St. Louis Superman

St. Louis Superman, a 28 minute short film, is the closing feature in the five-film package of 2020 Academy Award-nominated documentary short films. It tells the story of Bruce Franks, Jr., a rapper and local activist in Ferguson, Missouri who, in the aftermath of the controversy over the police killing of Michael Brown ran for and won a seat in the state legislature.

Franks seems to me like mostly a positive, sympathetic, and perhaps even inspirational figure, fighting for things that for the most part I agree with. It’s hard not to root for him, and when it is revealed at the end that he is still struggling with mental illness and trauma it’s hard not to feel for him.

Certainly I would give St. Louis Superman a thumbs up, but there are two things that kept me from responding even more favorably to it.

Number one is that the film is structured, unconvincingly, as a success story. We’re told of a piece of legislation newcomer Franks champions that would declare youth violence a public health emergency or something, and how in spite of garnering almost no support early, eventually it passes unanimously in a body that is overwhelmingly Republican and conservative. This is presented as a heroic accomplishment proving that it is indeed possible to reach across the aisle and get your adversaries to do what’s right if you’re determined and skilled enough to make it happen like Franks.

Color me skeptical. I never heard of the bill in question before seeing this film, but I’m quite confident that if it passed unanimously then it had to have been so thoroughly watered down as to constitute no threat whatsoever to the powers that conservative Republicans represent. No way he got every single local political hack in Missouri to go against his or her paymasters in the interests of justice.

Number two is that I’m not a hundred percent comfortable with the broader topic that is the foundation of the film, namely the use of sensationalist, ambiguous at best, incidents in the service of political activism.

I understand why people latch onto emotionally powerful stories and highlight them in the service of their causes. You need something beyond statistics and abstractions to get people’s attention. You need a “hook,” a cause célèbre. Talk about how such-and-such percentage of African Americans get shot/arrested/imprisoned/passed over for a job/suspected of wrongdoing/whatever compared to the much smaller percentage of white people in the same circumstances who do, and the media will ignore you and few people will hear you and fewer will care. But if there’s a sympathetic individual with a name and a face and a story that people can identify with, and you can hold him or her up as a victim of gross injustice, then you get folks focused on what you want them focused on, and maybe get them to act in the way you desire.

I get that as a matter of pragmatics that tactic “works” in garnering publicity for a cause, including good causes. But that doesn’t make it morally unproblematic.

The thing is, routinely such stories turn out to be misleadingly oversimplified if not largely untrue, because the stories are chosen for their utility rather than their accuracy. Then people are pressured to line up on one side or the other out of loyalty.

I’ve distrusted this dynamic from an early age, because one of the first instances I experienced was particularly idiotic. On a Monday Night Football broadcast in 1983, Howard Cosell praised the elusiveness of diminutive African American kick returner Alvin Garrett with the remark “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?!”

This was the hook certain people (the present day versions of which are sometimes called “social justice warriors”) needed. There was an immediate outcry about the comment from such quarters, a screaming for blood: Cosell must issue an abject ritualistic public apology and then be banished from public life forever. An example must be made of him to show that American society has adopted a zero tolerance policy toward racists and racist rhetoric, that power has shifted away from such folks and it is now their victims—or more accurately those who claim to speak for them—who must be kowtowed to.

Did the facts support such a reaction? No. Cosell had spent decades promoting liberal positions, including on race, and had done so when it was unpopular and could damage his career. He had gotten used to receiving the most vicious and violent racist and anti-Semitic vitriol, up to and including death threats, in response. His use of “monkey” had no racist connotations at all; he had used the term in the past to refer to white athletes as well, not to mention his own grandchildren. It basically meant a quick, tricky, elusive, maybe mischievous little dude. His remark was no more racist than if you were to tell someone to “stop monkeying around.” To his credit, Garrett himself refused to buy into the faux outrage, stating that he had no problem with Cosell.

But none of that mattered, because the controversy was useful to those who fanned the flames. It provided an opening to talk about race, and racist rhetoric. That they used the opportunity in a way that was grossly unjust to Cosell was a price they saw as worth paying, since they believed that having the attention of the media so that they could say the things they wanted to say and actually be heard would enable them to push society as a whole an increment in the right direction. If the truth had to be bent or an individual—even one who had long been an ally, like Cosell—had to be sacrificed in the process, so be it, since a lot more individuals would benefit from the attitude changes and the power shifts that they hoped to bring about through their activism.

As Cosell subsequently recounted in one of his books, one of the civil rights leaders who had denounced him most vehemently for the Garrett incident later issued him a routine invitation to some liberal public event of the sort celebrities like Cosell not uncommonly participate in, and basically took the attitude: All that hullaballoo back then?, oh I hope you know that was nothing personal, it’s just the way the game’s played after all.

Which I think is all thoroughly disgusting. It’s an “end justifies the means” thing.

And then when these sensationalist cases are publicized, the public chooses up sides, with 5% or less of them basing their position on a rational assessment of all the available evidence, and the rest choosing based on their preexisting loyalties and ideologies.

Was Bernhard Goetz justified in shooting those kids in the subway? If you’re white, a conservative, an NRA member comfortable with guns, a law and order advocate, a Republican, angry about the high crime rate in New York, etc., then of course he was. If you’re black, a liberal, an anti-gun person, a Democrat, etc., then no way. Very few looked at all the evidence carefully—who said and did what in precisely what order, what alternative courses of action were available and what would have been the consequences of each, etc. Such details don’t matter. You just get fired up for your team and denounce the people on the other team.

What really happened on the night George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin? Again, all most people need to know is which team they’re on. If they think racial discrimination against African Americans persists and that there’s an urgency to combat it, then Zimmerman is a liar and he had no justification for what he did. If they think blacks are pretend victims constantly playing the race card so they don’t have to take responsibility for their lot in life, then Zimmerman acted in justifiable self-defense. Never mind the evidence.

In the Michael Brown case itself, from what I’ve read of it, the cop’s account has largely held up when investigated, and most or all of the witnesses claiming Brown had his hands up, didn’t resist, and all that, eventually admitted they had lied, guessed, repeated what they had heard other people say, etc. But for the overwhelming majority of the people for whom that case had become a cause célèbre, and an opportunity to get people fired up about police brutality and racism and such, that didn’t matter. The truth was insignificant compared to the importance of an opportunity to get their issues on the front page.

I mean, I’m not saying I totally disagree with the people marching in the streets in Ferguson. I probably agree with 80%-90% of their issues. But I don’t agree with using a certain incident as a symbol to build their protest movement on, when they haven’t adequately ascertained what really happened on that occasion, and then continuing to use it even after there is sufficient evidence to show that the claims they have been making about that incident are very likely untrue.

For that matter, I think you can even have a fruitful discussion about the subtleties of the matter even if the cop’s account is fully accepted. Was the cop more likely to hassle someone of one race rather than another based on the identical amount of evidence against the person? How much anger and frustration stemming from being victimized by racism had built up in Brown over the years, and what role did that play in his aggressive behavior toward the cop? If Brown had been white and had made the same moves against the cop, would the cop have been more hesitant to shoot and accepted a higher degree of risk of being harmed by Brown? Might he have aimed his shots slightly differently so as to be more likely to wound rather than kill Brown?

But you can’t have that discussion if you’re emotionally committed to the notion that Michael Brown was a totally innocent victim who was shot in cold blood by a racist cop for no reason except that he was black, and if you think that clinging to that position is required in order to continue to believe that in general African Americans still get a raw deal in this country, and that anyone who disagrees with that position is your enemy.

So I’m a lot more on Franks’s side than not, but I also think that the thing that fired him up, as it fired up so many others, and that got him into politics and into the legislature and all that, was very likely based on a lie. The issues he cares about and is fighting for aren’t lies, but the symbol that he and so many like him keep coming back to is.

I don’t know. Maybe Franks has said, “Hey, we were wrong about the Michael Brown case. We jumped the gun for emotional reasons, and then the evidence came in and it turned out we were wrong. But if you look at the totality of the evidence, of all the cases, all the incidents large and small that have occurred in the context of race relations and differential treatment by police of people of different races, not limited to just whichever ones happened to have been built into a huge deal by the media, I still believe that certain liberal or leftist positions on race are justified, specifically that there is still a general racism against African Americans in this country that is significant enough to need to be addressed and rectified.” I doubt it. I’d be a lot more inclined to see him as a superman if he did, but I doubt it.

Anyway, enough. I went off on a bunch of stuff that is related to the film in a broad sense, but goes pretty far afield. It’s a good film, Franks is a good dude. I was sad to find out that he is still struggling to the extent that he is with his demons.