Reflecting on Redemption, Accountability and Blackness
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s name and ultimately her legacy will bring to mind that she became the first woman in Oscar history to win the Best Director award in 2010. According to her IMDB webpage, as of 2020 there have only been five women nominated: Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Greta Gerwig. Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, her fifth feature film co-written by her then husband James Cameron is mostly forgotten when compared to her more acclaimed work including the Oscar winning The Hurt Locker (2008) or Zero Dark Thirty (2012). In fact Strange Days was “the movie was a pretty big flop on theatrical release, grossing under $8 million on a $42 million budget” according to film critic Sonny Bunch.
A strong counterargument would place despite flopping in theaters that it is worth watching and dissecting. Kathryn Bigelow’s overlooked thriller, Strange Days, set in a futuristic Los Angeles, explores the psychological theme of duality of character through its use of a futuristic narrative, elliptical storytelling and innovative editing.
As revealed on the film’s IMDB webpage, the tag line of Strange Days is : “New year’s eve 1999. Anything is possible. Nothing is forbidden”. The tagline is certainly a testament to the violence and cruelties present in this narrative that earned an ‘R’ rating from the MPAA for content with intense disturbing violence, rape and pervasive strong language. Yet it is a narrative that also shows that hope, love and redemption are tied together with those other elements like a yin and yang symbol. With that in mind, it is important to note two major characters in the film that help define how the moral compass leans to and fro. (Heavy spoilers for the film to come, if you need a heads up!)
Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) former cop turned seller of black market goods is closer to that ‘bad’ side on the spectrum for that reason alone. He is selfish, often messy and uses his charms as believes he can talk himself out of any unfavorable situation. (He is also someone who will write even jot down important info in his own blood!) He is a man who wants to live in the past and he does this literally by replaying digitalized memories of him and his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Licks) instead of truly coming to terms that they are over.
He is called a “goofball romantic” and “magic man” by his friends by his aloofness to his craft and his attitude towards relationships. Lenny is so involved in everyone else’s lives that he fails to be accountable to attempt to fix his own. This is touched upon by Philo (Michael Wincott), Faith’s record label boss who calls him a peddler of other people’s lives as it is fitting when Lenny’s is so broken.
Lornette ‘Mace’ Mason (Angela Bassett) chauffeur and bodyguard is closer to that ‘good’ side on the spectrum. She is dependable, has a legit profession (more legit than Lenny, anyway) and is often the voice of reason when interacting with him. She’s a no nonsense woman who is rational, a single mom with little support. She is seemingly nearly always prepared for the worst and is a hell of a shot when needed. She is often aiding in getting Lenny out of his messes and her femininity may be on the table for some viewers as she’s never truly able to be soft and vulnerable, at least for much of the film.
Even her nickname “Mace” is a bit on the nose and she happens to carry around a can of it which she does use. Strong, female character, CONFIRMED. Film critic Michael Mirasol remarks on Bigelow’s interesting choice with her character: “She switches it with that of the male lead, turning Mace into the powerful action hero rescuing Lenny in the most dire of situations”. Mace is steadfast in making sure Lenny doesn’t lose his head as his pseudo partner and she stays reminding him of his shortcomings in a way to get him to do better.
Sure much of the narrative is Lenny sticking his head in places where he shouldn’t be against the backdrop of seedy places and the streets of Los Angeles about to erupt in riot and party and Mace coming to the rescue. Yet there is a parallel present here between these and some distinctive character development as well. Lenny and Mace are both chasing after someone: both characters are in love with someone who does not return the affections. For Lenny it is Faith who is a past love, for Mace she has feelings for Lenny. Lenny’s whole crusade is to save Faith from danger, as it has befallen a mutual female friend of theirs and Mace’s is to make sure Lenny makes it out alive.
They soon learn that what they’ve stumbled upon is much bigger than the two of them; they have uncovered not just a dangerous serial killer who uses special tech to record his thrills for others to experience it. They’ve also uncovered the digital recording of police brutality at its worst: the unsanctioned killing of an influential African American political figure and rap artist Jericho One (Glen Plummer) that could very well possibly tip the city in full blown riot mode.
It is late in the second arc of the film when Mace, who has always stuck by Lenny, stands her ground as tells if he wants trade the important clip of the death the police are trying to cover up as a bargaining ship for Faith’s safety — she’ll have no part in it or him ever again. Lenny who finally starts to mature some and see more of the horizon other than himself, instructs Mace to give the clip to the proper authorities to someone who he trusts isn’t a dirty cop.
Strange Days is a film that has a narrative that features elliptical storytelling, not linear. At the start of the film we learned that this is a Los Angeles two days before the new year of 2000, two days before the new millennium. All the SQUID clips that are shown throughout the film and loaded up and watched by the characters in the narrative are pre-recorded , actions taken in the past. In fact, Mace has a flashback of her first meeting Lenny, when he was previously a cop that helps explains the emotional foundation of their friendship and why she stays in his corner. Time inches closer as December 31, 1999 2:27 p.m arrives and we, along with the characters uncover more clips, more digitalized memories including Jericho One’s murder which is a big turning point in the plot.
Jericho One’s death? And this carries so much more weight now too, doesn’t it? The death of an unarmed Black man by police officers, the action recorded which functions as the catalyst of what drives the city’s conflict to the point of cops in riot gear and tanks.
It’s sombering isn’t it? Set in the future, the film tells us that the lives of Black people are still so very trivial. Jericho One’s death aids in setting the already untrusting, on edge city into overdrive, much like today.
Continuing on with the elliptical storytelling: later at the night club, Faith’s retelling of the night Iris had that led up to Jericho’s death is revealed to Lenny and Mace by flashback. When Lenny rushes off to save Faith it is 11:09 p.m. and he shakily finds clips of the serial killer with Faith and then Filo’s being forced to overdose with the SQUID device with the reveal that Max (Tom Sizemore) his friend is the psychopath serial rapist (and murder). After the climax where Lenny and Max fight and the resolution where Mace disarms the crooked cops behind Jericho One’s death.
Ultimately the Commissioner Strickland (Josef Sommer) is the one who de-escalates the violence as Mace is being attacked by the crooked cops that pursued her. This scene of Mace being attacked by these white, male cops always bothered me and the Commissioner being the one to ultimately stop them never sat right with me. Especially when, it was first people in the crowd, the civilians that call out for the officers to stop and even try to intervene, their efforts are never recognized. The film ends with enough closure to be considered a happy ending with Lenny and Mace embracing each other and their feelings at 12:02 am on January 1, 2000.
Strange Days is a superb example to use to looking at film editing and how a creative team can be innovative with the technology present in the narrative. So the film shot in 1995 includes a narrative set in then futuristic 1999 (perhaps even tittering the edge of apocalyptic) Los Angeles. We are introduced to the Superconducting Quantum Interference Device also known as SQUID in the first ten minutes of the film. It is a device originally developed for the police force delves in advanced VR tech that happens to record and playback the visual, aural, and cerebral responses from a first person perspective. The device has found its way to the black-market and the streets are full of people who are a new kind of addict, need a ‘fix’ of a new kind brought by this new developing technology.
Death is commonly connected with this device as a sex worker is killed for accidentally recording a murder and two persons are found overdosed due to usage. This whole concept of the device and the havoc it wrecks speaks to technological dystopianism to the dark side of tech in our lives and how it harms us. In fact the opening of the film is a riveting sequence of a botched robbery which ends in the death of the criminal recording it which Lenny upon viewing it automatically describes it as a smut clip.
The clips are always in first person are great point of view sequences that really keep the audience tuned into the action. In fact to achieve these shots as there was no existing camera system in place to use, a crew had to work to make one. Scholars Jermyn and Redmond touch upon the complexities of the process: “The film’s SQUID scenes, which offer a point-of-view shot (POV), required multi-faceted cameras and considerable technical preparation. A full year was spent building a specialized camera that could reproduce the effect of looking through someone else’s eyes”. (Jermyn and Redmond 144–158)*
In addition to being innovative to create equipment needed for Strange Days, the way in which certain scenes are interlaced into the narrative works on a superb level. Later in the second act in the scene where Lenny, Mace and Max (Tom Sizemore) go to Tick’s (Richard Edson) place. Like Lenny, Tick is involved in the consuming and handling of the clips used by SQUID technology, when the trio find him he is not responsive.
A shot from inside Tick’s van shows Lenny, Mace and Max in the background looking down on him in his pitiful state. The next shot is more of establishing shot outside the van with the three friends at odds with each other standing away from each other not agreeing with each other on what to do next. They have an incredible piece of damning evidence in their possession: a clip of Jericho One’s death by police accidentally recorded by Iris who is now dead.
In regards to editing this particular scene is innovative and a striking one because as the friends debate on what steps to take next the reinsertion of the clip of that they’ve talking about is cut throughout this interaction as it becomes more and more heated. Mace, the usual voice of reason wants the clip to be released to the public. Max reminds her of the sensitivity of the situation: this blow up and take a turn for the worse.
Lenny, nearly always indecisive is slow to pitch in as he’s still at Tick’s body, very possibly still in shock over finding him dead. As the friends continue to discuss the severity of the situation: there are very hard cuts back and forth from them to the scene from the night of Jericho One’s death. It is almost breaking the fourth wall in a sense as the audience gets to experiences watching the clips again without a person in the narrative booting up a SQUID device.
Making the audience relive the death again in the midst of how to proceed with a clip of the incident which has been attempted to be covered up making the audience get engaged once again. Are you horrified once more re-watching? With more context are you shocked with how intricate how the narrative has evolved? Each one of them look frustrated with Lenny looking on to Tick to close his eyes, with the cuts to Jericho One’s unsanctioned murder by crooked cops reminds is, the audience of all the death that has occurred in the course of these two days.
I think of the visuals, I think of footage of the deaths of unarmed Black folks that we’ve seen over the years by white men who are cops or former law enforcement — this year, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd’s deaths were (Arbery’s was partially at least) caught on camera and played again and again, re-traumatizing Black people the world over.
I even think of how not having footage of death of a Black person — in the case of gender, makes an impact but lessens the degree of how much visibility one can receive by the public after death — Breonna Taylor’s death wasn’t recorded and the level of visibility for justice for those who took her life has waned. This too is a recurring tragedy in itself that traumatizes Black folks too — Black women who are victims are perpetually erased in the fight against police brutality.
This also brings to mind that the city is drenched in violence and scandal with its police force, something that we get a glimpse of within the first few minutes of the film as we see officers in riot attire and even tanks. This tone that speaks to an overall distrust in the cops and their over policing that includes police brutality that doesn’t go unnoticed and is something that is still felt to this day especially in the city that the film is set in. In today’s landscape, the situation has become so severe that calls for abolishing the police have perhaps, never been so loud as a collective in 2020. The call for checking what role the police have in our lives, if so much harm is attached to their work, continues to be a hot topic in current news.
The SQUID technology in the film calls to mind, body cameras for police officers. On paper, they sound like a great idea — to help the police force be accountable for their actions. Introduced more widely back in 2014 and 2015, to help bring a solution to the issue of police brutality that was plaguing the nation results were a mixed bag with departments slow to receive them and issue them out. Procedure on when and how long they are worn by officers wasn’t consistent across the board. Maintenance was another issue.
Worst off, there’s been enough instances where these devices weren’t operational on duty or situations where an officer would disable the device. A device created for the folks who are meant to serve and protect has become not a tool but instead a glaring reminder that technology, surveillance tech especially, doesn’t always provide a solution. Body cam footage that has been released to the public, even before 2020 has reminded us that police brutality is still very much a constant talking topic — they do not equal transparency. Nor accountability.
Nor peace of mind for the average Black or Brown citizen who lives in a community that is over-policed who can’t find these devices useful when news channels keep flying off the handle with a new case in another city of a tragic death by hands of police that may or many not have been captured with a body cam.
This can circled back to surveillance technology and the how usage of footage can work in the favor of those who lives were lost — to help bring about justice but…at the risk of who? The livelihood of who? The personal burden that can be attached to those who film is great, for some greater than others: 17-year-old Darnella Frazier started recorded George Floyd’s final moments, a knee on his neck as he lay on the asphalt.
Will she, a young Black woman suffer the same fate of Ramsey Orta who filmed Ramsey Orta filmed the killing of Eric Garner? Will she suffer a future of being seemingly punished by law enforcement for daring to record a horrible moment in time — of police brutality on display? (Versus, say George Holliday, a Caucasian man who recorded the footage of Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles Police officers in 1991 that was also seen around the world whose life was forever changed — but doesn’t share the same fears of retaliation from police as a Black or Brown person would.)
Rashad West, the 26 year old who is now becoming more widely known as “The Man Whose Surveillance Camera Sparked a National Uprising” remains convinced he did the right thing with he proved that George Floyd was not resisting arrest with footage from his surveillance camera from his restaurant. Yet, even his friends, family and employees mention that it will be a while until he has ample time to process everything that has happened.
Again, I ask — at what cost?
Strange Days is a film that is heavy on violence, sexual assault and several dark themes that cement the R rating. This film barely passes the Bechdel-Wallace test (Mace telling her female family member Cierra to get in the car). When, the agency of Mace who is a capable female character is examined, we can conclude that she doesn’t have her own narrative arc. She is a woman who is supporting the male lead often enough to where many may place her as the true hero of the narrative so this film also fails the Mako Mori test.
As for the Reverse Bechdel-Wallace Test this film passes with flying colors for there are more male characters with speaking roles in the cast and more of them central to the narrative. If we look at the film using the Kent Test, Created by Clarkisha Kent, Strange Days sits at perhaps...just two out of ten points — and that’s me being very generous. Still, not a good look.
Outside of touching bases on addiction and surveillance, living in a voyeuristic society is explored showcasing how our fears and worries can be projected by use of technologic advances. Yet what helps tie the film together is hope, the reason to do what’s right, of the love we have for others that fuels us to be better. Redemption, even, is a strong theme that works its way into this film and makes the ending sweeter with enough closure. Lenny and Mace embrace at the end, their pursuers dead, the clip of Jericho One’s murder in what is hopefully the right hands and at home in a city that just entered the new year and the new millennium that is still standing.
When interviewed on the film by Peter Keough, director Kathryn Bigelow states: “The film ends in a strong insistence on hope. Ultimately it’s humanity — not technology — that takes us into the next century and the next millennium” (Keough 35)**. It has been an often overlooked and dismissed offering that has more recently been revered in film circles to a near cult status. Strange Days, set in a futuristic Los Angeles, explores the psychological theme of duality of character through its use of a futuristic narrative, elliptical storytelling and innovative editing. It is a film worth watching and dissecting. It is also a film that was a bit too much, too ambitious at time of its release.
In recent years, the film has been the subject of such written pieces such as Sonny Bunch’s “Strange Days’ is a 20-year-old flop perfectly in tune with our time” and Michael Moreci ‘s “Strange Days: A Flawed but Fascinating Look at Racism, Voyeurism, and the Future”. In today’s political climate, Strange Days is a film that rings true in so many ways and presents a narrative that parallels much of current news nowadays.
I feel that the ending holds a different weight now, versus my first viewing and my second and third. Again, there is enough closure to make for a happy ending, at least for our two central players, Lenny and Mace. Yet there are so many dead among them, including the sex worker whose final moments of life were ones of being violated and offered up for sick pleasure — exploited for entertainments sake.
I never felt truly at ease with the clip of Jericho One’s murder in what we probably all hoped — key word being hope— was in the right hands in the police force and now upon re-watching the film in 2020— there’s a even greater sinking, feeling in tune with the feelings associated with how the police in real life for me, stir up.
How many families of slain Black folks in real life have received some measure of justice for their fallen kin — video evidence or not? For those who are police officers, how many of these killers go free, get acquitted, get rehired and shuffled around to new departments in new counties and new cities?
With the rise of protests against police brutality globally this year, there have been also been a rise in all manner of photos and recorded videos of maimed and severally injured persons at the hands of police officers here at home— so many of them at peaceful protests turned into battlefields complete with tear gas and tanks. Ahmaud, Breonna and George’s deaths which were high profile cases and begat even more: Rayshard Brooks just another name in recent news. Black death begat more Black death.
Was this the future so many of us were thinking of in the late hours of 2019? I think of those crooked cops in Strange Days, their murdering, their race to cover up their crimes, their hunting down Lenny and Mace…and the parallels of what we’ve come to expect from police officers in today’s time. There’s a great deal of distrust for police officers by the public and each day seems to bring a new video of violence by one, or news of police officers being possibly linked to a sex trafficking ring or…the latest that will bring shock waves to an already shaken society and police force — that the Golden State Killer, was…a former cop.
If nothing else, the legacy of Strange Days includes what many may, after viewing, feel is a brave attempt at addressing big issues in a major Hollywood film. With eyes weary of the real life happenings around us, it is certainly worth reflecting on Blackness in the future, even if written by and directed by non Black hands.
Watching it now in June 2020 almost seems like a prophetic vision of how dark and dangerous surveillance tech can make our lives, in lieu of protecting us. In the future, Blackness seems to still be enough motive to dehumanize a person and with enough authority — take their life. And trust in authoritative figures, trust in institutions — like police officers, like your local city hall, like the White House are rightfully shaken and questioned in today’s time.
Lastly, it is a film that I would argue made a sincere attempt at making the audience feel something: that it is us, ordinary people who have to find a way to make things right. That it is us, ordinary people who have to find a way to save one another. That it is us, ordinary people who have to find a way to seek accountability for those who are wrong and seek justice for those wronged in a difficult time, in strange days.
Very much, like today.
Other Works Cited:
*Jermyn, Deborah, and Sean Redmond. The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor. London ; New York: Wallflower, 2003. Print. Pp. 144–158
- *Bigelow, Kathryn., Peter Keough, and Ebooks Corporation. Kathryn Bigelow: Interviews. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2013. Conversations with Filmmakers Ser. Web.