Stars including Michael B. Jordan, Michael K. Williams, and Danny Glover are all featured in a new social justice short film from Harry Belafonte. The powerful piece juxtaposes audio excerpts from police radio accounts of unarmed black men being shot and killed by officers with artfully shot footage of the famous personalities, also including activists Van Jones and Marc Lamont Hill, held up against a wall, playing the roles of victims of police violence.
The piece, titled “Against the Wall,” was produced in association with Belafonte’s social justice organization Sankofa.org.
“The constant vilification of people of color is not new to the American psyche,” Belafonte said about the project. “Somehow cell phone video, dash cam video and news media flashing before our very eyes, hour after hour, the murder and victimization of black and brown bodies has desensitized us.”
Sometimes it takes the face of a celebrity to make an impact. “By using the faces of those we recognize, familiar faces, we look to re-sensitize the community to really see the problem,” he said. “The artistic community is responding to the plight of our disenfranchised. We are shining a light and calling out to all to take a look, listen and feel within your heart to take action.”
The film, which directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz say doubles as a PSA, opens with a police siren. The credits roll introducing the actors taking part, all the more powerful considering the films each has starred in which speak to the issue of social justice and brutality against the black community: Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Glover (The Color Purple), and Williams (The Wire, 12 Years a Slave, The Night Of).
While their names flash across the screen, an audio excerpt of an impassioned speech Belafonte gave on MSNBC earlier this fall discussing the epidemic of police shootings plays: “You cannot just go about, if it’s once or twice you can say it’s an accident or a coincidence, but when you have as large a population of murdered young men in the streets of America and they’re all black or of African American descent, I think someone is sending us a message. And we should respond to that message.”
As the actors are against the wall, a montage of audio footage plays. There’s George Zimmerman’s call to a 911 operator before shooting and killing Trayvon Martin: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. He’s a black male.” And there’s Anderson Cooper’s report of the 68-year-old former Marine Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., who was shot and killed during a police standoff in 2013.
We relive Falcon Heights traffic-stop shooting of Philando Castile, who began to bleed to death while his fiancé and her daughter were in the car with him. The police radio audio of an officer involved the shooting of unarmed Terence Crutcher also plays: “That looks like a bad dude.”
While the actors shot their footage against the wall, Renz said that he and Bush directed them “to imagine what it would be like to be taken against your will and forced to be reduce yourself; your very humanity, in order to pacify the police—who regardless may take your life even if you stayed perfectly still, with your hands against the wall.”
Williams, especially, had a particularly intense reaction to shooting the piece. “He actually embodied the moment and as I watched him in front of our cameras, the sense that he was reliving the moment was very palpable,” Renz told The Daily Beast. Williams has spoken to The Daily Beast about family members of his who have been incarcerated, and what’s it taken for them to survive behind bars.
Knowing that audio of police shootings would be playing against footage of the actors they were filming was an emotional experience for the directors. “I could imagine in my mind the loved ones of these boys and men who were shot and how I wish this film with these famous actors would never have been necessary in the first place,” Renz said, “but that hopefully it will bring an awareness and save someone else in the future and help to change perception.”