Posted on July 19, 2020 at 12:03 PM
I’d never read James Baldwin. Why this is precisely, I’m not sure. We could go into the structural and personal reasons I, an English lit major, managed to make it three decades without, but that’s another post. I hadn’t read or seen any Batman anything (yes, including the animated series) until I was in my 20s so maybe I was sheltered in my own unique way. Now I’m reading If Beale Street Could Talk and playing through the Arkham games by Rocksteady and, well, it’s unsettling and yet, weirdly, also, kind of makes sense.
Let’s start with the obvious. Playing the ultimate Law and Order character who is a billionaire white tech mogul dude who runs around deciding who is a criminal is a strange thing amidst the protests against police brutality against Black people. That’s for starters. Then you’ve got Baldwin’s story of Tish and Fonny and Fonny’s wrongful imprisonment, and how hard life is and how easily the law can become the villain rattling around in there.
For those less familiar with the DC comics oeuvre, one key difference from Marvel is that the cities aren’t ‘real’, they’re aesthetically accelerated versions of real cities. The most glaring example of this is Gotham and Metropolis. There was a long running nerd debate about whether or not Gotham or Metropolis was a New York City stand-in and, I can’t remember who said this, but the point is they both are. Gotham is New York at its very worst, and Metropolis its very best. Gotham is night, winter, rain, poverty, danger, violence, decay. Metropolis is day, summer, sun, wealth, safety, peace, industry. When you read Baldwin, you realize his characters are from Gotham and go downtown to visit Metropolis.
I’m only halfway through Beale St. and am starting the third game, Arkham Knight, so these are in flight thoughts, but it seems to me that both games actually agree on a world view, which is that police and prisons don’t really do much of what they’re supposed to. In Gotham, the police can’t stop the worst criminals, or even most crime, and the prisons don’t seem to fix anything. In fact, the prisons are figuratively and literally just training grounds for criminal armies. In Beale St. the two major crimes described are both false accusations. The police and prisons fix nothing, solve nothing, and only introduce harm to those who are struggling most.
I started wondering what would happen if Beale St. took place in Gotham and I realized you wouldn’t really know the difference. Batman doesn’t care about all the false accusations, the stop-and-frisk, the casual insideousness of it all. He can’t be bothered. And yes Batman is friends with Jim Gordon and Officer Cash, but at the end of the day he doesn’t believe they can do the most important job they have – keeping people safe.
But the worst part of playing was realizing that almost all the generic baddies you end up beating up, particularly in the first two games, are just inmates. Hardened, violent, malevolent inmates. The two falsely imprisoned men, Fonny and Daniel, were inmates. I had this very strange moment where I imagined Batman putting the beat down on one of them. Now, the games do an excellent job portraying every single inmate as a real jerk (and also dehumanizing them a bit with masks to show which supervillain’s gang they’re in). This is the opposite of a show like, say, Brooklyn 99 where several villains are cops (the Vulture, Peralta’s hero in an early episode and, the Chief in the last couple seasons), and several likable characters are criminals, with the Doug Judy being the most obvious example.
I’m aware that Batman is a fantasy in several ways and that Baldwin probably should have won a Nobel, and my point here isn’t to compare the two but instead to try to not pretend that these things are not both part of my culture. They both tell me something about crime, policing, and justice, which is that we are not particularly good at any of it and yet we very clearly love to tell stories about it.
I will be very, very curious to see how our stories of crime and justice change (or perhaps, sadly, don’t) in the coming years.