Warning, this article does contain spoilers pertaining to this film, apologies ahead of time if you have not seen it, and I do highly recommend that you do as it is truly a phenomenal film.
I recently viewed the 2013 film, “The Suspect”, starring Mekhi Phifer and Sterling K. Brown, featuring William Sadler.
The film’s tag line is, “Nothing is black and white”. This brings us right in to the core of the movie, which appears to be simply about Phifer’s character being wrongfully arrested for a bank robbery by Sadler’s character, a Midwestern small-town sheriff. You can tell, from the beginning, that the town has never dealt with a crime of this magnitude and they are ill prepared for an interrogation. Especially one with a suspect such as Phifer. Phifer’s character was found walking down a road, heading towards town, sweaty and dirty, as if he had been digging, and just did not belong.
We are subjected to a number of flashbacks during the interrogation, which show us that in fact, it is Brown’s character that commits the robbery, not Phifer. Phifer maintains his innocence throughout the interrogation, insisting on recording the interview as well. The sheriff and his deputy, who is clearly racist, are uncomfortable with the camera rolling, but comply. Phifer is treated as a thug, demeaned by being called “boy”, and even as he gives his reasoning for being where he was (he was looking at a foreclosed piece of property for potential purchase), is told a number of times, he just doesn’t belong in their town. Did he look around? There are no other people that look like him.
And there’s the rub. It was obvious, even under the ski mask, as a brown hand was seen during the robbery by a witness, that the suspect was a black man. And there are no African-Americans in their quiet little town.
They found a sole black man, walking down the road, therefore, he must be the bank robber.
As the film progresses, we are treated to more flashbacks and we learn that this is a social experiment by Phifer and Brown, as they are both psychologists working with a college. They wanted to see if, based on their skin color alone, they would be racially profiled. They have completed this experiment successfully once before in another town. Phifer’s character robbed the bank, Brown was the “suspect” found walking down the road. In the end, the money was returned by Phifer, and the experiment was revealed. The Sheriff in that town, having been shown his own racism clearly on the video that was running the entire interview, absolutely did not want this shown to the world, so he let them both go free and refused to participate in any further parts of the experiment.
The plot twists in this 2nd experiment, however, as Brown’s character runs into troublemakers in town, who, being racist and ignorant, are angry that a black man is driving a nicer vehicle than themselves, use a screwdriver to puncture his tire while he’s in a store obtaining reading glasses. He crashes the vehicle on the way to return the money, so Phifer is left to fend for himself.
As I write this, I actually don’t want to give away the true plot twist, because I really do want people to watch this film, and it does go further from here to reveal a lot more in terms of the experiment. These two men have another reason behind why they are doing this, and it’s not at all what you think.
In America today, racial profiling still happens on a daily basis. Traffic stops are usually the easiest way for this to occur. In 2013, coincidentally the year this film released, in Greensboro, North Carolina, Rufus Scales, a young African-American man, was stopped while driving his brother to school. The stop was for minor infractions, an expired plate and failing to hang a flag from items in the back of his pick-up truck. Scales, unsure as to whether to exit the vehicle, leaned over to stop his brother from opening the door, and was then Tased by a black officer, dragged from his seat by a white officer. He was temporarily paralyzed, and fell to the ground, face down. He was then dragged across the asphalt by the white officer. Scales emerged from the encounter with four traffic tickets; a charge of assaulting an officer (which was later dismissed); a chipped tooth; and a split upper lip which required five stitches.
This occurred not long after the incidents in Ferguson and Baltimore.
North Carolina has one of the highest rates of racial profiling in regard to traffic stops, as best can be analyzed. North Carolina collects the most detailed data on their traffic stops and in Greensboro, the third-largest city, officers pulled over African-American drivers for traffic violations at a rate far out of proportion with their share of the local driving population. They used their discretion to search black drivers or their cars more than twice as often as white motorists — even though they found drugs and weapons significantly more often when the driver was white.
When law enforcement officials are interviewed regarding traffic stops, they state this is their best form of contact in the community, their way of being the most involved to stop crime. However, studies have shown that traffic stops and even stopping pedestrians in high crime areas has little to no affect on the level of crime in that area.
What it is truly accomplishing is alienating the law abiding citizens in those communities. And this is the problem. When everyone is afraid of the police, who do we go to when we need help?
If you would like more information on racial profiling or racial justice, the ACLU has a ton of useful information, and is a fantastic resource for where to start in this conversation of what happens next.