Tuesday, January 7, 2020
January 7, 2020: AmericanStudying Unbelievable: The Worst and Best of the Police
[This fall I watched Netflix’s Unbelievable, one of the most compelling and important TV shows I’ve seen in a good while. The show opens up a number of AmericanStudies conversations, so this week I’ll highlight and analyze a handful of them, trying my best to avoid SPOILERS (but probably not entirely succeeding). Leading up to a crowd-sourced post on the TV recommendations of fellow AmericanStudiers—share yours in comments, please!]
On two cop duos who reflect the spectrum of possibilities for this crucial civic organization.
First of all, as we have seen far too often in recent years, it’s entirely possible (if not all too common) for police officers to be neo-Nazis, white supremacists, connected to the most hateful and destructive forces in our society. Those connections are deeply ingrained in American history, and help explain why the police and other authority figures frequently took part in lynchings and racial hate crimes, why many police officers participated in the violent attacks on the 1913 women’s suffrage parade in Washington, why these public servants have too often taken a hostile stance toward fellow Americans. Yet without denying the legacy and ongoing presence of those issues, I would nonetheless say that they stand clearly outside the official role and mandate (“To protect and to serve”) of police and law enforcement forces. Just as we can recognize (for example) that many judges (past and present) have been motivated by prejudice without dismissing the importance of courts and laws, so too can we separate these despicable police officers from the institution’s important civic role.
But even within that official civic role, there is a wide spectrum of how police officers can approach their job, and more exactly how they approach the civilians whose protection comprises the most important part of that job. For some officers, it seems that those civilians, and particularly civilians from minority and disenfranchised communities, are by default suspicious, potential adversaries who must be treated as such. It was that attitude, for example, which led New York City police officers to treat the five young African American men known as the Central Park Five as criminals from the outset, as illustrated with such frustrating potency by the interrogation sequences in Ava DuVernay’s amazing When They See Us. And just as frustratingly (and from what I can tell far too typically when it comes to women who report sexual assaults), it’s that attitude which quickly comes to dominate the interactions between Kaitlyn Dever’s Marie Adler, Unbelievable’s first rape victim, and the two detectives (Eric Lange’s Parker and Bill Fagerbakke’s Pruitt) investigating her assault. To Parker’s credit (SPOILERS in this sentence), he does eventually recognize his own mistakes and failures, even calling himself one of those bad cops who “we should get rid of.” But by that time their hostile treatment of a victim has done a great deal of permanent damage.
As I wrote yesterday, such damage is especially ironic and tragic when it is done to a rape victim in the aftermath of her assault, by the people tasked with not only bringing justice for that crime but also and just as importantly compassion for her ordeal. And in Unbelievable’s other two protagonists, Merritt Wever’s Detective Karen Duvall and Toni Collette’s Detective Grace Rasmussen, we see just how much can change when the police approach victims and civilians with that combination of goals in mind. The show establishes that difference with particular power in Duvall’s very first encounter with a rape victim, Danielle Macdonald’s Amber. In every choice and detail in that stunning scene, Duvall embodies a police officer determined to solve a crime yet just as determined (perhaps even more so in this initial encounter with a traumatized victim) to do whatever she can to help Amber in this devastating and crucial moment in her life. Duvall and Rasmussen are portrayed as real people, not idealized heroes—but real people who illustrate all that’s possible, for individuals and for our society as a whole, when the police are at their best.
Next UnbelievableStudying tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this post and show? Other TV shows you’d recommend and analyze?