I saw Robocop for the first time a few weeks after my 16th birthday, late in the summer of 1987. I loved it. Violent, funny, over the top. What 16-year old boy with a love of robots, comics, science fiction and a growing taste for the dystopian wouldn’t love it? But a year or so later when I saw it again—rented from one of those little local video rental places that once proliferated before Blockbuster came along—I did not like it nearly as much. The bombastic nature that had appealed to me at 16 struck me as crude as I neared 18, and the elements of corporate parody struck me as thin and not making as much of a statement as it might appear to make. It could be that instilled with an inflated sense of my own maturity at that age I did what a lot of kids who want to appear sophisticated do: I rejected the goofiness of the thing, felt like I was not supposed to enjoy the gonzo violence—in other words, made my remaining immaturity apparent by my need to seem mature in my tastes—but nevertheless that opinion remained, and I never gave it another shot, that is until a couple of months ago when I borrowed the DVD from a friend. Having watched it twice now in the process of writing this post, I can say that I have a renewed appreciation for what it seems like it is trying to be (for what Siskel & Ebert seemed to see in it), for its uncompromising humor and bite, but developing that appreciation was not why I wanted to re-watch it.
I wanted to watch it because I needed to clarify and confirm something I remembered about it. For a movie that is set in Detroit, it seemed awful white.
And I wasn’t wrong. You have to wonder why a film set in Detroit would make such a choice. Sure, there are a handful of black characters: the junior executive who serves little function other than as a someone for Miguel Ferrer’s character, Bob Morton to express his ambitions to, and in turn warn Morton of the dangers of those ambitions; the police sergeant, Warren Reed, who is dedicated to his job and is against the idea of cops going on strike; Joe Cox, a member of the multicultural criminal crew who kill the police man who becomes Robocop, and… well, those are all the black characters who have lines. There is also the mayor of Detroit who is depicted as black, and two little black girls in the gaggle of kids who rally around Robocop at a press opportunity. The point is, there is no sense of Detroit as a city with a population that is over 80% black, or as a community in the throes of the crisis that precipitates the privatization of law enforcement and the undertaking of extreme measure to fight crime. Instead, crime is something that seems to happens to white people (the would-be rape victim, the gas station attendant, the old couple who run the grocery) in a social vacuum, unrelated to any other social problems like poverty, mass incarceration and selective enforcement of laws. This is a result of what can only be described as overcompensation on the part of a Hollywood system that tries hard (and fails) to seem progressive.
This is something I have written about before in relation to comic books. I touched on it in my look at Matt Fraction’s solo Hawkeye series, but explored it more fully in my look at 1985’s “The Death of Jean DeWolfe” arc from Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man. While the fact that both Robocop and those issues of PPtSSM were released in 1980s Reagan America embed them in a narrative about urban crime at its most visible and pernicious, the Hawkeye series’ setting suggests that this representation by substitution issue still exists in the contemporary imagination.
Case in point: the topic of the representation of black American urban spaces came up recently in an exhausting cocktail party conversation with one of those white dudes who seem to want to feel clever by making you have to explain the prevalence of racial injustice in America and justify reading social interactions in America in a racial light. I don’t remember exactly how it came up—I was spending most of the conversation just drunk enough to get really riled up, but still sober enough to succeed at keeping my cool—but when it did, my conversant balked at my claim about representation by substitution. “That seems like a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t situation, that’s hardly fair…” To which I replied, “Of course it’s unfair! Shit is unfair! But the reason it seems unfair to you is because it is unfair to the white people doing the representing. It is really unfair because the world of representations is complex and always incomplete.” Okay, I probably wasn’t as articulate as I am being here (I was a few glasses of champagne and a few bottles of beer deep at this point), but this was what I was trying to say. In other words, just because there is an over-abundance of representations of black criminality and dysfunctional black communities doesn’t mean that erasure of those communities in narratives is the solution. Consider The Wire. One of the reasons why it is broadly considered one of the best, if not the best TV show of all time is because it managed to explore a black community struggling with the ills of crime, addiction, police malfeasance, and poverty without reducing its characters to one-dimensional “bad guys.” Sure, The Wire wasn’t perfect—especially when it comes to gender, imagine how radical it would have been to have a season focused on a group of black girls in their relation to their community, the drug trade and law enforcement—and plenty of viewers still manage to use those particular characters and their stories to flatten and stereotype black lives, but it moved, productively, in the right direction.
Of course, Robocop is not meant to be The Wire. The latter is a drama (though there are funny moments, and one could argue that at its core it’s an examination of the destructive absurdity of our social institutions), and the former is a satire meant to poke fun at the privatization of law enforcement, the media, and corporate power. However, the irony of Robocop is that despite its gonzo parody of the confluence of corporate forces and violence, it reinforces those forces through a recapitulation of the slick Hollywood erasure of how they impact people of color and their communities. Detroit functions as a symbol in the film because of its history of urban blight, crime, white flight, racial unrest. There was a choice made to use the city as the setting for the film, if not they might have made up a Judge Dredd Mega-City One type analog.
Of course, Detroit is all the more an egregious choice for this over-compensating weird whitewashing, since it has lost 95% of its white population between 1950 and 2010, and is over 80% black.
Robocop skirts along the edge of what could be a subversive film. The opening sequence with the Media Break news show includes a report about the South African white government’s acquisition of a neutron bomb and its willingness to use it as a last resort against an uprising of black Africans in a near-future where the end of apartheid was unimaginable. It is not difficult, of course, to make the connection between this result of racial segregation and Detroit itself—except that the movie itself cannot make that connection. The end game of capitalistic white supremacy is notable in the burned out and abandoned landscape in one of America’s largest cities but according to the narrative of white flight is a result of generic “crime,” a mere obstacle in the construction of OCP corporate real estate venture, Delta City meant to replace “Old Detroit.” The film never says who will be moving into Delta City, but if Robocop is meant to mirror our world at all (which it clearly is), then we all know who the people to be removed from Detroit would be, just as the history of so-called urban renewal and restoration (aka gentrification) tells us who will be moving into the modernized version of the city. The film’s multicultural crew of criminals that commit crime to serve the corporate interests of executive Dick Jones is just the kind of sick result of overcompensation that Hollywood offers. We get a team of villains, led by a white guy, that are sure to include one black guy and one Asian guy. If there is a Latino guy, he must be the one they sacrifice as a diversion near the beginning of the film, but naw…he’s white, too. The obfuscating diversity of the criminals is really just tokenism. We wouldn’t want the economic and racial exploitation of the setting to distract from the film, or risk a charge of overt racism.
The Robocop project itself is based on transferring cops from suburban districts to the more dangerous “old Detroit” so that the brain dead subjects of the cyborg law enforcement program will be the right “kind.” The white faces that fled for the suburbs are attached to institutional machines to be injected back into the city to police black bodies and patrol the dangerous environment their own complicity helped to create.
It is possible to trace global threads of influence that follow the flow of capital in the business plan that leads OCP to develop their law enforcement robots (ED-209) and the Robocop project. The plan is one that seeks for these American urban combat drones to be the first step in selling the robots to the military for use in theatres abroad. Of course, this is backwards (an element that the 2014 remake corrects), since military technologies and equipment are tried out abroad before being brought back to handle domestic civil unrest (as we saw in Ferguson, MO in the fall). At home and abroad, war is made on or through people of color, since the world’s superpowers have arranged it that the next time white people directly war with each other the whole world will have to be destroyed—this was the ultimate promise of the Reagan era. Hollywood movies can only make generic or jingoistic political statements for fear of loss of revenue. Crime is described as a “cancer” that needs to be cut out, but what is being excised is blackness. The film’s “man on the street” interviews concerning the threat of a police strike reinforce this excision since they are all white. Black people can’t be shown to have concern for their own communities, because such concerns would be as much about the behavior of police and the rolling back of social services favored by Reaganomics as they would about crime. As Steve Best writes in his piece on Robocop in Jump Cut:
[T]he film’s depiction of crime neatly coalesces with rightwing fantasies of social subversion and the Reagan/Meese program, in which the fight against crime and drugs becomes a front for increased surveillance and the rollback of constitutional rights.
Robocop does not even try to address deeper concerns, concerns that I do not think need to be counter to making a sharp and snarky uber-violent satire about the corporate forces that shape American life and its racial inequities. But I do agree with Best that “the inherent limits of the Hollywood industry and its traditional narrative form prevent more radical critiques.” Dominant American popular culture just doesn’t know how to represent a black community without erasing it (like both versions of Robocop or 1995’s The Crow—where Detroit serves as nothing but a blighted gothic backdrop for the depredations of white people) or caricaturing it. At best you get a film like 8 Mile (a film that I will admit, I could not bring myself to finish watching) that takes up the story of the exceptional white hero that has to struggle to prove his worth within a dominant black culture.
As long as black spaces continue to be merely props and symbols for dysfunction, they will also continue to be divorced from the complexity and depth of the humanity of the people who occupy them and from the history of policies have shaped those spaces for better and for worse. There is probably no better example of the result of this attitude than the recent Kickstarter to build a ten-foot tall statue of Robocop in Detroit in emulation of Philadelphia’s statue of Rocky, because fictional white characters are more important to commemorate than the actual black people who live in those cities.