Unlike films from the 1990’s were characters stole for a taste of the highlife or for a thrill Samaara stole for survival. During a visit Samaara explains she is incarcerated because she had to steal in order to feed her and Bambi’s son.
Samaara:”If they would give me my stamps on time I wouldn’t be in here. I had to put food…”
Bambie *interrupts her so she doesn’t talk about the issue in front of their son*
Samaara: ”I was just trying to help us”.
Additionally we see how Bambi’s housing options are limited due to his lack of capital and felony conviction. His family’s ability to assist is also limited by the state. After being released from jail Bambi asks his grandfather if he and his son can stay in his house. Bambi’s grandfather Cornell responds
Cornell: “Look man I understand your predicament, but the housing authority doesn’t allow any convicts or paroles on these premises.”
Bambi: “Just for a few days till I get on my feet.”
Cornell: “No. What if they have an inspection? We all get caught, we all get kicked out. It’s not worth it Bambi.”
Next he tries to live with his uncle who then expects him to transport a car filled with oxycontin over state lines as a sort of repayment.
Shrimp: “You a grown ass man, you wanna live here? You gonna follow some[ ] rules.”
Bambi: ”It’s too rich for my blood.”
Shrimp: “I don’t give a fuckin shit nephew! It’s either go to Portland, or fuck off. I ain’t running no non-profit here.”
Bambi refuses to get involved with “the job” his uncle offers. Ultimately, he and his son live in his broken car which leads to additional problems.
Another interesting element of this film is that we almost see a character commit a felony in order to pay for their education. In the film we learn that Bambi’s brother was able to get a scholarship to college, but still is unable to pay to attend leading him to take loans and grants and eventually he attempts to take the “Portland job” from Bambi’s Uncle Shrimp.
Wayne: “I got a partial scholarship to study business at Howard, so now I’m just raising enough capital to pay the difference.”
Bambi: “That’s beautiful man, congrats.”
Wayne: “I got loans, grants, I maxed them all out. I still need to come up with some money though.
Contradictions of punishment & citizenship in a deteriorating justice system
Though these examples we see that as the DMV worker stated, the system is messed up. By the end of the movie we are left to question if the system is actually a safety net at all. We see the state is able to punish and monitor poor citizens but fails to stop people from falling further into poverty and certainly fails at getting individuals out of it. In the film we see that even basic assistance with food and shelter may be difficult to secure and are easy to lose. Even those that work to get a better education and acquire a better life can’t depend on the state for assistance (Fairfax, Sperling, Schwartz, Booth 2014) Though this film we can see that not only are inner city blacks not afforded equal protection of the law, they also don’t have the same level of access in society (Williams 2017).
Here we are presented with a nuanced illustration of the lived experience of poor black citizens in the United States. Instead of framing the problems of the urban poor as stemming primarily from drugs, violence or low morals, we see that poverty plays an integral role in creating problems and are exacerbating day to day issues that are still poorly understood. This film is unique for its depiction of the slow violence of poverty experienced by the protagonist while he attempts to obey the law and stay out of jail. In his efforts to achieve his goals it is not the lure of crime that threatens his goals, instead it is the very institutions that should be helping him. With this understanding we can revisit the earlier question. Should those that are not protected by the law be held equally accountable. We can then broaden this question and ask: what kind of punishment is justified for individuals that barely have access to citizenship? (Baylor 1997; Nixon 2011; Fairfax, Sperling, Schwartz, Booth 2014)