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Copaganda: cops and their propaganda

Collage by Estella Burque

Since the very beginning of cinematic history, police officers have been widely used as protagonists, starting with Buster Keaton’s silent film Cops, which came out in 1922, and ending with Brian Skiba’s film Pursuit, which came out this February. Cop movies have been a staple of American film culture. Many movies on Rotten Tomatoes’ Top 100 Movies of all Time feature cops as main characters, a majority of them being the protagonists of the story. This feels problematic, especially now, with the way we have watched police precincts act violently corrupt. It’s uncomfortable asking viewers to support and sympathize with police officers when for a majority of people living in the US, they are not offered that same support and sympathy in return.

Copaganda is a portmanteau of the words cop and propaganda and is defined as “media efforts to flatter police officers and spare them from skeptical coverage” by Justin Charity in his Ringer article The Spider-Cop Problem. Copaganda films can be recognized as those that display overtly positive portrayals of police officers in order to change the general public’s perspective. They are strangely disconnected from the reality of cops, so much so that even serious films come across as comedic.

Viewers often fall victim to the efforts of copaganda for multiple reasons, but the main one is that it appeals to our taught beliefs. Growing up in the US, most of us are taught in school (and/or at home), that cops are good people, and that they are supposed to protect us at all costs. The idea of this is nice, having a force of people in your neighborhood that are tasked with protecting the safety of the general public, but in reality, police forces rarely function like this. In 2019, 1,004 people were shot and killed by on-duty police officers, and almost every police precinct in the nation has at least one report of the use of excessive force or police brutality. Copaganda works so well because it shows us what we deserve to have. It gives us a glimpse of a fairy tale that feels impossible to realistically achieve.

Photo by 20th Century Fox

There are many examples of blockbuster copaganda movies, but a fan favorite seems to be Jon De Bont’s Speed, starring Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, and Dennis Hopper. A popcorn thriller, Speed has racked up a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 4.5-star rating on Letterboxd. Janet Maslin for the New York Times states that “this film's sole objective is to keep moving, preferably at a pace that keeps the viewer from asking questions.” And this is true. The plot is as follows: LAPD officer Jack Traven (played by Keanu Reeves) and his partner Harry (played by Jeff Daniels), are tasked with evacuating hostages and disarming a bomb placed on an elevator in side of a corporate building in Downtown LA. They succeed and in turn anger the mystery assailant, who then places a bomb on the bottom of an LA City bus going towards Santa Monica.

It’s been credited with being a senseless, feel-good action movie, and to a certain extent, this is true. It is, however, important to cement Speed within the political climate of its time, and once viewing it under this lens, it’s almost impossible to forget. On March 3rd, 1991, Rodney King, along with Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms were violently assaulted by five LAPD officers after a high-speed pursuit and subsequently were pulled over for driving intoxicated on a Los Angeles freeway. King was unarmed and restrained during this assault, proven by footage taken by a witness on a nearby balcony. In total, Rodney King suffered eleven skull fractures, multiple broken bones (including his leg along with various teeth), a myriad of cuts and bruises, kidney failure, and a large burn to his chest where he was hit repeatedly with a stun gun. His assault, along with his trial, changed the way Los Angelinos viewed (and still view) the role of the LAPD in communities across the city. Four of the five officers involved in the crime were acquitted, which then triggered the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, which lasted for six days after the closing of the case. The “violence” of these riots witnessed by anyone removed from Los Angeles was truly the misunderstanding of the anger and sadness that plagued a community repeatedly betrayed by those who vow to protect them.

Speed debuted in 1994, which was exactly three years, three months, and seven days after the brutalization of Rodney King, and while I do not want to trigger a mass conspiracy theory, it took two years to film and compress the movie, meaning that it's safe to assume that it was written very close to the time of the court case. There is no coincidence to be found. Distrust of LAPD officers only strengthened after the video footage of their assault was released to the public, and LAPD desperately needed a way to repair this.

Keanu Reeves’s character, Jack Traven, is a perfect copaganda specimen. He is funny, he is conventionally attractive, and he is distrusting enough of his higher-ups to be relatable to most viewers. He is constantly shown disobeying orders because of his gut feeling, and these risky choices consistently end in success. His character was created solely to change the public’s perception of LAPD officers as a whole. The ulterior motives hidden within a seemingly senseless film aren’t entirely undetectable, but nonetheless, it is fully viewable once the context of Los Angeles in the 1990s is brought to attention.

Brooklyn 99 promotional poster

On January 12th, 2014, Andy Samberg was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy TV Show for his character Jake Peralta on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a sitcom based on the goings-on of NYPD’s fictional ninety-ninth precinct, focusing primarily on a cast of slapstick cops that seem to spend most of their time inside the walls of their office. Over time, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has cemented itself in comedy culture, earning it the unofficial title of a modern-day classic sitcom.

The truth of the matter is that in 2014, during the filming of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s second season, Eric Garner was assaulted and killed outside of a beauty supply store in Staten Island. He was accosted under the suspicion of selling loose cigarettes, and when he would not allow the officers to handcuff him, he was attacked. This act of unfiltered cruelty was recorded by a bystander and posted on the internet, allowing the world to understand how violent police interactions can be for Black people and non-white people as a whole. The legislative aftermath, following a noticeable pattern, allowed for the career of the assaulting officer to continue, and for no charges to be filed.

In their eighth season, Brooklyn Nine-Nine attempts to address the insensitivity of airing a comedy show about cops by writing a two-hour special that focuses on a case involving two officers assaulting a young Black woman. The officers of the ninety-ninth precinct learn that it's almost impossible to stick charges to the offending officers, and by the end of the episode they fail at doing so. This is very realistic, and this accuracy follows throughout the episode to after the officers are done with the case and they all decide to keep being officers, and neglect to mention this incident for the rest of the season. The episode that immediately follows takes place during a lake retreat, where the precinct is shown having a ton of wholesome fun. The insensitivity of having these two episodes aired one after the other is undeniable, and it truly shows that the police brutality episode was not addressed out of true concern, but out of an obligation to be politically correct.

"The FBI" title screen

Briefly touching on the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a long history of being corrupt. From domestic surveillance to COINTELPRO, the FBI has frequently used its power to cross boundaries for their direct benefit. In the 60s, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover developed and launched COINTELPRO, which used its organizational power to target and undermine a multitude of civil rights organizations whose beliefs lay with anti-war efforts, Native American Rights groups, and most famously, the Black Panther Party. BPP members were targeted through violence, which led to assassinations, imprisonment (either wrongly or harsh punishments for minor crimes), and public humiliation and assault. In order to repair the public’s view of the FBI after the disbanding of COINTELPRO, a police procedural titled The F.B.I aired. J. Edgar Hoover was heavily involved in the development of the show, working as a consultant until his death in 1972. Many other FBI affiliates worked on the show as well, and all actors auditioning to play FBI agents were given extensive background checks in order to ensure that no “criminals, subversives, or Communists” were linked to the show in any way. The SWAT unit, which has inspired its own collection of movies and TV shows, was developed in 1965 by LAPD inspector Darryl Gates in direct relation to the Watts Riots.

Our media consumption has been used to influence our beliefs since the creation of the first television. The fact of the matter is, no matter how hard it is to hear this, is that we fall victim to propaganda every single day, and it is important to be aware of this, and how these influences work. Again, for a large portion of the US’s population, police officers and FBI agents are not sources of protection, but sources of fear, abuse, and in many instances, death as well. There is no true way to escape the effects of copaganda and shows featuring it are entertaining for a reason, but the first step in changing these overtly positive depictions is to be aware. To acknowledge the history that is tied to the US’s police force, and to address the way these shows affect our beliefs.

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May 31, 2022

Doesn't Speed (1994) have a 3.6 on letterboxd? I also saw Robocop (1987) at the top of the article, wasn't Robocop himself shown in a negative light by the filmmakers to make a statement about American hypocrisy?

estella burque
estella burque
Jun 02, 2022
Replying to

letterboxd reviews are based on community ranking. When this article was written, speed had a 4.5 rating on letterboxd. i cannot control the fluctuation in ratings. sorry if this made reading the article hard for you.

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