On being … a disturbing perspective

By Ingrid Sapona 

I don’t know if this happens do you, but every now and then I hear or read something that just stops me dead in my tracks. It’s usually just a sentence or two but it helps me see or think about something in a way I never have before. That happened to me last week when I saw a CBS news segment about a film nominated for the Oscar in the category of Best Live Action Short. 

The film, which ended up winning the Oscar, is called Two Distant Strangers. In the news segment the CBS reporter described it as a “time loop” film. If you’re like me and you’ve never heard that phrase, think: Groundhog Day – where the characters relive a day over and over. In Two Distant Strangers an African-American man re-lives variations of a deadly run-in with police. 

The reporter noted the police killing of George Floyd was part of the inspiration for the film, as one scene shows the cops atop the black man who rasps the sad, familiar refrain “I can’t breathe”. Then the news piece cut to an interview with Travon Free, the writer and co-director. Thirty-six-year-old Free said the film was a way for him to communicate not only what he felt in reaction to the George Floyd killing but also what he has been experiencing all his life. But it was the next thing that Free said about why he wrote the script that truly gave me pause, sending a chill up my spine. He said what else inspired him to write it was “the number of times I’ve had police officers point their gun at me, and the number of times I’ve been pulled over for no reason.”   

The idea I can’t move past is of having a gun pointed at me. I simply can’t imagine the terror of staring down the barrel of a gun. And to have that happen more than once in one’s life is, well, unfathomable. Don’t misunderstand – it’s not that I’m doubting the reality of it. I absolutely believe it happens in the U.S. every day. It happens so often, I’ve lost track of the videos I’ve seen of police shooting black folks. 

But what I never thought about is that those videos are from a camera looking in the direction of the suspect – whether the videos are recorded by police body cams or by bystanders witnessing the terror. As horrific as it is to see those incidents from those vantage points, I’ve never thought about what it must feel like to be the one facing the drawn gun. Just imagine facing the reality that in the blink of an eye (or the tremble of a nervous hand), a bullet could be tearing through you. 

The thing is, we’ve romanticized guns – we trivialized them. The same day I saw the interview with Free I was watching a movie that took place in the 1880s. In one scene a bad guy broke into the hero’s house and pointed this old, primitive looking pistol at the hero. My first thought was how hokey – almost comic – the pistol looked. Besides figuring that it was too early in the movie for the hero to die, my subconscious blithely disregarded the deadly threat a loaded gun fired at point blank range. 

After realizing how I reacted to that gun scene in the film, I thought about all the tragic videos I’ve seen involving police shootings. It made me wonder if we subconsciously think of those videos like some movie (indeed, one we’ve seen very often). I know it sounds stupid, but if people are used to trivializing the threat of deadly force in movies or t.v. – why should they not do the same when they see a video of police pulling a gun on someone whose vehicle they stop? Does that help us just view them and move on, as though they’re just some live action movie?  

What Free’s comment made me think about is how very different it must feel when you are on the receiving end of having a loaded revolver pointed at you. Surely it wouldn’t seem as meaningless as it so often does in movies. And I don’t think having it happen more than once would make it feel any less threatening.  

I realize so far, I’ve focused on the gun-related aspects of what Free said. His comment about being pulled over many times for no reason is, of course, about systemic racism. We’ve all heard the expression – driving while black, walking while black, and so on. In the past, I’ve tried to wrap my mind around what it’s like to be targeted just because of the colour of my skin, but I’m sure I don’t truly get what that’s like. After all, if I really did understand, I’m sure I’d have thought about what it’s like to have a police office point a gun at my face.  

I know, for many of us, these things are pretty unthinkable. And yet, we should all think about them. If we don’t, we’ll never muster the courage to try to end racism and gun violence.  

P.S. Two Distant Strangers is currently streaming on Netflix. 

© 2021 Ingrid Sapona


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