The most important movies of 2015 were not in any theater
Every December, I make a list of what I think are the best movies released that year. It has never seemed so beside the point as it does this time, looking back at 12 months in which the moving images that actually mattered — the ones that needed to change the national conversation and maybe even started to — weren't on multiplex screens or dialed up through our cable guide but came crashing through our browsers, our cellphones, and on the nightly news.
To me, the most important movie of 2015 was the police car dash-cam video of the July arrest of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman, in Prairie View, Texas. Not just the three minutes or so of the altercation with a white police officer that resulted in Bland's being taken to the local jail, where she allegedly hung herself three days later, but the entire 52-minute expanse of the tape, for reasons I'll discuss in a moment.
Nor was this hardly the only "found footage" of note in 2015, video imagery that is so much more worth your time and thought than — I hate to say it but I have to — a new "Star Wars" movie. In chronological order, here are the five must-see videos of 2015.
Feb. 10, Pasco, Wash.: Antonio Zambrano-Montes is shot to death by three police officers despite having his hands in the air. Seventeen shots are fired; the white officers claim the troubled Mexican immigrant was throwing rocks at them. Prosecutors decline to file charges. www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsSeSaZW66U
April 4, North Charleston, S.C.: Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man, is pulled over by white Officer Michael Slager for a broken tail light, runs away, is shot eight times in the back as he flees. Slager is indicted on a charge of murder and awaits trial. www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKQqgVlk0NQ
April 12, Baltimore: Freddie Gray, 25, is roughed up, possibly has his leg broken, and is thrown into a police van, where he suffers a severed spinal cord leading to a coma and, a week later, his death. His crime: acting suspiciously and possessing a pocket knife. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xu3Yp2IdOxY)
July 10, Prairie View, Texas: Sandra Bland is pulled over for failing to properly signal a lane change and is charged with assault on a public servant. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuPvDMN73hQ)
July 19, Cincinnati: Samuel Dubose, 43, is pulled over by Officer Ray Tensing for a missing license plate. When asked to produce his driver's license, Dubose starts to drive away. Officer Tensing shoots him in the head. He has been indicted on murder charges and is free pending trial. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=53UwlS0gjaw)
Just for good measure, there's a sixth video, captured by a dash-cam on Oct. 20, 2014, but only made public this past November. It shows Chicago 17-year-old Laquan McDonald shot 16 times as he walks down the middle of the street holding a knife. Officer Jason Van Dyke had been on the scene for 30 seconds when he opened fire; he has been indicted on six counts of murder. Police claimed McDonald had lunged at officers; the video shows no such behavior. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ow27I3yTFKc)
They're the latest in a horrifying hit parade that includes videos of the deaths of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice in 2014 and Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino in 2013. They were joined by footage of local cops going medieval on teenage girls at pool parties in McKinney, Texas, and in high schools in Columbia, S.C.
The conversation is about police overkill and hair-trigger response, to be sure, and you can find equally disturbing videos of peacekeepers shooting down white people with what appears to be impunity. England's The Guardian has a helpful, if horrifying database of US police killings this year — www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database — that parses the numbers in varying ways. Of the 1,103 Americans shot and killed by police, 537 have been white and 272 have been black. (Hispanic/Latinos account for 170 deaths.) But those numbers translate to 2.7 white deaths for each million versus 6.5 black deaths per million.
To me, the Sandra Bland video is the most important movie of 2015 for the segment that comes about 23 minutes in, after Bland has been taken to jail and we hear Texas state trooper Brian Encinia on his police radio, explaining to his supervisor what happened. In his version, a weary, sullen Bland didn't answer Encinia monosyllabically until he asked her to put out her cigarette and she said no, and he didn't drag her out of her car while screaming that he was going to "light her up." In his version, Bland is "flailing, stomping around," despite his attempts to "de-escalate her." He was the calming influence, he maintains. She was the instigator.
Watch the video here. Warning: it features strong language.
It's a remarkable moment: We hear the official story click into place, so convincing that Encinia himself believes it. No matter that it contravenes the truth of what we actually see and hear in the video. It makes one wonder how immense a percentage of the official stories over the years have been fraudulent by intent or after-the-fact rationalization. How easily the uniformed killer of Walter Scott would have been believed when he claimed Scott went for the officer's taser, if not for a citizen video.
Correction: It makes a middle-class white person wonder. It makes me wonder. I can't imagine this is breaking news for African-Americans or for people in the various margins of American society or the American economy.
But this was a year in which, for people whose unacknowledged privileges give them a hall pass allowing them to move freely through America, it became impossible to look away, or to forget, or to hurry on. In a very real sense, it's imperative for the average white American to look at these videos and think hard about his or her own hall pass, just as the best, most eloquently thoughtful book of 2015, Ta-Nahisi Coates's "Between the World and Me," was written for his son but is required reading for those who, in the author's challenging phrase, "believe themselves to be white."
In the book, Coates speaks of all those who take the official story at face value, forgetting the value of the lives of the people who died. "To remember," he writes, "would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans."
To watch the videos of 2015 is to become human again. And, just maybe, to begin to wake from the Dream.