It’s a dark and stormy night in Swinton, Louisiana. Officer Kevin Ganning shakes off the rain as he enters a dingy diner ensconced in the ambience of gritty cop noir. He is not welcomed. The black server, Pops, keeps his back turned to Ganning while a black woman behind the counter shoots him dirty looks. They are both glued to a television piping in images of riot cops clashing with black protesters. “A now familiar scene,” the reporter intones, “an officer accused of the shooting an unarmed African American man… has been found not guilty.” Ganning orders a coffee, to which Pops growls back “not working,” his eyes fixed on flickering images of black revolt and police repression.
“All across the city, and nation, including Swinton,” the broadcast continues, “spontaneous protests have erupted to decry the verdict as well as to oppose police violence.” Pops watches as protesters push back against police lines, kick away tear gas canisters, and brandish a stolen cop vest as a trophy. The reporter recounts how allegations of a police conspiracy to frame the victim and plant a gun did not sway the jury. Ganning orders a medium Coke, met with silence, and a long hard stare. “Various peaceful protests escalated as objects were thrown at City Hall as well as police vehicles,” the reporter continues, as Ganning nervously notes dirty looks from the diner patrons, white and black, while donning a mask of anguish in the face of the injustice he must suffer.
“You’re not welcome here today, Kevin,” Pops at last tells Ganning, sliding him a sad looking soda in a paper cup. “Not today man.” It doesn’t matter that Ganning, portrayed by Latino actor Ian Casselbury, is not the kind of good old boy Derek Chauvin-looking white cop traditionally associated with police violence against black men. His tormented visage tells us as much; Ganning is not indignant in the face of Pop’s discrimination against him as a cop, but just endlessly sad at the tragedy of it all. Don’t they know he’s only doing his job? Those bad cops don’t represent him. Why should he be lumped in with them? Back in his patrol car, cutting forlornly through the darkness of the storm, Ganning consoles his daughter over the phone. “I know, I wish I could be there too,” he tells her. “I’m doing this for us… I won’t miss anything else.”
The call ends abruptly when a van with no license plate cuts across Ganning’s path. He pulls it over. The driver is obscured behind a black tinted window, and initially refuses to come out. Ganning becomes agitated, drawing his gun and shouting orders. It’s a familiar scene to the American viewer, made doubly canny by multiple cuts that show the scene through Ganning’s body cam and the cop car’s dash cam, which usually ends in the death of the motorist at the hands of the cops. At last the door opens and a petite black woman steps out, hands up, shaking and afraid. But Ganning keeps on shouting. “Don’t make me hurt you, please!” he barks, ordering her onto the ground. At that, he is abruptly snatched off the ground by an unseen supernatural force. Shrieking in pain, Ganning hurtles through the air as the ground below vanishes through the view of his body cam.
The first four minutes of the 2020 film Body Cam deftly outline the film’s moral economy, part and parcel of the political moment that produced it. Make no mistake: though undeniably atmospheric and not without a few technical tricks, including the clever use of dash and body cams, Body Cam is a thoroughly mediocre work of horror, hardly capable of mustering an effective jump scare. It was also completed at least a year before the George Floyd Rebellion kicked off in Minneapolis, ushering in a qualitatively new era in the struggle against racialized police violence in the United States, and the sympathy it attempts to evoke for the injustice against the poor defenseless cops may (hopefully) come off as tone deaf and dated. Nonetheless, the film has proven to be remarkably prescient and profound, if only by accident. Directed by Imperial Dreams director Malik Vitthal and starring R&B legend Mary J. Blige, Body Cam offers an honest view of the social crisis around American policing as it appears through the eyes of the progressive wing of the US ruling class.
Around the time of Ganning’s ill-fated traffic stop, Officer Renee Lomito (Mary J. Blige), fresh off a suspension for assaulting a civilian who called her a racial slur, patrols nearby streets with her white rookie partner, Officer Danny Hollege. The duo comes across a young black boy playing unattended in the middle of the street. When they attempt to help the child find his parents, an angry mob gathers, pushing them back to their car amid verbal abuse, including from the child’s careless mother, who we gather ought to be thankful. The pain on Lomito’s face is the same worn by Ganning in the diner; one can picture the actors practicing it together. Back in the car, they’re summoned to the scene of Ganning’s last traffic stop. Lomito views replays of Ganning’s dash cam, and watches his death in shock. Then the whole apparatus shorts out, deleting the video. Following a grisly trail of blood and broken teeth, the duo finds Ganning’s mutilated body hung up on a nearby fence. Did I mention this is not a subtle film?
When the higher-ups arrive on the scene, nobody believes what Lomito has seen. She has a unique standpoint throughout the film that allows her to identify with the cops, sympathize with their victims, and above all understand the danger of the consent of the governed falling apart. Hollege, who cannot see the world through Lomito’s eyes, must decide whether he trusts her enough to take her word for it. The rest of the film unfolds around Lomito dealing with the consequences of her startling vision: the violence and injustice of American policing has opened the vortex, summoning an inchoate force of pure destruction. The killer is nameless, ill-defined, does not speak, and makes no demands. Its form is a shadow, at best, seen only when it appears in order to mete out ruthless violence. There is no chance of dialogue, coming together, reconciliation, or healing, only vengeance and destruction. And Ganning is of course not the only casualty. As the bodies pile up and Lomito’s superiors stonewall her queries, she must undertake her own investigation to put the genie back in its bottle and restore social order.
What does it take to close the vortex? Spoiler alert: Lomito knows. She has tracked down its origins, in a conspiracy among her fellow officers to cover up the murder of a young black boy. The child’s mother, who has helped summon the monster into existence, initially considers Lomito the enemy. But through Lomito’s persistent hard work, she comes to believe that there is at least one cop who is on her side. Lomito also succeeds in winning over Hollege, who at last reveals a secret that has been eating him: he witnessed the murder and captured it on his body cam. He leaves this evidence behind and shoots himself in the head. Armed with this evidence, Lomito stands up to the cops behind the coverup, and with a little help from the supernatural, reveals the truth. Since most of the cops involved in the murder have already been eviscerated by this point, a lone superior complicit in the coverup is made to stand trial. Following “a stunning trial that riveted the public,” a news anchor tells us, he is found guilty. The monster is satisfied, and stops killing cops. Hailed as a hero, Lomito remarks that she is just doing her duty.
The motif of the body cam, a small camera worn on cops’ vests to film their interactions with the public, is a seemingly odd choice for a film that throws its weight behind the imperative to reform the police. A popular demand in the early days of Black Lives Matter (BLM), championed by Barack Obama’s Justice Department, body cams have been adopted across the United States – and have proven to do very little to prevent police violence. They have a nasty habit of accidentally turning themselves off in moments of police violence, or else police departments fight tooth and nail to avoid releasing the footage they capture, or else viewers have been forced to watch body cam videos of killer cops who often face no repercussions for their acts. All of the cops involved in George Floyd’s death were wearing body cams, but this did not prevent Floyd’s murder, or stop the Minneapolis Police from issuing a fraudulent account of Floyd’s lethal ordeal, which glosses over Chauvin’s acts entirely, claiming only that Floyd suffered “medical distress.” The statement is sure to add: “Body worn cameras were on and activated during this incident.” It was only a bystander’s video that told the real story.
This choice of motif is however easily understood in light of Lomito’s central role in the resolution of the violent conflict that animates Body Cam. Lomito represents in one character the figure of “community policing,” the demand for more diverse cops, the axiom that cops and the communities they terrorize need to simply open up a “dialogue,” and the persistent liberal cant that “not all cops are bad” – as if the functionaries tasked with overseeing racialized class domination could somehow escape this role by being nice. There might be individual cops who are racist, ill-tempered, mean, and in need of “sensitivity training,” a common panacea in police reform circles for at least half a century. But US policing is, of course, only as violent and nasty as the capitalist order it props up. The violence at the heart of US society — its enduring racial hierarchy, staggering inequality of wealth and power, and abandonment of much of its population to destitution and death — is simply expressed through the violence of the cops who hold this combustible compound together. The horizon for change offered by Body Cam is therefore a kind of pantomime of change draped in the language of “social justice,” that modifies nothing about how society is organized. This perspective speaks of reconciliation but only means the cessation of hostilities between irreconcilable social forces in the name of the status quo. What better a metonym for this outlook than that useless decoration, the body cam?
Surely this is not your average white boy cop drama. Body Cam is part of an innovation in copaganda that incorporates some of the main themes of movements like BLM, along with diverse faces representing the cops, to argue that “distrust” between police and working-class communities of color must be repaired so that the former can effectively do its necessary work keeping the latter in line. Body Cam therefore acknowledges that there is some justification to the payback that the cops have coming to them, but concerns itself far more with putting disorder to an end than with ending the circumstances which produce it. It also plays a good amount of violin for American cops in the process — you know, the good ones who are only doing their jobs — deploying a comparison of anti-police prejudice with racism that is of course a common argument of the Blue Lives Matter movement. The real tragedy, the film tells us, is that people no longer trust the cops. In other words, like many dominant social institutions in the US, the film’s major problem is not that killer cops exist but that finally someone is fighting back. It is among Body Cam’s virtues that it fails as a horror movie, lest the viewer be distracted by cheap scares from beholding the poverty of this worldview allowed to plead its case for ninety-six painful minutes.
While this largely forgettable film was unceremoniously dumped onto streaming services just days before the murder of George Floyd, it remains remarkably attuned to the zeitgeist which produced it. In its heavy-handed plucking of the raw nerves of the post-BLM years, Body Cam captures at once the great anti-cop fury which would soon be released, culminating in the attack on the 3rd Precinct, alongside the urgent need among movement managers and their allies in the police to deescalate the rebellion, define it within the terms of liberal democracy, and channel its energy into dialogue with the powerful and the theatrics of procedural justice, instead of a direct attack on the carceral state.
It might be a stretch to say that Body Cam predicts not only the rebellion, produced by the ongoing and racialized structural violence of American life, but also the conviction of Derek Chauvin, undertaken by systematic cooperation throughout the Minneapolis city government to satiate the George Floyd Rebellion and quell it once and for all. The film does, however, depict the near inevitability of the former, and the mechanisms by which it was diluted and sidelined in the name of business as usual, including the latter. Body Cam transports to the realm of supernatural horror the concrete material fact that the capitalist order of the United States and the police that violently uphold it up can conjure a ruthless force dedicated to the destruction of both.
After rearing its head in the summer of 2020, it seems that this monster has been subdued. But what good horror creature stays dead for long?