When Sean Penn tossed off the ostensible insult (“Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?”) in making the Academy Awards introduction to his longtime collaborator and friend, the visionary Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, there was universal outcry over what was later explained as both a joke between colleagues and a back-handed barb at the hypocrisy of a Hollywood that only seems to consider those from the Global South as “immigrants” needing a green card to work in their industry.
Immediately after, González Iñárritu defended Penn and qualified his friend’s prefatory remarks as “hilarious.” The incongruity between the drama that unfolded and the underlying activism in Penn’s question to draw attention to the contradictions and complexities of the real drama faced by millions of undocumented immigrants in fear of deportation anticipated his critics since no one in fact would ask white European film directors, actors and writers for their green card, as they are not perceived as transgressing their “green card” welcome. Surely Arizona’s immigration law, a disgraceful manifestation of right wing fears of racial and linguistic impurity, was not enacted with Oscar winners Eddie Redmayne, Cate Blanchett, Marion Cotillard, Daniel Day Lewis, Kate Winslet or Daniel Boyle in mind.
In the midst of that controversy, it would have been impossible to imagine that a short time later an unintentional smartphone film made by an immigrant to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic would both echo the haunting global connections the filmmaker is known for in such films as “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel” and “Biutiful,” and also become the source of revelations powerful enough to disrupt business as usual in a South Carolina city, send a white police officer there to await trial on a murder charge and introduce the entire world to the death on camera of Walter Scott, shot in the back as he ran after a traffic stop for a broken tail light.
To add to the irony, Feidin Santana’s filmography has gone globally viral as it illuminates for the world in its horrific reality yet another murder of a Black man by a white police force in the U.S., a killing that had been explained as justified by the police department, and described in ways that were chillingly opposite to the actual circumstances until Santana bravely brought forward his video. So explosive is this homemade cinematic document that it has become intellectual property, with Santana needing to receive payment for a film that has been co-opted by every network and news outlet and Internet site worldwide, almost as if it has become, despite his heroic modesty and his courage in daring to unveil the truth, the unwitting filmmaker’s immigrant calling card.
Unlike González Iñárritu, Santana is not a renowned filmmaker. In the United States, he is one of the millions dreaming of a better life, or as he puts it, in search for “the alternative of the United States.” But as an Afro-Caribbean immigrant, apprehensive about his reception in the U.S. in general, Feidin Santana’s condition melds together the appalling parade of black male deaths that began with Trayvon Martin and now includes Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson and Scott with the devastating unveiling of the truth about “who counts” in the U.S.
The interception of race, space and policing has a long history in the United States. Monitoring the movements of Black people is deeply rooted in the foundation of America, dating back to slavery, perpetuated during Jim Crow and segregation, and in recent times, articulated in the policing of urban social spaces, where everyday experiences with the police have created among minority community in particular a perception of mistrust of law enforcement. Not surprisingly, Santana mistrusted the scene in front of him—Officer Michael Slager chasing an unarmed Scott, and sensing that something was “not right,” Santana recorded the situation as it unfolded before his eyes, to later show the world a penetrating account of what truly transpired in that ominous exchange between the objects of his gazing.
Santana’s video is an uncanny mimesis of González Iñárritu’s trademark. With artless grace this young man, fortuitously imitates the sophisticated framework of Inarritu’s cinema, epitomized in his highly appraised trilogy (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel”)in which seemingly disparate stories and lives are seen to depend on one another in startling ways. In Santana’s video, the lives of Scott, Slager and Santana crossed accidentally in a spatiotemporal intersection of fate.
Realizing that he can be viewed (there is a moment when Officer Slager looks straight at the cellphone camera), Santana mirrors himself in Scott, recognizing at that he too may lose his own autonomy. And at that moment, Santana must overcome very legitimate fears that he himself would be received in a similar way, something that only the paradoxical “truth” of what he had filmed on his phone could protect him from. And with the media frenzy surrounding him in the aftermath of his video release, he was forced to do the most “American” thing possible—charge for his video and protect his ownership of those decisive moments of film as they unspooled not only Scott’s unjust death, but Santana’s hoped-for life in a new home. And although at first his story seemed to be taken out of an original screenplay by González Iñárritu, he now has taken control of his own script and has began directing the course of that moment in time frozen in his cellphone.
The upsurge of aggressive policing tactics used to control racialized “dangerous” urban spaces caught on video has strengthened the racial and ethnic divides that are so very visible now with respect to the American “justice” system all across the nation, giving rise to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, an active agency developed in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal after killing 17-year old Martin, and braced after the killing of Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The contentious and tenuous relationship between police and people of color is brought to the fore as it impinges too on immigration both legal and undocumented, on how injustice spills over to encompass the almost too true to believe cinematic justice of having the rotten system in North Charleston exposed by an immigrant’s shaky but firm video, Santana’s version of an Iñárritu film that exposes the secrets underneath. It is almost possible to imagine that Slager, or fellow police officers in that town and elsewhere, might be thinking something similar to the erstwhile joke that began this essay: a lament this time at the unknown gods of fate, the unknown “son of a bitch” who gave Santana his green card, allowing him to be on that spot at that moment.
Marianella Belliard earned her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University. She was also a Scholar in Residence at Wellesley College and after teaching for several years at the University of Richmond, she returned to the Dominican Republic to research children and youth exploitation in the tourist industry for a documentary project.