How We Write About Black Lives & Cell Phone Video

The following is a list of Black people killed by law enforcement whose deaths, or the shootings that led to them, were recorded on video. This list, which is in no way complete, will likely be out of date soon.

Deandre Brunston, August 24, 2003: killed by police
Martin Lee Anderson, January 6, 2006: killed by guards in a youth detention center
Oscar Grant III, January 1, 2009: killed by police
Aiyana Jones, May 16, 2010: killed by police
Timothy Russell, November 29, 2012: killed by police
Malissa Williams, November 29, 2012: killed by police
Eric Garner, July 17, 2014: killed by police
John Crawford III, August 5, 2014: killed by police
Laquan McDonald, October 20, 2014: killed by police
Tamir Rice, November 22, 2014: shot by police and died in the hospital
Charley Leundeu Keunang, March 1, 2015: killed by police
Tony Robinson, March 6, 2015: killed by police
Eric Harris, April 2, 2015: killed by police
Walter Scott, April 4, 2015: killed by police
Samuel DuBose, July 19, 2015: killed by police
Jeremy McDole, September 23, 2015: killed by police
Jamar Clark, November 16, 2015: shot by police and died in the hospital
Alton Sterling, July 5, 2016: killed by police
Philando Castile, July 6, 2016: shot by police and died in the hospital
Joseph Mann, July 11, 2016: killed by police
Terence Crutcher, September 16, 2016: shot by police and died in the hospital
Keith Lamont Scott, September 20, 2016: killed by police
Alfred Olango, September 27, 2016: shot by police and died in the hospital
Muhammad Muhaymin Jr., January 4, 2017: killed by police
Jordan Edwards, April 29, 2017: killed by police
Patrick Harmon, August 13, 2017: killed by police
Stephon Clark, March 18, 2018: killed by police
Antwon Rose Jr., June 19, 2018: killed by police
Willie McCoy, February 9, 2019: killed by police
Javier Ambler, March 28, 2019: killed by police
Atatiana Jefferson, October 12, 2019: killed by police
Manuel Ellis, March 3, 2020: killed by police
George Floyd, May 25, 2020: killed by police
Rayshard Brooks, June 12, 2020: shot by police and died in the hospital

These Black Americans and countless others were recorded in the last minutes of their lives as police officers shot and, in most cases, killed them. The murders and shootings above were captured on cell phones, dashcams, body cameras, and surveillance cameras. Most of this footage, then, is controlled and distributed by police, so the public usually only sees it after it’s made available through court proceedings. But cell phone footage is uploaded to YouTube or social media much faster.

We’ve seen a direct correlation between the widespread use of cell phones and increased public awareness of and civic response to police brutality against Black people. This cell phone footage is not the same as surveillance footage — bystander videos require a witness.

Cell phones have become a tool for recording truth and documenting violence to seek retribution. Videos of Black people killed by police in the last 10 years have birthed and fueled the Black Lives Matter movement. However, particularly in the case of George Floyd, they have also reawakened a kind of disgusting and dissociative rhetoric regarding the way white people engage with the documented suffering of Black people.

The George Floyd Video And Darnella Frazier

“Why Darnella Frazier Is the Most Influential Filmmaker of the Century,” the headline of a notorious guest blog in The Wrap read. The piece is a long, posturing-academic analysis of the Floyd video that reads as if it’s trying to be film criticism: “Not only did [Darnella Frazier] happen upon a unique moment in history […] but she recorded it in a single-take shot that could upstage the memorable work of A-list Hollywood directors,” it reads. It’s written by a white guy, of course — Ross Johnson, a communications strategist — and was published June 4, supposedly edited after its publication, and then taken down.

There’s not much condemnation I can levy at the piece that Tonja Renée Stidhum did not articulate in her response for The Root, in which she calls the article “an attempt at cosplaying a fresh film student” and a delusional diagnosis of the Floyd video as cinema verité. Johnson’s guest blog features particularly stomach-churning observations as “Using her iPhone with 2x optical zoom, Frazier subtly moved within a chaotic tableau to capture the last gasps of Floyd, and, only when called for, panned her camera away from Floyd to capture the dismay of onlookers.” He continues, characterizing her video as having an “all in one take” style that rivals the “showy cinematographic work that has earned fame for Orson Welles in ‘Touch of Evil,’ Martin Scorsese in ‘Goodfellas’ and Alfonso Cuarón in ‘Children of Men.’”

There is no sentence in Johnson’s guest blog that fails to send shivers through my body. Yet Johnson’s piece is merely the latest and most tone-deaf example of a deleterious perspective — that cell phone footage of police brutality and Black suffering can be qualified as art.

How We Write About Black Lives And Cell Phone Video
Mural by PiM Arts High School on boarded-up windows in Uptown, Minneapolis — source: Priscilla Gyamfi; Unsplash

“The most urgent filmmaking anybody’s doing in this country right now is by black people with camera phones,” film critic Wesley Morris wrote for The New York Times on June 3. “Their work comprises a ghastly visual mosaic of mistreatment, at best, and whose victims are international symbols of mourning.” If Morris didn’t eventually clarify that “art is not the intent” behind these videos, it would be easy to read his analysis in the same way one reads Johnson’s. It’s curious that he chooses to open with that claim at all given that the piece is largely not even about cell phone footage.

If one must discuss Frazier’s video as “filmmaking” — which it isn’t, but we will get there — the term Melanye Price uses in her Times opinion piece, “Please Stop Showing the Video of George Floyd’s Death,” is at least more realistic: “I don’t know if it’s ethical, though,” she says, “to repeatedly show and share what are essentially snuff films with African-American protagonists.”

In most cell phone footage of police brutality, special attention is paid to the individual holding the camera. We’ve been inundated with articles spotlighting Frazier, a 17-year-old high school student, whom Johnson lionized in his piece and who has been swiftly washed away in a tide of media frenzy. The New York Post, The New York Daily News, Refinery29, NowThis News, TMZ, and countless other sites and publications contacted Frazier and her lawyer for comments on stories about the Floyd video and leaped at the chance to publicize her trauma — NowThis posted a video May 27 in which she returns to the scene of Floyd’s death and talks about the experience, straining to speak through her tears. Hopefully, these organizations look back at their rabid coverage of Frazier and think critically about whether exploiting a 17-year-old Black student’s trauma was worth it for the news hit.

Defense Mechanisms

Ultimately, the question one is implicitly asking by treating these cell phone videos as movies is, “What is the entertainment value of a murder?” or “What is the artistic value of one?” The question we should, as a counter, level at these writers is not whether these videos qualify as “films”; it’s why they feel they need to call them that.

Such takes are not new. In July 2016, The Guardian posted an article from a white journalist that describes the video depicting Philando Castile’s murder at the hands of police: “Diamond Reynolds, with the composure of a seasoned reporter, films her partner Philando Castile as he bleeds out after being shot in his car by a near-hysterical officer. She delivers a steady hand, a self-aware commentary born of self-preservation.”

“Meet the man who recorded the world’s first viral video,” reads a 2017 headline for El País. The story is about George Halliday, who in 1991 filmed police beating Rodney King.

Similarly, The Atlantic published in 2018 an analysis of television’s role in covering police brutality in the 1960s, on the premise that Martin Luther King, Jr. was “an excellent television producer. He had a keen sense of drama, the use of celebrity, and television’s desire for villains and heroes.”

And then there’s Salon, which ran an article from film critic Matt Zoller Seitz in 2010 about the September 11, 2001, attacks: “The attacks were the work of a lunatic. The image was the work of an artist,” he writes. “The message of 9/11 was content. The attack was form. Whoever devised it had the mentality of a suspense film director: Don’t deliver all the whammies at once. Space them out.”

How We Write About Black Lives And Cell Phone Video
A crowd kneels at the Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, D.C. on June 6, 2020 — source: Clay Banks; Unsplash

With the cinema, there is dissonance. James Baldwin describes in The Devil Finds Work how “The distance between oneself—the audience—and a screen performer is a paradoxical absolute, masquerading as intimacy.” Equating the videos to films is a diffusion filter, a way to separate oneself from human atrocities while trying to pay tribute to them; it removes the blemishes and makes them easier to stomach, which of course should not be the purpose of journalism at all.

To conceptually intertwine the cinema and the bystander video also levies an unusual pedigree onto the bystander — I do not believe the two are comparable and I find the assertion to be in extremely poor taste. This connection feeds a diseased notion that the worth of the Floyd video, the Oscar Grant video, and the Eric Garner video is entertainment, artistic appreciation, and intellectual dialogue — that they are meant to be consumed rather than witnessed, that their power can be reduced to the impermanence of a short film.

Not only is this stance diminutive of the work of Black filmmakers, but it also attempts to uncomfortably redraw the marks of what qualifies great cinema and great art. And contrary to what these articles wind up arguing, movies, and art in general, should not rely on the state-sanctioned murder of Black people for their power.

Comparing documented instances of violence, Black death, terrorism, and other atrocities to film is a defense mechanism, a means for the writer to completely ignore the grief, horror, and weight that these events carry. It takes a lot of white guilt and internalized racism to watch a video of a Black man being murdered by police and come away gushing over the camera angles — there’s a reason most of these takes are authored by white writers. It’s also telling that these are the takes some film critics bring to our national conversation about race and oppression — culture criticism and film criticism are hardly outfitted to deal with the real world.

Photographing Evil

The photographer Robert Adams, known primarily for his photographs of the American West, was also a tremendously insightful essayist. In his book Beauty in Photography, published in 1981, he describes trying to photograph a monument in Colorado.

The statue memorializes how the Colorado militia unjustly killed miners and their families. While Adams knows why he cares about the statue and the way he wants to photograph it, he cannot seem to take a good picture of it: “What I wanted, and I knew it was hopeless, were pictures of the monument that would somehow indict the new strip mines to the north. […] I was left at the end of the day with a sense of the certainty of evil, of the ambiguity of what photography could do with it, and of the fact of my own limited skills.”

In Adams’ opinion, the photographer is held to the standards of Truth with a capital T, whereas painters and sculptors (and filmmakers) deliver us purposefully augmented reality. “The point of art has never been to make something synonymous with life,” he writes, “but to make something of reduced complexity that is nonetheless analogous to life and that can thereby clarify it.”

To say Frazier was creating art when she filmed the murder of Floyd by police is a purposeful manipulation of the truth to willingly warp and recontextualize Black suffering into a fiction. To do so neglects the difference between “filmmaking” and “documentation”: Filmmaking is the act of an artist, out of concern for the subject, seeking out stories to tell and a social utility to realize. Documentation, on the other hand, is what the reporter and cameraperson were doing covering Louisville protests when police shot them with rubber bullets. It’s what Frazier was doing when she recorded four policemen killing Floyd.

Frazier’s video as well as its predecessors and those that come after it, show us the horrible truth of the callousness and sadism with which this country and its law enforcement treat Black lives. This is the illumination of the bitter facts. What we do with that truth, including ignoring it or distorting it to suit the narratives we use to lie to ourselves, is up to us.

What are you doing to raise awareness of police brutality and racism toward Black people? Comment below with your thoughts.

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