Entertainment's latest trend: Race and the criminal-justice system

Entertainment's latest trend: Race and the criminal-justice system
Harvey Weinstein, left, and Jay Z attend the "Time: The Kalief Browder Story" premiere in Park City, Utah. (Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)

During the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, while starry premieres were playing all over the Utah ski town, the entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein convened a dinner in the name of a more socially conscious topic.

Weinstein, along with Jay Z, had produced a new documentary series titled "Time: The Kalief Browder Story." Browder is the young New York man who was held at Rikers Island for three years without trial on  minor charges and later hanged himself as a result of his trauma. Weinstein took the microphone to speak to the several dozen insiders who'd gathered, shifting simultaneously into his two preferred modes: pitchman and crusader.


"It plays like a thriller but it's not a thriller, ‎sadly," he said of the series — which Spike will debut in March — and of prison conditions generally. "And something needs to be done about it."

Weinstein would seem to be an unlikely, even problematic, poster child for the cause. Sure, he grew up in a working-class Queens neighborhood during the 1960s. Yet the idea of a wealthy 64-year-old white man taking the podium to protest the state of the criminal-justice system might appear, to say the least, a little odd — especially when Jay Z, whose 2016 track "spiritual" centered on police shootings of unarmed black men, was sitting silently just a few feet away.

But Weinstein is a heat-seeking missile when it comes to culture. Where he goes, it is going, or has already gone. The fact that he was touting this as big entertainment — that he was behind a TV series about a mistreated Rikers inmate in the first place — was telling. Criminal justice stories, for better or worse, have gone pop.

Entertainment about legal-system inequity isn't new. Buster Keaton examined a wrongful shooting by an officer all the way back in his 1922 short "Cops." Sidney Lumet's 1970s films were preoccupied with how police did (or didn't do) their jobs. More recently Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" dramatized the transit-officer shooting of Oscar Grant, humanizing the protagonist and the tragedy in newly rich ways. Last summer, HBO's "The Night Of" sought to delve into the trade-offs and imperfections of the judicial system.

But a new moment is dawning. At Sundance this year, narratives about how we police our cities and prosecute our suspects were omnipresent.

The cops in Grant's hometown of Oakland received their close-up in Peter Nicks' doc "The Force," while filmmaker Yance Ford offered a highly personal exploration of the shooting of his black older brother and the malfeasance that followed in "Strong Island," which won a special jury award for storytelling. Spike debuted episodes from the Browder piece, featuring Jay Z as an interviewee, and a pair of young African American filmmakers unveiled "Whose Streets?," their ultra-vérité look at the Missouri city of Ferguson in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting.

Nor was it just documentaries. Stories about the criminal-justice system are exploding across media, in narrative films and scripted TV series. Sundance is the place where trends bubble up, or at least converge in a way that makes everyone take notice. And it was hard not to feel like we've reached a new crescendo, a kind of peak-justice entertainment era.

"There is a lot of reconciling to be done between the criminal system and our society," director Matt Ruskin told The Times. Ruskin's scripted, fact-based movie "Crown Heights," about a wrongfully jailed Trinidadian man named Colin Warner and the 20-year efforts of his friend Carl King to free him, won the audience award in the U.S. dramatic competition  at the festival, then was sold to Amazon for an estimated $2 million. "Any story that makes people think about that — that makes people think about the human beings involved — is a good thing."

Yet five years to the month after the killing of Trayvon Martin,, at a moment when systems and problems are still entrenched, when the most complex entertainment can't match real-life narratives — and when a man who has proclaimed himself the "law-and-order candidate" has entered the Oval Office — it remains to be seen what the preoccupation will yield. Will the (limited) effect of all that CNN coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement — people already inclined to believe in the cause became "woke"  but many white Americans and certainly white leaders did not shift their views — be repeated? Or will these pieces land and shape attitudes more profoundly?

An old foreign-policy axiom has it that the broader the coalition, the narrower the mandate. Film and television about charged topics face a similar conundrum. Taking a serious social issue and crafting it into screen narrative means either diluting it for mass consumption or retaining its seriousness and reaching far fewer people. It's the difference between "The Butler" and "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution."

This poses an ethical problem, since it means that, to sway a large number of minds, one must turn the mistreatment of people of color into entertainment. And it poses a practical challenge, since it means that writers on a television series need take a topic of deep seriousness and embroider into it some of the shinier tricks of an "Empire" or "Scandal."

Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood, the couple behind some of the most popular black-oriented entertainment in recent years ("Beyond the Lights," together; many others, apart) faced this dilemma in making "Shots Fired."

Starring Sanaa Lathan and Stephan James, the Fox series is about a pair of possibly racially motivated shootings in a North Carolina town — fictional, but modeled after real events, with strong overtones of Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling and other similar cases. "Shots Fired" was molded from interviews with real-life figures, from Oscar Grant's mother to former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

But it is also, at heart, a Fox television series: a commercial entertainment, advertising-driven and airing in prime time, requiring in some ways the loud, suspenseful hues of a network drama.


Creators sought to find harmony between these extremes. "Entertainment was important to the network, but it was important to us too," said Prince-Bythewood of the March debut. "Because none of this means anything if people don't want to binge-watch it."

"Our creed was to get the audience on the edge of their seats and when they're leaning forward hit them with the truth," added Rock Bythewood, seated next to his wife and Lathan in Park City several hours before the show's Sundance premiere. "Hopefully meaningful change will land without the audience seeing it coming." (One way the series keeps the audience off balance, and scrambles the cliches generally, is by chronicling two separate shootings, of a young black man by a white cop but also a young white man by a black cop.)

Rock Bythewood said this meaning could differ depending on the viewer. For some it might be about better understanding people of color who feel targeted; for others, a new compassion for those in law enforcement at an anxious time. The only clear-cut lesson they wanted to impart, he said, was closer cooperation between police departments and their communities.

"It's very important 'Shots Fired' doesn't come off as a just-say-no show — you know, 'just say no to racism,' " said Rock Bythewood. "Because I don't think that really has an impact. It's a call to action, but telling people what the action is is where we stand back."


With that ambiguity, Rock Bythewood is cleverly trying to solve another problem: how to chisel through viewers' hardened mental facades. Part of what played out with all the cable news coverage of the last few years is a law of diminishing returns: rather than change or erode existing perspectives, it calcified them. For those who believed the system was flawed, the sight of so many protests just reinforced their sense of the problem, building justifiable outrage but not necessarily leading to solutions.

For many people who thought the system was fine, all that coverage became an opportunity to rationalize individual killings. Or it simply stopped landing much at all. Data can be contradictory, but much of the evidence suggests that all the exposure of the Black Lives Matter movement only nudged the needle. A Pew study last summer found that, two years into the movement, more than a third of Americans "don't understand [its] goals." A different study the previous year, more than 15 months into mass protests, revealed that more white people than not believed African Americans received equal treatment in the criminal-justice system.

Even if it did get through, would understanding the goals of the movement or the motivation of those active in it be the only goal? What good is understanding where a person sits now if one doesn't the full force of history that brought him there?

Many filmmakers say they're trying to address this need for context. What these pieces need to convey, they argue, is not just the facts or history of these killings (which of course long pre-date the Trayvon-and-Ferguson era), but the factors that made these situations so volatile in the first place.

"You see, we're in a time capsule,"  Damon Davis, a Missouri native who co-directed "Whose Streets" with the filmmaker and activist Sabaah Folayan, said at a Sundance screening of the film, which tracks the seething anger that followed the killer of the unarmed Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson. "When you see black people being aggressive, that's an answer to a question. For people to be that aggressive something's got to come at you. As aggressive as the black people are in Ferguson, the racism is just as aggressive."

But larger historical insight is only sometimes the point. In "Ford's "Strong Island," a kind of filmic memoir of the Long Island prosecutorial injustice that led to the white killer of his black brother William in a garage dispute never even standing trial, the aims are as much personal as social.

Or, perhaps, the two are related.

"I was searching for many years for answers until I realized that perhaps the answers were to be found in the questions themselves," he wrote in an email.

'Strong Island' began with one set of questions (what happened and why) but the story was more complicated than that.  My line of inquiry shifted to encompass my brother's death and its complex impact on my family- and on the long line of deaths of black men that came before and after him. men killed for nonsensical reasons like  "looking at a white woman" otherwise known as "reckless eyeballing" or expressing simple anger.

"When I realized that William's death was unique to my family but not at all to this country the film took on a new and more important meaning. It's why we make reference in the film explicitly to Emmett Till - saying "Dredge the river and you will find him" - because these uniquely American murders have been happening for a very long time."

To watch these films and TV shows is to be gripped by a contradiction. On the one hand, one can't help feeling that this era of entertainment represents a quantum leap, an improvement from when racially charged events couldn't be assimilated by the Hollywood system. (The Watts riots and Rodney King uprising have yet to earn dedicated feature films even many decades after they occurred. And it was almost 50 years to the day between Martin Luther King's march on Selma and Ava DuVernay's movie "Selma.")

Yet the cumulative effect of these movies is also depressive. The simple volume of the stories, and the sheer inadequacies of the system they expose, can drain away hope. These pieces remind that for every Colin Warner there is a Kalief Browder, a story being told precisely because it ended so tragically. Even the Warner tale is remarkable precisely because it rests on so much injustice.

"It's a happy ending but it's not a happy ending," said Carl King, whose friend spent 20 years in jail for reasons of both ineptitude and institutional racism. "It was the happiest day of my life when Colin was freed. But why was he in there so long? I still have no answers."

But maybe looking heavenward is only partly the point. Maybe the entertainment is much like the work of improving the criminal justice system itself — incremental, difficult and not always productive. Maybe the idea is not to change a culture or system wholesale but to chip away at individuals, one streamed episode or movie ticket at a time.

As "Shots Fired" star Lathan said, "I hope this can be cathartic for people. There's so much pain and anger. I just want it to lead to some understanding and compassion."

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT