The Punisher (1989)

I firmly believe that bad films cannot be made worse for spoilers but what follows reveals some plot points. This is part of a series looking at films from Marvel comics in the run-up to the release of Ryan Coogler’s The Black Panther.

One of the first films based on Marvel comics was the 1989 direct-to-video Punisher adaptation directed by Mark Goldblatt. Dolph Lundgren is Frank Castle with Jeroen Krabbé and Kim Miyori the main villains who are at odds both with each other and Castle (The Punisher). Miyori plays Lady Tanaka, the head of a yakuza organization taking over New York organized crime at the expense of the Italian families led by Gianni Franco (Krabbé). All the while Castle is being sought by his ex-partner and cop Jake Berkowitz (Lou Gossett Jr.).

Franco has returned to New York after the Punisher killed the other family leaders, leaving the mafia in a weakened state. Tanaka takes advantage of this and makes a power play by kidnapping all the mafioso’s children and then killing the parents when they arrive to negotiate a ransom. The cast of killers in that scene is quite funny. Franco forms a tentative alliance with the Punisher in order to save the children. They win the day in the end before Franco turns on Castle and tries to kill him and ends up dead. Solid performances by Gossett Jr. and Krabbé are undermined by Lundgren as Castle. He is at his least charismatic here, seems bored more than stone-faced, and has a bad stubble make-up.

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Dolph Lundgren with fake stubble looking more dead bored than dead-eyed killer

Some folks immersed in or brought up in the Model Minority racist paradigm won’t remember so clearly the really intense Buy America campaigns of the late 1970s through early 1990s that peaked with Reaganite White Nationalism. They were not only “Buy America” but especially “Don’t buy Japan”. Much of this was centered around the auto industry and much of it had implicitly or explicitly racist themes, imagery and language. One  famous example is Gung Ho, the 1986 Ron Howard film where a Japanese firm buys a US auto plant. The new bosses constantly yell at the workers in the way the US writers imagined they did at Japanese plants (which, without apologizing for Japan’s poor labor conditions, was and is not the case). There is an intended feel-good element to the film, that strand of U.S. liberalism that is simultaneously racist and anti-union under the guise of “can’t we all just get along?”. A second type of 1980s anti-Asian racism was the Rambo: First Blood Part II and Missing In Action type where Vietnamese people held and tortured U.S. POWs for a decade after Vietnam’s victory and it was up to Americans with machine guns to save them by slaughtering Vietnamese people by the hundreds.

Only American pluck can save the Japanese from overwork

The Punisher‘s plotline has to be contextualized in these popular conceptions. Because Lady Tanaka did not just kidnap the mafioso’s kids, she planned to sell them into slavery which was a key part of their criminal enterprise. “White slavery” was a popular storyline from the 1910s-1950s especially with Chinese and Japanese villains selling white women in pulps, dime store novels and films. The sexual threat posed by Asian men was an important component of “Yellow Peril” discourse, of which this film is very much a part. Asian “white slavery” rings weren’t invented just for this film, they are long a component of the white imagination (and not without crossover into conceptions of “human trafficking” by the way). Just a few years before The Punisher, Girls of the White Orchid, a made for tv movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, offered a feature length story on American television of an innocent white girl tricked into sex slavery by the yakuza. A more recent version is the 2008 film Taken where Liam Neesen must save his daughter from evil Arabs who buy her as a sex slave. Best I know, none of these narratives meaningfully looked at actual Japanese kidnapping of Korean women during Japan’s colonial rule there.

Lady Tanaka laughing evily

In the final scene Tanaka is for no clear reason wearing something like geisha make-up and costume, presumably to play up her alterity. Furthering this otherness, most of the yakuza killed during the final scene are men wielding swords while dressed in hakamas because….yakuza bring swords to gunfights I guess. Ya know, just because they’re organized crime doesn’t mean their crime is well organized! For context on this, Punisher is a hardcore fanatic. See as one example the page below from the Civil War storyline. Punisher has sided with Captain America against Iron Man and the government. Some supervillains have thrown in with Cap too, understanding the threat posed by the Registration Act that would add yet another felony charge to their everyday activities, this one for simply existing without registering their powers. When they reveal themselves Punisher immediately mows them down. When Cap flips out about this, Punisher says “they were killers and thieves”. In most iterations Punisher has no grey zone. So in the 1989 film it takes something really extraordinary for Castle to be working with Franco. That something is Japanese otherness.

Production wise this isn’t the worst Punisher film but, in close competition with the 2011 short film The Punisher: Dirty Laundry, is probably the most racist. This is the Marvel world into which in 47 days comes Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. I wanna keep focus on that last sentence to contextualize how much work it will have taken to pull off a Black liberation vision within Marvel, if that is what Coogler’s film turns out to be.

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Die Shark! Die!

Thanks to Noah Berlatsky for a much improved title!

 

Jaume Coller-Serra’s new film The Shallows follows Blake Lively in a test of wills against a great white shark. Apart from an unintentionally farcical and groan-inducing last act, it’s a pretty well shot and acted story. It is one of countless stories about wild beasts threatening the lives of humans. Most of these are, from a statistical or scientific perspective, no less ridiculous than The Shallows‘ silly conclusion. These stories almost always involve absurd science. And towards what end that bad science is deployed tells us a lot, as does the selection of which killer animals are portrayed.

In The Shallows Blake Lively’s character is out surfing when she happens upon a whale carcass. A shark near the carcass sees her as a potential meal and decides to have a bite to eat. Over the next day the shark ignores the massive quantity of food available with the whale carcass while stalking Lively, and during that time eats two and a half other people.

All this is exceedingly unlikely. The shark ate somewhere around 200kg of people over those two days which is, using the most conservative estimates, around two months of food for an adult great white (other studies suggest this is closer to six months worth of soylent green). So the shark ignores (or leaves, it’s not clear) a massive whale carcass which could feed a host of sharks for months and instead goes after a bunch of swimmers and surfers that don’t have the yummy (for sharks) smell of rotting meat. And it does so in order to overeat by quite a bit! For contrast in the infamous 1916 New Jersey shark attacks a shark ate a maximum of .3 people over twelve days (though it killed four).

This is common in these kinds of stories. For example the T-Rex in Jurassic Park should be done eating after she eats the company stooge. That’s (probably) enough calories for a T-Rex for two days. That it keeps hunting seems pretty unlikely. The shark in Jaws eats even more beyond its likely diet. And it is exactly this voraciousness that identifies the creatures as antagonists in these stories.

There is a species power dynamic in play obscured by this. My back of the envelope math says humans comprise about .0000042% of deaths in fatal human-shark encounters. No big surprise here. It’s common enough knowledge that humans kill exponentially more sharks than the other way around. And given the challenge in imagining a shark’s point of view, it isn’t all that surprising that humans with almost no exceptions tell the stories of those .0000042% of fatalities rather than the 99.9999958% percent of them. Sure, the Discovery Channel trots out the annual shark slaughter statistics during “Shark Week” but they’re invariably mixed with stories of shark attacks lending a false narrative symmetry even as the statistical symmetry is denied. Man-eating bear, wolf, lion, snake and other such stories all follow this same pattern.

This is how power generally works, both between our species and others and inside our own species. The oppressive relationship is inverted no matter what the science says. So despite all populations using and selling drugs at nearly identical rates, it is Black people who are portrayed as the drug-dealing criminals thus positioning them not as victims of racist mass incarceration, but as justifications for the oppressive system. Despite Israel dispossessing Palestinians on a daily basic, it is Palestinians that are portrayed as the violent aggressors, much as natives are commonly portrayed in US Western stories. The dynamic is analogous to how the tv show Zoo tells of a worldwide animal revolt that threatens humanity while we are in the midst of an anthropocene/capitalocene mass extinction event. The bad science of insatiable predators is deployed justifies the bad practice of exterminating them.

The inter- and intra-species analogies are, of course, imperfect even as the racist narratives invoke a certain dehumanization. But the racialized component of which killer animal stories are told tells us just as much about inverted narratives of threat and power. For some animals do kill, and even kill and eat, vast numbers of people every year. Blake Lively will likely never star in one of these stories.

Nile crocodiles kill somewhere between several hundred and several thousand people every year in Africa throughout their range. We don’t even have sound estimates because relatively few resources are dedicated to tracking African deaths. Crocodiles eat people on a daily basis because people have to spend so much time in crocodile habitats with minimal protection. This isn’t a problem of reptilian predation, this is a problem of capitalism and colonialism. The stories told of crocodiles eating humans are instead like Lake Placid, a fun film that is science fiction both because of the vast numbers of people consumed and because of which people are consumed. Out of some three dozens feature lengths films about killer crocodiles and alligators, I know of only one that takes place in Africa, 2006’s Primeval, a racist story of white people in constant danger from both Burundians and the crocodile.

Though not eating us, snakes kills tens of thousands of people every year, predominantly in South and Southeast Asia (and to a lesser extent in Africa and parts of South America). These are predominantly tied to poor labor and housing conditions which are, again, a problem of racism and colonialism. The Anaconda tetralogy and Snakes on a Plane do not tell these stories.

Dominating both of these are mosquito-related deaths which number in the hundreds of thousands every year despite malaria being, for the most part, easily treatable were resources dedicated to the task.

These killer animal stories are not told on screen because the victims aren’t fully human in the eyes of those choosing what stories get produced. And those stories with fully human victims like The Shallows invariably invert the material world predator-prey relationship. The exceptions are exceedingly rare and even then are told with circumscribed or regressive politics. The Ghost and the Darkness and Prey for example, are pro-colonialism stories of animals preying on humans based upon the man-eating lions of Tsavo. The body count is attributed to lions and not the colonial railroad project (a dam in Prey‘s version) that brought people into the lions’ habitat in the first place. But telling such stories can illuminate vast political economic problems and indicts the systems that produce the death tolls. Capitalism and colonialism continually produce horror stories of animals killing people with body counts beyond all but apocalyptic imaginations. Jaws simply cannot compete.

Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders

The popular CBS police procedural Criminal Minds has spawned a second spin-off, Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. It takes the format of the original franchise with one major exception, the FBI profilers are operating around the globe. The FBI in this framework are an active policing institution with global carceral power, something like what the show Crossing Lines imagines Interpol to be. It offers the opportunity to explore sovereign imperial violence through the lens of how it portrays the world.

The pilot episode, “The Harmful One”, opens with a voiceover: “Over 68 million Americans leave the safety of our borders every year. If danger strikes, the FBI’s International Response Team is called into action.” Implied is that the U.S. borders are something other than regimes of violence and that to be inside them offers security. This also illustrates a tension in the stories where the U.S. empire’s sovereign violence is carried, if not carried out, by U.S. citizens wherever they go, no matter any competing sovereignty.

The episode takes place in Thailand in and around Bangkok. Two white U.S. college students are on a volunteering trip at a cassava farm where they do good by displacing paid local labor. Influenced by a cute boy who is also displacing Thai labor, one girl falsely accuses the farmer of watching her shower and convinces the other girl to abandon their work. They leave the farm and are promptly kidnapped.

We first meet the new Criminal Minds team with the franchise’s lead character FBI profiler David Rossi (fundraiser for the Israeli military Joe Mantegna) in a shooting simulation alongside Jack Garret (noted Hollywood conservative Gary Sinise). Rossi kills the suspect in the simulation and is promptly chastised by Garret who says, “We could’ve talked him down.” Garret moves to review the shooting. Instead they both jokingly dismiss the idea and decide to get coffee. Garret gets a text that sends him to Thailand on the trail of the two girls.

The IRT finds that the boy had previously been convicted of rape but “a Romeo and Juliet” law that knocked his conviction down to a misdemeanor leads the group’s technical analyst ‘Monty’ Montgomery (Tyler James Williams) to say, “I’m not sure how serious it was.”

Upon landing they encounter Clare Seger (Alana de la Garza). She is called the groups “cultural expert” which turns out to be a colonial anthropology position unburdened by expertise. She tells fellow agent Mae Jarvis (Annie Funke), “Listen, this police force is a boy’s club so don’t take it personally.” She thus sets the stage for a recurring theme in the episode where the FBI will upend local patriarchy. Clearly ‘FBI’ stands for ‘Feminist Bureau of Investigation’ though it is never made clear which strand of leaning in it is, Clintonian or Thatcherite?

Despite zero evidence in any direction the IRT goes with the theory that the kidnapping is related to a human trafficking ring. Garret and Cultural Expert go to the farm they girls disappeared from to investigate whether the farmer was involved. Cultural Expert’s hot take absolving him: “Well he’s exhausted but willing to talk. He seems embarrassed about the conditions he provides here and he’s not surprised they left. They’re not the first kids to go. And I spotted a Buddha which means he believes in karma.” I’m not sure what followed immediately after this because I rolled my eyes so hard that I momentarily lost the ability to focus.

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Taksin tells Jarvis “No!”

The IRT is hindered by local authorities through a combination of incompetence and sexism. The racism of native incompetence is an exposition tool so things needing explaining can have it without condescending to the audience as it’s more palatable to condescend to Thai people. Jarvis especially is repeatedly thwarted, especially by Taksin (Keong Sim), the local liaison. The local police do not properly preserve a murdered man’s body and thus it is up to Jarvis to get around restrictions put on her actions by Thai people. Taksin has never heard of a serial killer’s “comfort zone” despite being a high ranking Bangkok cop, thus Garret must explain it to him. Taksin stops Jarvis from photographing a dead body because of something to do with sexism.

Anyway, after stoking the fears of human trafficking they silently drop the theory once they find a piece of actual evidence. They find this after the IRT chases a Thai man through a crowded marketplace. Garret tackles the man, puts him in a choke hold, and demands answers which are immediately provided. Here the FBI can engage in wanton destruction in Thailand without even a frowning glance.

Garret choking a Thai man

Garret chokes the truth out of a suspect while crushing someone’s vegetable crop

Turns out the killer is a random tribal man (Duoa Moua) who mostly grunts and growls and, for unexplained reasons, has pierced his cheeks and mouth with lengths of metal. The character would comfortably fit in Eli Roth’s racism concentrate The Green Inferno.

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The kidnapper of innocent white women as we first meet him

But how will they stop him? Garret hunts for ideas asking, “Are there any cultural traditions for the last remaining member of a family?” Cultural Expert decides that the killer is celebrating Ullambana, which happens in August, and is sacrificing the white labor displacers to appease his ancestors. Wut? In the end the IRT saves the white women from the terrifying brown man, the killer offs himself and Jarvis conquers the patriarchy by getting a validating nod from Taksin.

The second episode, “Harvested”, opens with a bunch of white people at some expensive festival in Mumbai. Two American dude-bros pop some kind of drug while an Indian man watches predatorily from the shadows. One guy wakes up without a kidney in the middle of a slum nicknamed “Kidneyville.”

Upon arrival in India Cultural Expert drops some knowledge on the team: “Some things to keep in mind: Politeness is politic. Never use someone’s first name without their consent. Never refuse hospitality and never initiate physical contact with someone of the opposite sex. Even something as innocuous as a handshake can be looked upon as a sexual advance.” How is the latter different from the United States where men take everything from a retweet to an axe kick to the forehead as a sexual invitation? Anywho…

The second episode isn’t worth describing at length though it briefly places the kidney and other organ thefts inside casteism’s brutality and the colorist legacy of British colonialism which is encouraging. Yet imperial intervention is somehow still heroic and the US police with zero local knowledge aside from Cultural Expert are the competent ones. This story too ends with the killer’s suicide and too has opportunities for massive eye-rolling. For example Cultural Expert asks if Garret knows that the Mumbai slum they were in that had an open sewer and caste-based organ harvesting program is “completely green” because they recycle all the plastics they have and make them into little toys?

Sovereign Violence Without Borders

Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders is pretty bad television. It has the very same shallow pop psychology premised on ableism as the original series, specifically pathologizing mental illness as a producer of violence, rather than a location upon which violence is enacted. The ensemble cast has little chemistry and the writing is bad both ethically and poetically. But it is interesting in a way.

In this story American sovereign violence follows citizens wherever they go regardless of the sovereign’s borders. The monopoly over legitimate violence that defines the state is deterritorialized in empire. In this read, how do “Over 68 million Americans leave the safety of our borders every year” when for first class imperial citizens those borders are biopolitical and not geopolitical? The answer is that they more or less don’t, except in North Korea perhaps. This is what Garret means when he says of the Thai police, “It’s not their job to worry about missing Americans. It’s ours.” Just as biopolitics govern US citizens, empire governs the episode’s othered populations with necropolitics. The first two episodes both end in the end of life for the villain and in both instances is of someone already dispossessed (a Dalit man in Mumbai and a tribal man in Thailand). Necropolitics is already in play in the material world for these populations and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders reproduces it faithfully. The series will explore these ideas, however unintentionally, as it unjustifiably continues airing episodes.

Lastly, the first two episodes do not question empire’s right to police the world nor its competency to do so. Both exist as unstated facts and only the competency part is defined at all and then, only through positioning alongside native incompetency. But this is expected. After all if the stories investigated whether or not the FBI should be active all over the globe they will find that it shouldn’t. And the series would have to end. Which it should.

The Anti-Black Geography of Revitalizing Detroit

The following essay leans heavily on—though cannot be blamed on—the works of Saidiya Hartman, Jared Sexton and Frank Wilderson despite me citing only one directly. Thanks to Kristian Davis Bailey and Lester Spence for critical feedback towards making this screed coherent.

It seems that every day brings a new story about Detroit’s “revitalization”. The Huffington Post, New York Times, Washington Post, NGOs and others point to new construction, new restaurants opening, the rehabbing or demolishing of old buildings, foundation and capitalist investment in the city and gentrification as starting a new chapter in Detroit’s history. Mayor Mike Duggan even has a “Housing and Revitalization Department” and Wayne State University hosts “Detroit Revitalization Fellows”. The narrative goes something like: “Until recently Detroit was an urban wasteland left destitute by deindustrialization, corrupt and incompetent governance, neglect and white flight but all that is changing. A new Detroit is being built and you can be a part of it!” Both this narrative and the processes it describes contain a fundamental anti-Blackness. They are premised on interrelated white capitalist accumulation, the commodification and erasure of Detroit’s Black geography, and Black social death.

The Revitalization of Detroit

A major part of ‘revitalizing Detroit’ is creating spaces for white fantasy. This is commonly done through describing the existing, living Black geography as a “blank canvas” for white gentrifiers, capitalists, politicians and academics to make of what they may. Leading gentrification figure and author Toby Barlow wrote in the New York Times in 2009 that “Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished.” Dan Gilbert, Lebron James’s boss and owner of predatory lending firm Quicken Loans, is lauded as a champion of revitalization for moving Quicken’s headquarters to downtown Detroit and bringing so many newcomers to the city to work for him. Gilbert both markets subprime mortgages then chairs the “Blight Task Force” that demolishes empty houses, many of which are foreclosures caused by his firm. He can both blight and fight blight. Gilbert maintains a detailed model of downtown Detroit which only lights up buildings after he purchases them which more or less embodies this entire essay. His actions with the Blight Task Force mostly take place in Detroit’s low-income neighborhoods but he also played a role in the 2013 mass eviction of working class Black seniors and disabled people from the Griswold building downtown. With the removal of Black tenants perhaps Gilbert can now light up the Griswold building on his model. It has been ‘revitalized’.

Gilbert, the Ilitch family, and other billionaires are leading the charge but white petty capitalists and merchants are also joining in. Numerous on Crain’s Detroit’s annual “20 in their 20s” lists view Detroit as a “blank canvas”. Some new arrivals found small capitalist enterprises like the Parker Street Market that replicate what Black Detroit social movements have been doing, except reimagined for accumulation purposes rather than community prosperity. Typical to how white supremacy inverts relations, community prosperity is often imagined as white accumulation through ‘socially conscious’ capitalist enterprise. The Parker Street Market is emblematic of the small scale ‘entrepreneurs’ exploring fantasies in Detroit they could not realize at such relatively low expense in wealthier, whiter geographies. Enterprises like the much ballyhooed Whole Foods Detroit do like Parker Street but on a vastly larger scale. The Black social movements are scarcely noted, often erased entirely, while white capitalists are toasted. To the degree that Black Detroiters are acknowledged it is as Jon Moy wrote about Shinola. Shinola is an extraordinarily expensive retail and assembly shop located in the Cass Corridor, a neighborhood now marketed as ‘Midtown’, and is itself part of turning the Cass Corridor into Midtown. Moy writes, “Shinola and other entrepreneurs market themselves as white knights, swooping in to save the noble savages.” Here one’s politics might be positioned by whether one can tell the difference between shit and Shinola.

When former Governor Jennifer Granholm convened a panel to restructure Detroit schools she asked them to treat schooling children in a district around 90% Black like a “blank canvas”. Detroit’s schools were at the time, as they continue to be, under Emergency Manager (EM) rule, run by a technocrat with extraordinary powers appointed by the governor. EMs replace the decision making power normally allocated to elected officials (leaving the actual power of U.S. elections for another time). Democrat and Republican governors appoint Emergency Managers (EMs) to run the schools and city no matter decisions made by Detroit’s Black electorate (as they’ve done with most majority-Black cities and towns in Michigan). Black people make up around fourteen percent of Michigan’s populace and nearly half have been subjected to Emergency Manager rule, compared to less than one percent of white Michiganders. Detroit’s schools or city government have been under EM rule for over fifteen years now. The decisions of Black Detroiters simply do not matter and are erased. Emergency Management is a more politically palatable action than the phrasing used in 2004 by a white suburban politician describing a need to “suppress the Detroit vote.” Detroit politics are a “blank canvas” for the state’s white political leadership to inscribe their Emergency Management experiment upon. The ‘blank canvas’ term is now less in use than in past years due to push back from Detroiters continually emphasizing that they actually exist but the concept persists largely unperturbed.

Detroit’s Black geography is fungible to outside real estate speculators, a new petty landlord class (a place where there is a significant measure of Black capitalist participation), the fantasists and the property hoarders like John Hantz, Gilbert and others. They buy up houses, buildings and plots in any low-cost neighborhood. They know nothing of the neighborhoods because Black neighborhoods do not matter to them apart from a vision of capital accumulation. The speculators seek a quick turnaround anywhere and future profits around the current periphery of gentrification. The landlords seek higher rents (more easily accomplished with white renters who receive higher wages). The hipster fantasists do their entrepreneuring (gag!) while bringing a higher police presencethey want Detroit grime but not Detroit crime. The hoarders seek to create an artificial scarcity so as to drive up all prices. Detroit’s Black geography is fungible to white capitalist accumulation and it is explicitly the city’s Blackness that makes it so.

By an overwhelming margin Black Detroiters bear the brunt of these and related oppressive actions. The population embodies the Detroit purportedly in need of vitalizing, of adding life to, for anti-Blackness dictates that Black people are socially dead. It is mostly Black people who are being foreclosed upon and evicted, who are having their votes invalidated by EMs, who are having their water shut-off and then their kids removed due to no water service, whose neighborhoods become playgrounds for real estate speculators. But Black suffering as a negative is a rare topic of discussion in such matters and condemnation of these actions outside of Detroit too is rare. For how can the socially dead suffer? Indeed in most conversations it is the Black working class and the, in Frantz Fanon and Huey Newton’s positive understanding, Black lumpenproletariat who are said to be responsible for the consequences of white supremacist capitalist policies rather than racial capitalism being the cause. Inside racial capitalism it can hardly be otherwise. It is official policy so it is as Saidiya Hartman said, “No crime can occur because the slave statutes recognize no such crime.” There is no more telling example of Hartman’s phrasing than the 2010 collaborative reality television and police murder of Aiyana Stanley Jones on Detroit’s East Side. She was a young girl sleeping in her bed when police and a reality tv crew burst through her door and killed her while exercising a warrant. There has been no accountability and the cop that murdered her is back at work disciplining Black bodies for the state.

The Devitalization of Detroit

Large scale disinvestment and the underdeveloping of Detroit began in the 1960s after highway construction helped facilitate white flight to the suburbs. Highways constructed for the imperial war effort in the 1940s paved the way for white relocation to suburbs ever further north across 8 Mile road and to the city’s west. The population shift was triggered by accumulation from industrial production during the war, the automobile industry and the arrival of vast numbers of Black migrants from the South. In the case of the construction of the Chrysler Freeway (I-75 and I-375), this was accomplished by paving over the remains of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, neighborhoods comprising the cultural, political and economic core of Black Detroit demolished by Mayor Cobo. Alternately put, white flight was in part realized in driving over an intentionally dislocated and disoriented Black civil society and geography. The erasure described above is not new. It was tried through physical demolition as with Black Bottom and with real estate redlining from the moment Detroit’s Black population began rapidly expanding.

Industrialists, CEOs and boards of directors closed and relocated manufacturing plants away from the increasingly Black city. Others used automated production not to enhance the workforce but instead to deskill (so as to pay lower wages and reduce bargaining power) and replace (so as to pay no wages and face no bargaining power) workers. Many did both. With the removal of jobs came the removal of the sector serving those employees and employing others. The managerial and most of the white working class followed those jobs and fled the rapidly arriving Black population that, for a few decades, continued to grow. Whites increased their flight in response to the 1967 Rebellion, commonly called ‘the riots’. In the late 1980s the Black population started to leave too, this not counting the disappeared tens of thousands continually sent off to prisons all over the state. Meanwhile successive neoliberal local and state administrations have sold off and given away control of city assets, most recently Belle Isle.

The ‘revitalization’ narratives note some of the above but do so with minimal critique of the racist, capitalist policies that made it this way. Detroit’s problems didn’t simply happen, they were and are being engineered and are the predictable results of both corporate and government policies (to the degree that it is useful to separate them). Further, they note these problems but ignore positive action by Black residents and every solution not offered by the elite. This is due to another aspect of anti-Blackness, the social death of slavery.

Rather than being a blank canvas the actually existing Detroit is a canvas painted over and again, beginning with French and later British settlers killing and expelling the local Ojibwe population and establishing a slaveholding settler colony. How is today’s Detroit, a near inverse of the original settler colony, with its block parties, vibrant social movements, mosques, churches, restaurants, clubs, numerous annual festivals, its own dances, musics and other cultural production in need of revitalization? Of needing an injection of life? Because it is Black metropolis. As Hartman, Orlando Patterson, Frank Wilderson and others have illustrated, Blackness to White America is social death, is a marker of a fungible commodity rather than humanity. For White America adding ‘matter’ to ‘Black lives’ is almost redundant as it disavows Black life in the first place.

Black life in Detroit is unrecognizable to the planners of the New Detroit. Detroit the existing, living city simply isn’t to the elite, so long as it is a Black city. Revitalization is the influx of young white people and investments by white capitalists. Devitalization—a geography of social death and an unuttered word—is the process by which Detroit became a Black metropolis. Detroit is said to be in need of revitalization and that revitalization imagines a geography devoid of humans, a “blank canvas”, because the social death of Blackness imagines Black residents not as individual people but as fungible markers of white accumulation. These narratives show a total and aggressive contempt for the Black metropolis, its people and social movements. But “revitalization” is not treated as problematic no matter the massive harm it’s causing because, to repeat Hartman’s phrasing, “No crime can occur because the slave statutes recognize no such crime.”

The Interview – Two Deeply Unpleasant Hours of Cinema Paradisbro

The Interview

dir. Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen
112 min | 2014
Columbia Pictures, L Star Capital, Point Grey Pictures

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Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s latest film The Interview was bound to get some attention even before its distributor, Sony, was hacked and the ensuing debacle with alleged threats from North Korea (DPRK). A film this racist would get attention regardless. Unfortunately due to the publicity around the Sony hack many more people will likely be subjected to The Interview and the attention won’t be as negative as it deserves. What follows includes spoilers if you believe something already rotten can be spoiled.

The Interview opens with an othering scene of a young North Korean girl singing about destroying the U.S. before an audience of dignitaries prior to a missile launch. The othering completes with a series of shorts news clips about North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) being the next Hitler before introducing Dave Skylark (James Franco).

We meet Skylark as a tabloid news host interviewing Eminem in a scene that kicks off nearly incessant gay jokes. Skylark is the kind of guy with no qualms about breaking into caricatured Black Vernacular English as ‘comedy’ nor any idea about why anyone would have such qualms. Pressured by producer Aaron Rapaport (co-director Seth Rogen) to due serious journalism, Skylark comes up with the idea of interviewing Kim Jong-un as a bridge. Rapaport will get serious news and Skylark will get sensational ratings.

Rapaport is the sober foil to Skylark’s unfiltered and hyper stream of consciousness. He’s shamed for his tabloid work by a fellow journalism school grad who now works for 60 Minutes. Rapaport’s sophistication is juxtaposed next to Skylark’s visceral racism and sexism. But they both due caricatured Korean accents. They both immediately ogle Agent Lacey’s (Lizzy Caplan) breasts. They both constantly make gay jokes. While Skylark is the dense one, the juxtaposition between he and Rapaport is one of tone only. So when at the end when Skylark says to a puppy, “Guess who’s going home to America where they don’t eat doggies” and Rapaport doesn’t let him finish he is not disapproving, merely hurrying him along.

Sook (Diane Bang) and the North Koreans are introduced with a soundtrack is only slightly less ominous than Darth Vader’s “Imperial March” in Star Wars, just in case they weren’t sufficiently othered earlier. When we meet Sook she is immediately objectified in the familiar way of cinema, with a cut pan up her body. The body pan opens up women’s bodies to the male gaze and orients, or given the aggressive and regressive Dragon Lady stereotyping in this case orientalizes, viewers to objects instead of characters.

Lacey then recruits Rapaport and Skylark in a plot to assassinate Kim. Skylark is convinced to go along with the plan by Lacey’s breasts, bangs and glasses (which are as close as The Interview gets to Lacey’s character development). Any justifications are secondary to Skylark’s pursuit of sex. The rationalizations eventually put forward are concentration camps, a hungry population, a nuclear threat and totalitarianism. These are never explored nor are their reflections in the United States but for Kim quickly stumping Skylark near the film’s climax with a retort about the U.S.’s mass incarceration regime.

The only character with any depth is Park’s Kim. He is a vulnerable tyrant with daddy issues and the initial portrayal is only half-bad. But as the film goes along any charisma or depth gets strained out of the narrative. As the final confrontation kicks off and assassinating Kim gets underway the film moves from boring to boring and bloody with the othered North Koreans being mowed down à la Rambo and similar Cold War tripe about evil Asians. The White Hero Skylark rousing North Koreans to rise against Kim is as ridiculous as the Russians chanting “Rocky! Rocky!” at the end of Rocky IV. Indeed Reagan-era Hollywood is where The Interview’s heart is. It aspires to be a Cold War buddy comedy and even offers the Scorpians’ “Wind of Change” as the credits roll.

Rogen and Goldberg’s idea of humor is something like “wacky” combined with racism, gay jokes and an obsession with anuses and inserting things into them. They do not contact a DPRK embassy to set up the interview, instead a wacky path including the Olympic Committee and a Rapaport trip to China ensues. There is a wacky drone strike that kills a tiger. Rapaport is wackily racist to the DPRK official on the phone. Ad infinitum.

The Interview has virtually no character development but plenty of overacting. It has a few quick montages – some with short clips some with jump cuts – that serve no purpose. It is aggressively sexist, homophobic and racist. The Interview is a comedy without any. I did chuckle once during a fight scene near the end of the movie. Rapaport is fighting a television worker who bites off one of his fingers. Then Rapaport bites off one of the other guy’s fingers. Then the guy bites off another of Rapaport’s fingers. That third one was a little funny.

Despite all of this The Interview has already found an audience. In addition to Seth Rogen’s dedicated following of people who think “Because I Got High” was robbed at the Grammys, U.S. nationalists are also up in arms about Sony’s pause on distribution. The nationalists are presenting The Interview as something to do with free artistic expression or fighting oppression. Not incidentally, neither of these audiences is up in arms about the multitude of racist emails released by the hackers nor about how vigilantes or cops kill Black women and men every twenty-eight hours. It has nothing to do with free artistic expression. Free expression does not mean an obligated audience and The Interview has not earned one.

Not distributing The Interview was both ethically and artistically the right decision but Sony has gone ahead with it anyway. Don’t see it. For the $6 Sony is charging to stream it you can find better ways to spend two deeply unpleasant hours. You could buy two bottles of soy sauce and drink them slowly. You could buy a roll of industrial tape and use it to remove body hair. You could buy a gallon of bland ice cream and see how long you can sustain brain freeze. All of these are better than watching The Interview.