Blindspotting the Carceral State

“A cage that allows someone to walk around inside of it is still a cage.”

Clint Smith III

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal (Photo courtesy of IndieWire.Com).

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal (Photo courtesy of IndieWire.Com).

It seems like Black suffering is on display everywhere. Slain Black folx retweeted onto my timeline (TL). Historic Black communities becoming inundated with juice bars and Whole Foods. It is hard to see the murder of Black folx and the erasure of Black communities. It is even harder to consider the ways in which those phenomena have become parts of everyday life for Black folx everywhere. There have been numerous articles pointing out media’s obsession with Black suffering (dubbed Black Trauma Porn), and Blindspotting does in fact center Black suffering. It is necessary that we all become more active in interrogating the role of trauma in art, and I see Blindspotting as an opportunity to do so. The characters being placed in traumatic situations provides me a nuanced vehicle to discuss really difficult topics. Yes, the Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal penned film Blindspotting comes at a time when many of us are weary of these circumstances, but I had time today. I have to note, not everyone has to do the work of wading through traumatic imagery. Everyone should take care of themselves, but conversations on what actually constitutes self-care belong in another article. I simply can not do it justice now.

The film does a great job of capturing the realization that the criminalization, surveillance, and harassment of Black folx is relentless and nestled in a logic that refuses to acknowledge Black humanity. The plot of the film is set in Oakland, CA, home to many Black & Brown communities who are taking great efforts to preserve their cultures and communities  against the encroachment of tech bros. It primarily follows Collin Hoskins (Daveed Diggs), a formerly incarcerated person who has just days left on his probation period, and his friendship with Miles (Rafael Casal), a white boy with impulse control issues and hates gentrifiers. The interracial friendship of Collin and Miles brought many issues to the forefront of my consciousness. The two friends each navigate the social and political spaces of Oakland vastly differently, obviously because of their races.

Blackness has historically been criminalized, and criminalization followed by incarceration has often acted as a sort of social death. Throughout the movie we are reminded of the permanent status of Collin’s convictions and how this limits his ability to move freely in society. The movie counts down the final days of Collin’s probation, but on the final day I felt no relief from the tension that had been building since the film began. Instead, the viewing audience got the climax of a growing rift between Collin and Miles. As gentrifiers flowed in, Collin adapted and became more open to some of the changes that came with them, but Miles reacts negatively, and often violently.

A critical reading of the film requires an understanding of the realities of the carceral state in addition to race. The carceral state is characterized by the physical control of space usually via prisons and policing forces. Race and the carceral state are intimately acquainted because the creation of race was meant to other people and allow them to be easily marginalized via criminalization and eventual incarceration. Analyzing inequality via the Carceral State and Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is extremely helpful because it makes tangible the unique material conditions of identity found in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality. The PIC sits at the intersection of many marginalized identities. Because of this, it becomes apparent that intersectionality is not about the stacking of those identities like Lincoln Logs, but rather it is about the tangible consequences those identities face. The PIC affects Black, Brown, Indigenous, Queer, Femme, and Disabled folx in different but devastating ways.

Collin is aware of how he is already perceived as violent and criminal (especially after the crime he was convicted of – which I won’t spoil – because he is Black. This awareness is further complicated by Collin witnessing a police officer murdering a Black man in the streets. Collin implicitly realizes how much standing up against anti-Black violence in America is contingent upon “innocence.” Miles even blatantly points this realization out to the audience when the Police shooting that Collin witnesses is on the news. The victim is described as a formerly incarcerated person: there will be no marches for him. The social construction of innocence is often a barrier to justice in the carceral state as described in Harvard Ph.D. candidate Jackie Wang’s Against Innocence. Innocence is consistently seen through a white imagination, as pointed out in specific examples by Ph.D. candidate and author Zoe Samudzi. Innocence is based on what makes white people feel safe and often plays upon the implicit biases that inform the perceived criminality of Black folx and other negatively racialized groups. Who is seen as innocent and worthy of being protected reproduces marginality that we see in larger society. Grappling with how Black Women & Femmes, Queer people and Trans & Gender Non-Conforming Folx are disproportionately targeted and harmed by the carceral state is beyond the scope of this film, but those are facts worth considering when overcoming the paradigm of innocence. The grand narrative cannot only reflect respectable cis-het Black men. Overall, the guilt-innocence framework panders to the idea that Black folx are inherently criminal and must be overcome by concerted efforts to reduce harm in our communities and imagine the world as it should be, not as it currently is.

Collin does not want to place himself in compromising positions because he already knows that as a person who has been convicted he exists in an entirely different social and citizenship category, further compounded by anti-Blackness – social death. Miles, on the other hand, does impulsive and dangerous things without thinking of the consequences, and asserts that this is part of his realness. Miles is a natural foil to Collin and his influence on Collin and his surroundings gives me a jumping off point to discuss toxic masculinity (something the film could have done a better job doing).

Realness in this case can be thought of in terms of Miles’ ability to protect and provide for his family, as well as his ability to navigate Oakland. Political Theorist Iris Marion Young describes a theory of masculinist protection in that “good men” are those that serve as protectors and that women’s subordination stems from their need to be protected by the aforementioned good men. Of course the ideals of masculinist protection are problematic and rooted in patriarchy, but it helps make legible some of Miles’ behavior. Womxn are not featured heavily in Blindspotting and it is important to consider the unequal power relation inherent to a gender relation built on masculinist ideas of protection. Miles provides us an individual level look at the ideals of masculinist protection. He thinks that he is protecting his family from gentrification and economic inequality.  Miles justifies his violence by presenting it as staying “real” and ultimately “protecting” his family.

On a macro level, an ideology of masculinist protection has historically been used to put white femininity on a pedestal, facilitating the murder and brutalization of Black Men & Womxn. In the name of protecting white civility and femininity, we have seen, for example, the construction of Black male rapist pathology and the sapphire stereotype. The carceral state has use for these stereotypes. Iris Marion Young points out that most often, the force that the state wields to control people is justified via arguments centered around the need for protection. The carceral state and the supposed security that comes with it may not be understood without thinking about how masculinity has been instrumentalized to serve patriarchy, and how patriarchy undergirds the violence of the state.

In addition to his masculinist ideas about protection, Miles is white like the gentrifiers. Because of this, he feels that if he does not resist often and violently people won’t see him as a real Oaklander. Miles says that no one will question Collin’s “realness” because he is Black, but Miles clearly does not grasp the way that Blackness is criminalized and otherized. How could he? Framing Blackness as a privilege divorces Blackness from its relationship with systemic oppression. Miles makes me think about how whiteness is relational. Whiteness has no concrete definition and is instead defined by what it is NOT. Whiteness is based on exclusivity, and that exclusivity is only achieved by exercising power. Miles cannot escape this. His desire to be seen as “really Oakland” requires that he situate himself in relation to other people – Black people. Whiteness is a created category and does not thrive on its own.

All this being said, I understand both the reasons for Miles’ anger and the reasons why Collin cannot express anger in the same way that Miles does. Everyone is capable of great acts of violence and rage, but we cannot understand those acts of violence and rage without understanding the system that fosters them. Part of what makes Blindspotting so powerful is that it situates real rage and the consequences of that rage within a larger system of oppression. Gentrification uproots people from places they have lived for generations and state sanctioned violence and surveillance ensures that things remain that way. As whites return from their flight to the suburb and are in close quarters with Black people, it is no wonder that white people use the police to assert their dominance. I am not surprised by the recent coverage of white people calling the police on Black people who “don’t belong;” that’s just racist white people telling on themselves. One of the functions of the police is to protect white property and power.

The carceral system casts wide shadows, and it is necessary that I approach it from as many frameworks of understanding as possible or it is impossible to begin to understand its impact. Analysis of racial inequality comes pretty naturally to me as a Black man in America, but ableism has always been one of the most insidious systems for me to confront. My language and way of thinking about what people deserve in our world has been deeply ableist in the past, and it has been a long process to unlearn all of that. That being said, how incarceration disproportionately targets Disabled folx and leaves folx disabled is not often addressed. Disability Justice advocate Talila Lewis has noted extensively in their work how a great percentage of the prison population than is reported has a disability (50-80%). Lewis made me realize the wide reach of ableism in the PIC. Though not explicitly diagnosed it becomes clear that Diggs’ character has some form of PTSD and that fear of the state sanctioned violence of the carceral state has left him with deep seated trauma. This trauma is something we see Collin struggle with most of the film, only verbalizing it after a series of triggering events… “Are you okay?” Miles asks.Collin simply says “No.”

Expanding how we see disability is important work because it complicates how we fight for those who are marginalized. Being disabled is not about what you can’t do, but rather about how ableism and other oppressive systems have deemed you unworthy of the resources that you need to thrive. Like many other marginalized identities this becomes extremely clear when considering incarceration and its long lasting consequences.

Yes, I am oh so tired of seeing Black suffering on the screen, but Blindspotting paints a picture of a reality that is close to home. It talks about very real fears that I have as someone who is tall, Black, and most likely seen as “threatening” in America. Over six decades later and the spectre of Ellison’s Invisible Man still haunts us as a racial blindspot. White people and those refusing to concede power see what they want to see, and disappear what they don’t. For people who want space to discuss the intersections of race, carcerality, and gentrification, I recommend that you see this movie. The movie is not an endpoint by any means,nothing is, but it is a jumping off point for critique. I remind myself everyday that I am the inheritor of a rich legacy of critique with dreams of freedom. We have always had Freedom Dreams. The Prison Abolition Movement embodies some of those dreams, and actively fights against the darkest aspects of what Blindspotting portrays on screen. The traumatic imagery laden in Blindspotting reminds me of the necessity of freedom dreams in uncertain times.

CULTUREColeman PowellComment