The term “Post-Racial” is itself too problematic when it is misunderstood as being a term of racial colorblindness in today’s still racially contentious society. What the term may actually signify is that in our contemporary cultural discourse Blacks are no longer to be considered the sole victims of racially motivated prejudice, exploitation and violence as such tactics have expanded to include various races and ethnicities across the globe who are now and/or have been oppressed and exploited by similar degrading circumstances and violent tactics for profit.
The film END OF WATCH written and directed by David Ayer, whose incomparable screenplay for Antoine Fuqua’s TRAINING DAY (2001) helped earn Denzel Washington his much deserved Best Actor Oscar, is a film that many might have missed in the theatre when it was released in the fall of 2012. Marketed and advertised as a simplistic Cop Action film set in the now too familiar urban streets of South Central Los Angeles, END OF WATCH with only Jake Gyllenhaal as its most notable star was a film that many, including myself, decided to skip, thinking,” I’ve seen this way too many times before.”
END OF WATCH is a powerfully dramatic, brilliantly conceived exposé on the consequences of large scale human trafficking that uses the cop/buddy movie genre as an artistic strategy to insure that its oppositional message would not be misconstrued as neo-liberal propaganda or as Republican anti-immigration propaganda.
Many film artists in the past as well as in the present often use well-established genres as a censor-proof vehicle through which they can explore urgent political, social, spiritual, and/or moral themes with like-minded viewers who are sensitive enough to be moved, in thought or emotion, by what they have seen. The use of a well established genre –or even a genre thought to be commercially exhausted- allows the artist and the spectator to circumvent the censors who would otherwise prevent the exploration of such themes by providing all parties involved a way out through the notion that,” It’s only entertainment; it’s only a film.”
END OF WATCH allows us the see the consequences of human trafficking by major Mexican drug cartels upon opposing racially segregated gangs within L.A. and the street level police officers who are powerless pawns in the scope and power of these circumstances.
What is most striking about the film is the carefully crafted and detailed relationship between the two police officers upon which the film is based: Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miguel Zavala (Michael Pena). Ayer has written perhaps the most intimate and emotionally affective “no homo” bromance since Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995). The verbal interplay between these two characters carries the film as the emotional boundaries between the two are established through sexual jokes, homosexual innuendo and macho performances that center on the “Whiteness” of Taylor and the “Mexicanness” of Miguel through the use of the terms “Dude” and “Bro”. The former term,” Dude”, being used between the two to maintain clearly defined heterosexual, masculine, and personal boundaries and the latter term, “Bro,” being used to convey the most intimate expressions of fraternal love between two men engaged in a dangerous profession where each would without hesitation “take a bullet” for the other.
Another striking aspect of the screenplay centers on the use of the word “Dick” as both a noun and a verb to convey the deep emotional and mental sodomization process that many police officers must face from within the urban communities that are hostile to them and the police administration that doesn’t want to be liable for any mistakes or misconduct during the course of their duty.
In a devastating sermon about being “dicked” by the L.A.P.D. a cynical officer named Van Hauser (David Harbour) describes the unavoidable process of mental and emotional sodomization by the Department in the most graphic sexual terms that if it doesn’t make you howl with laughter, then it will make you shudder at the thought of his seriousness and conviction on the point. Whether you howl or shudder at his point, it is this officer who suffers the most grievous injury as the film moves towards its tragic conclusion. There can be no doubt that Ayer has placed on the screen the most horrific image of ocular violence since Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s eyeball slicing in UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929).
Yet throughout this carefully crafted and detailed relationship between the two police officers and their humorous verbal exchanges are the disturbing details of human trafficking; a tale of modern day slavery where victims are kidnapped from their communities, families and countries, packed together like animals in disguised houses in the U.S. and subsequently forced to work in sexual and physical labor upon pain of death. This circumstance is what the term “post-racial” may signify in our times: that the brutal and degrading tactics of “chattel” slavery which were used against African-Americans to build this great nation of the United States of America are now being employed by foreign drug cartels and international sex rings against other races and ethnicities for profit.
If as author David Graeber asserts in his book, DEBT: The First 5,000 Years,” The Atlantic Slave Trade as a whole was a gigantic network of credit arrangements. Ship-owners based in Liverpool or Bristol would acquire goods on easy credit terms from local wholesalers, expecting to make good by selling slaves (also on credit) to planters in the Antilles and America, with commission agents in the city of London ultimately financing the affair through the profits of the sugar and tobacco trade.” (Pg. 150) If his assertion is true, then we can also see within END OF WATCH that the Mexican drug cartels are using the voluminous profits from drug trafficking to distract from their use of human trafficking by paying to keep escalating the rival territorial antagonisms between Black and Latino gangs, as well as, keeping the police from thoroughly investigating the true evil behind their criminal enterprise.
In the film as in reality, Black gangs have been effectively weakened by the tactics of mass incarceration practiced through the War on Drugs as Latino gangs have risen in prominence on the streets of L.A. in part by the unchallenged human trafficking that sustains the profits of the Mexican drug cartels.
The story within END OF WATCH does a fantastic job at revealing how even after 9/11 various police agencies and I.C.E. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) are deliberately not communicating or cooperating within one another in an effort to maintain exclusive jurisdiction over cases that impact both National Security and public safety.
Perhaps a reason why Global Human Trafficking is not as openly contested and criticized in America as it should be is because the forced labor benefits our economy and supports our “way of life” via the technology we use (the mineral Coltan in cell phones that finances tribal wars in the Congo, the brutal working conditions in Chinese factories that produce so many electronic products), the sexual services many take pleasure in (underage prostitution) and the illicit drug use we engage in recreationally (marijuana, cocaine, etc). We are blinded by our consumerism that hides a “Big Evil” to borrow a name of a Gang lord from the film.
Human trafficking in our modern era is the post-racial holocaust to which we are not willing to hold ourselves accountable.
Some mention must be made of the dynamic visual aesthetic of the film. The story begins from the perspective of a patrol car’s dash-cam video of a high speed car chase through the streets of South Central. Alternately, the story is seen through the perspective of Taylor’s multiple personal cameras which are being used to create a police procedural documentary. Later the various gang members use video cameras to document their “tough” personas before their acts of violence.
The use of personal cameras, dash-cam video and other forms of informal surveillance allows Ayer to present images from a variety of surprising perspectives and alternating angles. This “poly-visual” aesthetic, for lack of a better word, distinguishes the film from other cop/gang films of its genre while it also memorializes the story, the characters and the circumstances in much the same way that we do when we record video on cell phones and other hand held devices or watch certain sensationalistic reality television shows.
But perhaps the greatest delight and triumph of this film is found in watching a really great screenwriter become a really great director who knows how to shoot his own screenplay with a cinematically dynamic style and elicit powerful performances from his cast. If you missed END OF WATCH when it was out in the theatres for the same reason I stated at the beginning of this article, I would suggest that you find a way to check it out as soon as possible whether streaming on line or Blu-ray because what we get a glimpse of in this film will perhaps be memorialized in years to come as an important critical artistic statement against the post-racial holocaust of human trafficking and how we let it happen right under our noses.