Yesterday, as a sniper shot 13 police officers in Dallas, killing five, Michael Bautista logged onto Facebook Live and began recording. He speaks directly to viewers, calmly narrating the horrors he’s captured on his phone camera. He responded in real time to comments he received on the social network: “Don’t worry, I’m behind a tree… I’m safe, man, don’t worry about it. I appreciate it though, I love y’all.”
Just the day before, Black Lives Matter activists gathered in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to mourn the death of Alton Sterling, who sold CDs outside a convenience stores; his killing was captured by bystanders. And, even as they mourned, many of those activists were watching Diamond Reynolds in St. Paul, Minnesota on Facebook Live as she streamed her nightmarish ordeal with the Roseville County Police Department after an officer shot and killed her boyfriend, Philando Castille, during a routine traffic stop.
That harrowing tape opens with Reynolds in her car next to a still-breathing Castille, blood marring his white T-shirt as he writhes in pain and slumps toward Reynolds, who appears on camera as subject, witness, and accidental filmmaker. Reynolds soberly explains the situation out loud to herself as much as to her anonymous Facebook viewers. “You shot four bullets into him, sir,” she tells the officer, his only response a few panicked expletives, in a scratchy tenor that sounds like someone took sandpaper to his vocal cords.
The responding officers then gruffly order her out of the car and onto her knees—as if she were a suspect rather than an aggrieved witness—and the camera falls on a static shot of blue sky, marred only by telephone wires and a few leaves. “They threw my phone, Facebook,” says Reynolds, breaking the very tenuous fourth wall of this surreal video. In that moment, it feels as if Reynolds has reached through our collective screens and seized us all by the shoulders to say: This is what it feels like to be a black woman in America: On your knees in the hot sun, your boyfriend dying, your baby crying.
Reynolds is a brave activist who never courted that role; is it disrespectful to also call her a filmmaker? She made a film, one that has been viewed 5.2 million times. She represents a new breed of documentarian, albeit an unintentional one, who recorded her experience with the tools at her disposal in order to protect herself.
In the last decade, these shaky handheld videos capturing police murdering black Americans have become a kind of real-life dystopian film genre. Writing for MTV News, Ezekial Kweku somberly notes: “[A]s I watched [Alton] Sterling die, I was detached enough to critique the video of his death, classify it, find myself consigning it to genre… At this point, I am a critic of images of men like me, dying. I’m a connoisseur.” Kweku goes on to discuss framing techniques, camera angles, and points of view. Hauntingly, he compares the video of Walter Scott’s 2015 death to a wildlife documentary, the shaky images like those of a predator tracking its prey.
Like Scott’s documentarian, Bautista is removed from the action, behind a fence in a wide angle, moving to get a better visual and avoid detection. His viewer, like Bautista, becomes a witness from afar. Part of the shock of Reynolds’ video is she places her audience directly in the car with her — a perspective that evokes the excellent VR film “Hard World for Small Things,” by Janicza Bravo, which puts its audience in the backseat of a convertible with a group of black friends, before a tragic ending. The intimacy of Reynolds’ film is almost unbearable; the final shots angled up at Reynolds herself, red police lights illuminating her face and blue patterned top. If only the cool, dark colors could protect her and her young daughter, cloaking them in privacy and safety.
Bautista happened to witness a very public event, turned on his Facebook Live feed, and shared. Reynolds’ film is more like a vlog made in someone’s bedroom, making the private public. In Reynolds’ case, her film is a stark reminder that she never had any privacy to begin with. As a black person, her body and personal space can be invaded any time.
Facebook Live is only the most recent technology tool for activists. In the Gaza Strip in 2012, British journalist Harry Fear used streaming site Ustream to record the bombing of Gaza City during “Operation Pillar of Cloud.” As Israel showered the city with airstrikes for eight days, Ustream users could hear live audio of the explosions. The #Occupy movement has a news channel on Ustream, where activists can stream demonstrations across the globe. #Occupy and Black Lives Matter both rely heavily on social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter to organize.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg released a statement yesterday expressing solidarity with Reynolds and her family, adding: “While I hope we never have to see another video like Diamond’s, it reminds us why coming together to build a more open and connected world is so important.” While the events in St. Paul may not be what Zuckerberg envisioned when he launched Facebook Live, the documentation of Reynolds’ ordeal aligns with his goal of building a more open and connected world. Sadly, this is what the world looks like right now.
We were used to watching shaky, handheld videos of cats and proposals online. Now we risk becoming desensitized to the violence and racism in this new genre of race documentary. However, we must watch. Writing in The New York Times, professor Michael Eric Dyson states: “Whiteness is blindness. It is the wish not to see what it will not know.” These filmmakers — and they are filmmakers — give us is a chance to bear witness to the danger of having a black body.