Forum, September 2020

Documentary Theory Can Never Be the Same After George Floyd


  • Jane M. Gaines

Documentary film and video theory was never the same after the 1991 video of Los Angeles police brutally beating Rodney King. Of course, this is not just because the Visible Evidence conference was conceptualized in the aftermath. At the first conference, held at Duke University in 1993, participants were reminded of the origins of the conference name by the souvenir blue T-shirt the back of which featured King’s famous “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” response to the Los Angeles riots that burnt down city blocks. But to remind ourselves, the insistence on the evidentiary for the field had another significance that we may have forgotten. In 1993, the turn to the evidentiary was a shift away from the impasse of the “critique of realism.” Though we were post-structuralists, we were still suspicious of the ideology of the too easy “self- evidence of the seen.” So we wondered if we could simultaneously be post-structuralists and argue that George Holliday’s home video capture of Rodney King’s beating represented incontrovertible evidence of what really happened. But when the evidence was tested in a court of law, as we recall, it was not taken to be evidence of a crime to the politically-rigged Simi Valley jury that acquitted the officers, thanks to the defense attorney’s re-reading of the footage of King being beaten as King’s attack on the officers. Recall the close analysis techniques of the freeze frame and the red dot pointer the lawyer used to read the image for the jury. Here, then, was not only insistence on the evidence of the seen (before digital image manipulation) but also a reminder that it’s all in the reading not in the seeing.

Documentary theory will never be the same after the iPhone video of George Floyd being suffocated to death by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020.  Bill Nichols has prompted us in this direction of documentary spectatorship by asking whether a documentary reception mode is our “natural default” (reaction) to moving images. He returns us to that moment when we realized that “seeing is believing” could no longer be theorized away. Yet there’s more to Bill’s evidentiary “indexical whammy” or rhetorical “This happened!” Could we not also argue that the observational is the “default” mode of the hand-held camera, not just our reaction to moving images per se? Then again, the observational camera would imply (or construct) the observational viewer anyway. How many times have we made the point that the camera is a surrogate eye?  I’m also inclined to stress the observational on the side of the camera eye given the recent definition of documentary as all in the way the viewer is cued to look—before even seeing. Thus the New York Times online news story, “How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody,” sets up documentary expectations with the frame: “This video contains scenes of graphic violence.”

The observational is the default amateur iPhone camera mode in which the operator “keeps it running.” Then continues to “keep it running,” as Jeff Skoller suggests, as an event is occurring and until something happens, that is, to follow an action to its completion. But the completion of the act of what? This convention of camera following action takes on a new horror, as he points out, since the 8 minutes and 46 seconds time it took for the police to kill Floyd is the same as the time it takes to watch aghast. Clearly, video “real time” will never be the same after the video death-by-suffocation of George Floyd. A common response was “Everyone saw what they saw in real time,” as though the uncut duration drove the evidentiary home. However, let’s not forget another difference between the Rodney King and George Floyd video footage which is in the readiness of the political interpretation, in the case of the latter, an interpretation poised and ready since 2014 when Black Lives Matter was formed in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Let’s call it the pro-filmic politics of the image, the significance of which is that with all of our close analysis and formal study, we can never divine the meaning of the image from the image. A dramatic reminder of this is Chi Wang’s description of the “expressive vagueness” of 1990s New Chinese documentary. The observational can as easily be an apolitical aesthetic as in the Chinese case where just keeping the camera running refuses context and social meaning. Here I would argue that since it’s all in the reading not in the seeing, the political meaning of George Floyd’s last breath caught on Darnella Frazier’s iPhone preceded the video she uploaded. The “Black Lives Matter” movement was ready with the interpretation: Here is yet one more video of random police violence targeting Black men.

To return to Bill’s double paradox of the camera that is both there and seen to be not there and in which “intervention is possible but not possible.” We know it’s a camera and we forget the camera but the terms of intervention also suddenly change. Intervention is possible, just in another sense and on another scale. In July, 2020, the Black Lives Matter protests ranked as the largest movement in U.S. history with an estimated 15 to 26 million people, according to The Nation (July 27 – August 3, 2020) in reference to what they name a “Covid-19 Republican death march” (3). The CountLove website lists 22,548 protests and 13,250,408 people protesting in 2,000 towns and cities by mid-June. So we can’t say that there was no intervention in George Floyd’s death if we count the number of people protesting as the number of people who would have intervened if they had been there and are intervening to stop more deaths as “George Floyd” becomes the watchword for outrage against the unequal toll the pandemic has taken on the lives of the most vulnerable in every population, now spreading worldwide. And organized protest is itself interpretation—perhaps the highest form of political interpretation, an enacted interpretation in which even more bodies are put on the line against the police.

CountLove: Protests for a Kinder World

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