The social media world has been buzzing about Macklemore’s ‘Best Rap’ Grammy award and his subsequent self-aggrandizing behaviour immediately in its wake. The responses to criticisms of Macklemore – his win and his behaviour – have been impressive in their banal obviousness. Cries of ‘reverse racism’, the ever-popular refrain went up, Amanda Palmer said something stupid, and the edifice of colour-blind white supremacy trundled on, unfazed by the agonized screams of the PoC crushed in its wake.
With this in mind, I decided to lend my considerable writing talents to the creation of a film that finally, at long last, speaks to the suffering that white folks have to go through in our post-racial hellscape. I present a few choice scenes from a movie I tentatively call ‘Up Off The Mat’
(Setting: Harlem, New York City, daytime. Camera fades in on front steps of 28th Precinct HQ of NYPD. Music by Elvis Presley plays. MACK ELMORE jogs up front steps to door, gym bag over one shoulder, wearing t-shirt and track pants. Scene shifts to inside, ELMORE walks through police HQ. Most officers (like 80-90%) are black or Latino. They mostly ignore him as he heads toward LIEUTENANT WHITE’s office. Music fades as ELMORE knocks on WHITE’s door.)
CHIEF WHITE: (Looks up from papers) Come in!
MACK ELMORE: (Enters office) Sir?
WHITE: You must be the new guy. What was it? (fumbles with papers, searching for name) Edmore?
ELMORE: Elmore, sir. Mack.
WHITE: Right. Right. Elmore. So Farley transferred you here from 19th, huh? What did you do to piss him off?
ELMORE: Actually, I requested this transfer, sir. (WHITE looks at ELMORE with suspicion) I wanted to do some real police work, and make a difference.
WHITE: You couldn’t make a difference in the 19th?
ELMORE: Police work in this part of town just seems more… real, y’know? Like… like this is where things are going on, and I want to be a part of it.
WHITE: (Beat. Look of suspicion remains, finally evaporates into calm expression) Fine. Report to Sergeant Nuzzi for your locker and your assignment. (ELMORE starts to leave) Oh, Elmore. (ELMORE pauses) We do things a little differently here than you’re probably used to on the East Side. I don’t want to hear a lot of complaining from you. Do your job, keep your head down, and you’ll do fine.
ELMORE: Yes sir. (He leaves. Walks over to NUZZI’s desk. NUZZI is a tall, dark-haired, square-jawed man with a short-cropped haircut. He is talking to two other white officers, laughing and joking.)
NUZZI: (Noticing ELMORE) You must be the fresh meat that the lieutenant was telling me about.
ELMORE: (Extends hand) Yes sir. (Shakes NUZZI’s hand) Mack Elmore. I just transferred here from the 19th.
NUZZI: (His eyes narrow, then he laughs) What are you, stupid? Why would you transfer to a ratshit district like this one?
ELMORE: I wanted to do some real police work…
(The other officers all burst into uproarious laughter)
NUZZI: “Real police work”? Unless your idea of “real police work” is chasing down fucking thug wannabe corner boys with about as much brains as they have self-respect, you’re going to be disappointed.
ELMORE: It can’t be that bad.
NUZZI: No, it’s worse. (He leans in, his voice gets quiet) Hell, half of the fucking cops in this precinct are kin to those do-nothing fucks. They’ll put a bullet in your head before they’ll lift a finger to help you collar their cousin DuQuan.
ELMORE: Wait a second…
NUZZI: My advice to you? Don’t trust any of those fucking animals. Do what I did. Keep your head down for a year or so, write the sergeant’s exam, and I’ll put in a good word for you with the lieutenant. You’ll be behind a desk in no time. Let the other fucks catch the bullets from their homeboys and esses.
ELMORE: That doesn’t seem fair…
NUZZI: Fair? Fuck fair, kid. This is Harlem. There’s no ‘fair’ here. This is about survival. We’ve got to stick together.
ELMORE: (Beat. ELMORE looks clearly uncomfortable with the conversation) The lieutenant said something about lockers?
NUZZI: (Sighs) Yeah. The locker room is back there. I’ll figure out a desk assignment for you. (ELMORE starts to walk away) Hey kid, (ELMORE turns) you ever try boxing?
SCENE 2: The Police Precinct Gym
(Scene opens on shot of floor of boxing ring. Slow-mo. ELMORE’s head hits the canvas. Muffled/distorted cheering and shouting can be heard in the background. Sound slowly clarifies. ELMORE is in a boxing ring with a tall, thickly-muscled BLACK BOXING COP. Both men are wearing boxing attire. BLACK BOXING COP stands over ELMORE’s prone body, taunting him)
BLACK BOXING COP: Stay down, white boy!
(ELMORE struggles to push himself to his feet. BLACK BOXING COP, who has been getting cheered on by his friends – all of whom are black/Latino – turns around to see ELMORE standing with his gloves up in fighting position. ELMORE takes a couple of steps toward BLACK BOXING COP, throws a hook punch. BLACK BOXING COP dodges easily, hits ELMORE with a body blow. ELMORE collapses to the mat)
BLACK BOXING COP: I told you to stay down. (ELMORE mutters something indecipherable) What was that, white boy?
ELMORE: (Struggling to stand) I said it’s going to take more than that.
BLACK BOXING COP: Well, too bad for you I guess, because I got more. (He punches ELMORE again, this time across the jaw. ELMORE goes down, hard. Bell rings, BLACK BOXING COP laughs, gets congratulated by friends)
(Scene dissolves, cross cuts to ELMORE, face covered in bruises and cuts, sitting dejectedly on a changeroom bench, unwinding tape from his hands. Except for ELMORE, the change room appears empty. Music by The Police plays in the background. A figure appears at the end of the bench. It’s TIM WISER, a middle-aged cop, veteran of the force)
WISER: That wasn’t a pretty scene.
ELMORE: (Looks up) I guess not. What’s it to you?
WISER: Where are my manners. I’m Tim. (Extends his hand. ELMORE shakes it)
WISER: You’re not much of a boxer, Mack.
ELMORE: I guess not.
WISER: Why the hell didn’t you just stay down? He could have killed you.
ELMORE: If I had stayed down, I might as well have already been dead. You’re not going to catch me giving up.
WISER: (Slight, sad smile) You’ve got a lot to learn, kid.
SCENE 6: A Harlem Street
(ELMORE is walking his beat. Black and Latino people of various ages and walks of life are out on the street. ELMORE is obviously not welcome. He eventually comes across a group of young black women singing. He stops to listen. One voice is clearly better than all the others. ELMORE moves closer and sees a young white woman singing like a combination of Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Mary J Blige. This is LALA. As she sings, the other girls are clearly jealous and resentful of LALA’s talent)
BLACK GIRL 1: Stop showing off, Lala!
BLACK GIRL 2: Yeah, you think you’re better than us?
LALA: (Stops) No, I…
BLACK GIRL 1: Maybe nobody told you this, but you’re white. You can’t sing R&B.
LALA: But what about…
BLACK GIRL 1: I swear to GOD, Lala. If you mention Joss Stone one more time, I am going to lose my mind.
BLACK GIRL 2: You know what? Let’s get out of here. This white bitch thinks she’s all that. (The crowd leaves)
LALA: Wait… I just… wanted to sing.
ELMORE: That didn’t look fun.
LALA: (Looks up, notices ELMORE’s uniform. She sighs, turns around, puts her hands behind her back) I didn’t do anything, officer.
ELMORE: No no no, I’m just… turn back around. (She faces him) I’m Mack. (He extends his hand. She eyes it suspiciously, he lets it fall) I’m not here to bust you. I was just walking by and heard you and your friends…
LALA: Friends? Those haters? They’re not my friends. Real friends wouldn’t be bullying me like that.
ELMORE: They bully you?
LALA: All the time! They tell me that I’m trying to sing like a black person. I’m not! I’m trying to sing like ME! It just so happens that I sound a little like some other singers who just happen to be black. But they don’t understand that. All they see is my skin colour.
ELMORE: That’s the most awful and tragic thing I’ve ever heard.
LALA: It really is.
ELMORE: What’s your name?
LALA: Elizabeth Laurentian, but everyone calls me ‘Lala’. And you said you’re called ‘Mack’?
ELMORE: Yeah, I… (The tender moment is suddenly interrupted by the sound of a car alarm. ELMORE turns toward the sound. The camera cuts to a crowd of bystanders, and from that crowd emerges a YOUNG BLACK CRIMINAL, with a bag of stolen goods in his hand. He’s running toward ELMORE and LALA. He sees ELMORE)
YOUNG BLACK CRIMINAL: Shit! (He turns, starts running in a different direction)
ELMORE: Gotta go. (He starts to run after YOUNG BLACK CRIMINAL.
(A chase scene ensues. YOUNG BLACK CRIMINAL is fast, but ELMORE is faster. YOUNG BLACK CRIMINAL has to rely on tricks – knocking over garbage cans, pushing old ladies, stuff like that. Eventually, ELMORE catches YOUNG BLACK CRIMINAL and tackles him to the ground)
ELMORE: You’re under arrest, young man!
YOUNG BLACK CRIMINAL: Fuck you, honky!
ELMORE: (Starts putting handcuffs on YOUNG BLACK CRIMINAL) You have the right to remain silent…
YOUNG BLACK CRIMINAL: Hey yo this white boy is brutalizing me!
ELMORE: What? No I’m not!
YOUNG BLACK CRIMINAL: He called me a nigger! (A crowd of black and Latino people start to form to watch the arrest)
ELMORE: I most certainly did not! (The crowd has begun to murmur angrily) Everyone please back up!
A VOICE FROM THE CROWD: Why you beatin’ him?
ELMORE: (Into radio) This is Elmore. I’ve got a two-oh-five thirty happening at 132nd and ACP, requesting backup. (To the crowd) Everyone please keep your distance! (DISPATCH on the radio says “acknowledged, we’ve got a unit close to your location).
ANOTHER VOICE FROM THE CROWD: You keep YOUR distance, honkey! Wasn’t slavery enough for you?
ELMORE: (to YOUNG BLACK CRIMINAL) should you waive your right to remain silent, anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney…
YOUNG BLACK CRIMINAL: Fuck you!
(A police car, lights flashing, rolls up. Inside, two black police officers see the arrest. They look at each other, then back at ELMORE. They extinguish the lights and continue driving)
ELMORE: (to the departing car) Wait, where are you going? (into radio) Dispatch, my support just left the scene.
DISPATCH: (over the radio) They said you have it under control.
ELMORE: Can you send them back please?
(The crowd has become very agitated. A bottle is thrown. It shatters against the wall behind ELMORE)
ELMORE: Hey! Who threw that? (He draws his weapon, points it at the crowd) Who threw that?
(The same police car returns, the two officers get out of the car and walk toward ELMORE)
BLACK OFFICER 1: Elmore, what in the fuck are you doing? Put your weapon away.
ELMORE: They threw a bottle at my head.
BLACK OFFICER 2: (taking custody of YOUNG BLACK CRIMINAL) Are you all right, son?
YOUNG BLACK CRIMINAL: He hurt me…
BLACK OFFICER 2: You’ll be okay, son. We’re going to go down to the station and clear this all up.
BLACK OFFICER 1: (to ELMORE) What the hell is wrong with you, man?
Scene 11: A Nightclub Manager’s Office
(The door opens, and BOUNCER escorts LALA into the room)
BOUNCER: Mammy, she’s here.
(The camera pans to the desk, where an obese black woman, played by a Tyler Perry type, sits in a comfortable chair)
MAMMY JEZEBEL: Well well. So this is the little dove whose song I’ve heard so much about. What’s your name, darlin’?
LALA: Um, Lala, ma’am.
MAMMY JEZEBEL: (laughing) “ma’am”. Oh you white girls are funny. No need to be so formal, chile. Call me ‘Mammy’. All my children do.
LALA: Thank you, Mammy.
MAMMY JEZEBEL: Now sit down and tell me, baby, what can Mammy do for you?
LALA: (sits across from MAMMY. Nervously) Well, Mammy, I heard you’re who I have to talk to if I want to sing here. All I’ve ever wanted to do is sing, but I’m having trouble finding anywhere to go. All of the clubs only hire black musicians.
MAMMY JEZEBEL: (frowning) Well now, that won’t do. A talented little thing like you. And so pretty… (MAMMY pauses, appears to be considering something) Well honey, I want to give you a job. I really do. But… (sigh) I just don’t know. Lots of little girls like you keep showing up at my door, asking for my help. But this ain’t a charity, sweetie. It’s a business. I need people who are going to work hard.
LALA: Oh I will! I’ll work harder than anyone!
MAMMY JEZEBEL: Well, if you say so. But you’d better not disappoint me, chile. Life don’t give you no second chances, and neither do I. Go talk to Tyrell, tell him I’m starting you tonight. He’ll show you everything else you’ll need.
LALA: (Ecstatic) Thank you, mammy! (She stands up) You won’t regret this, I promise!
MAMMY: Mmm-hmm. (LALA starts to walk toward the door) Oh and sweetie? (LALA stops, turns around) Your boyfriend. That police officer.
LALA: You mean Mack? He’s not my boyfriend, we’re just… friends.
MAMMY: Oh, well that makes things a bit easier. I don’t want you hanging around with him anymore. You work for me, and I don’t like racist cops at my place.
LALA: What? Mack’s not a racist…
MAMMY: Your “friend” chased down one of my boys, beat him up in front of a crowd of people, and then pulled his gun and threatened the people who tried to stop him.
LALA: (Shocked) He what?
MAMMY: Maybe your “friend” hasn’t been completely honest with you.
(A knock on the door. The BOUNCER opens the door and pokes his head in)
BOUNCER: Mammy, the gentleman is here.
MAMMY: (to BOUNCER) Good. Send him in. (to LALA) Honeychile, Mammy needs to do some business. You be a good little girl and go see Tyrell. He’ll fix you up.
LALA: Thank you Mammy!
(She leaves. As she goes through the door, she passes by BLACK BUSINESSMAN. As she walks past him, he allows his gaze to follow LALA as she walks away, clearly attracted to her. After a moment, his head turns back toward the office and he comes in and sits down in the chair across from MAMMY’s desk. He smirks)
BLACK BUSINESSMAN: Where do you keep finding these white girls, Mammy?
MAMMY: (Chuckles) I don’t have to find them, dear. They find me.
BLACK BUSINESSMAN: Well she’s exactly what I’m looking for. Is she available tonight?
MAMMY: Naw, that one isn’t ready yet. She too new. You know how this works. First, we get these white girls addicted to the fame and the spotlight. Then we get them hooked on your heroin. And that’s when they’re ready to do whatever you want.
BLACK BUSINESSMAN: And that’s when I can turn her out. I’ve got a lot of clients who are hungry for a piece of white meat like that.
MAMMY: Well you can do whatever you want with her, as long as you don’t forget my percentage.
BLACK BUSINESSMAN: (Smiles wryly) Well you’re not shy about your priorities. Have I ever forgotten your percentage?
MAMMY: No, and that’s why I still let your ass in the door. (They both laugh) Now come on, I’ll show you who’s ready. (They get up, head toward the door. Fade out)
Scene 15: A dingy bar
(ELMORE and WISER sit at a dimly-lit bar, drinks in front of them. Music by Kenny G plays in the background. The bar is mostly empty, save for a few regular patrons.)
ELMORE: I don’t get you, Wiser. You’ve been on the force for 20 years, but you’re still front line. Why not write the sergeant’s exam? Why not try to move up the ladder?
WISER: (Sighs) You still don’t get it, kid. The system is rigged against guys like us. You think I haven’t written that exam? You think I want to be stuck in the same place? It’s all bullshit politics.
ELMORE: What do you mean?
WISER: I used to be like you, Elmore. I used to believe that the system could treat folks like you and me fairly, if we played by the rules. But all that changed when the mayor hired the first black police commissioner. At first I thought it was a great step. Clear out some of the old racists, get some new blood in the chain of command. Really change the force, you know?
ELMORE: So what happened?
WISER: The new commissioner turned out to be just as racist as the old one. The first thing he did was appoint a deputy. You know what colour that deputy was? Black. Then when it was time for a new Internal Affairs chief, the commissioner put forward a list of recommendations. Not a white man on the list.
ELMORE: I can’t… I can’t believe it
WISER: Believe it. Face it, Elmore. The tables have turned. Now guys like you and me are riding at the back of the bus, while the commissioner puts all his buddies in all the positions of authority.
ELMORE: You should complain. Tell the mayor. Tell the press!
WISER: You think I didn’t try that? Do you have any idea how much hatred and abuse I received just for speaking up? (Reaches into his pocket, pulls out his phone. Taps a few buttons, hands it to ELMORE)
ELMORE: (reading from phone) “Wiser: you are wrong, and you’re a racist.” “Get your head out of your ass, Wiser.” “Wiser? More like white-ser” (ELMORE puts down the phone, clearly shaken) That’s… I’ve never seen anything this vicious before. They’re really out for your blood, man.
WISER: (Putting phone back into his pocket) That’s what you get for speaking out these days. Insults, threats, racial abuse. And I get it – they don’t know that I’m really on their side, but they don’t want to listen. They just want to hate me for my skin colour. The more things change, the more they stay the same. (He picks up his drink, sips it ruefully).
ELMORE: What does this mean for me?
WISER: For you? It means that if you want to move up the ladder, you’ve got to be twice as good as the next guy to even get considered. You’ve got to out-think, out-work, and out-hustle every other cop on the force. Then they can’t ignore you.
ELMORE: So why didn’t you do that?
WISER: (Smiles wanly) I’m too old for that, Elmore. Sometimes you just have to give up and accept that you can’t change things.
ELMORE: No. No, I won’t accept that. Did Abraham Lincoln give up? No. He kept fighting and fighting until he freed the slaves. Did JFK give up? No. He put himself on the line, body and soul, to fight for civil rights. We have a history, man. We aren’t the people who give up. We fight until the job is done. That’s who we are.
WISER: You just named two guys who got killed for what they believed in. Killed by people who didn’t want things to change. You want me to add myself to that list, Mack? You want to add yourself? Stop kidding yourself. The only way you can win is if you somehow turned into a black person.
ELMORE: (Silent for a moment) Wait a second… what did you just say?
WISER: I said the only way you can win is if you…
ELMORE (Interrupting) …is if I turn into a black person! That’s it, Wiser! (ELMORE throws some money down on the bar, rushes out of the door)
WISER: (After ELMORE) What are you up to, Mack?
Scene 20: The Police Station
(Officers are working. The doors open and a triumphant ELMORE, still wearing his blackface makeup and tuxedo but without the afro wig, enters the room with MAMMY in handcuffs. The officers turn and, noticing the collar, begin clapping. ELMORE is followed by WISER, in uniform, with BLACK BUSINESSMAN also in handcuffs. A BLACK ARRESTING OFFICER follows with the COMMISSIONER also in handcuffs. The clapping eventually dies down as WHITE comes out from his office)
WHITE: Well, Elmore, I gotta say, I really didn’t think this was going to work.
ELMORE: Sometimes you just have to be smarter than the criminals, lieutenant.
WHITE: I guess so! (Addressing the crowd) All right folks. Get back to work. If we want to make these arrests stick, we’ve got to do this by the book. (The office is immediately a flurry of activity, as officers make phone calls, file paperwork, etc.) Elmore. Report to my office when you’ve cleaned that stuff off your face.
(Camera cuts to ELMORE, drying his face off with a towel, entering WHITE’s office and closing the door behind him. WHITE is sitting behind his desk. NUZZI sits in a chair across from the desk. ELMORE sits in a third chair)
WHITE: I just got the final confirmation from HQ. They’re moving me up to the head office.
ELMORE: Wow, congratulations, sir.
WHITE: I owe you, Elmore. If you hadn’t proven that the commissioner was part of that white slavery ring, there wouldn’t have been a vacancy for me to move into. And if those documents you showed me are accurate, I think a few more of his guys are going to be seeking “early retirement” pretty soon. There might be room for you there pretty soon.
ELMORE: Really, sir? But I’ve only been here for 6 months!
WHITE: I know talent when I see it Elmore. And it’s been a long time. Lieutenant Nuzzi agrees with me.
ELMORE: Lieutenant Nuzzi?
NUZZI: The captain put in a good word for me. They’re bumping me up.
ELMORE: Wow! So much good news! I’m so happy for both of you!
WHITE: Good things come to those who deserve them, Sergeant.
ELMORE: Wait, what?
WHITE: Lieutenant, Nuzzi, aren’t you going to need a new Sergeant to replace you?
NUZZI: You know what, captain? I think you’re right. You ready to move up the chain, Elmore?
ELMORE: Aren’t there a lot of guys with more seniority than me though?
NUZZI: Do you want the job or not, Mack?
ELMORE: Of course I want it! Yes!
NUZZI: (Chuckling) I thought so. Let’s go tell the troops, shall we?
(The three men walk out of the lieutenant’s office and into the main work area.)
WHITE: Can I have everyone’s attention please? (The room eventually falls quiet) I have a couple of announcements. I just got off the phone with HQ, and I’m going to be heading there starting next month. (People start applauding) Hang on, hang on. Sergeant Nuzzi will be replacing me as lieutenant, and Detective Elmore will be replacing him as lieutenant. (The applause starts again, hesitantly at first, but grows louder and people start cheering).
ELMORE: Thanks, everyone. I’m going to do my best to turn this precinct into a lean, efficient, crime-fighting unit. I’m looking forward to working with all of you. I’m got a lot to learn from all of you, and hopefully I’ll be able to teach you a few things too. The first thing is this: (Pause) don’t ever give up. Sometimes life will knock you down. Things will seem unfair. But you can’t fight if you lay down on the mat and give up. (Cut to WISER smirking, amused, and nodding) The world’s not fair. Sometimes people can’t look past your outside to see who you really are. I learned that. Some of you didn’t trust me, didn’t like me, didn’t believe in me. But once you learned to see past the colour of my skin, we all learned that by working together we can solve the real problems that we all face. So if you want to move up like me, just remember this: if you work hard, and you believe in yourself, and you never give up, you can succeed.
(Officers are nodding in agreement as ELMORE speaks. As he finishes, they all begin clapping and cheering)
ELMORE: (Walks over to LAMAR) Hey man. I know you were next in line for this promotion. I wanted you to get it. You should have. Its weird and sucks that I robbed you.
LAMAR: It’s all good, dawg. I appreciate you saying that, though. It really means a lot to me. Of course, if you really feel that way, you could turn down the promotion and recommend me for it instead. (Pause. Then, both men burst into laughter)
ELMORE: Good one.
LAMAR: Oh and hey, I’m sorry about your friend.
ELMORE: Yeah, me too. I guess she’s singing with the angels now.
(The camera pans up through the roof into the sky, where LALA is singing in a choir of other blonde angels. She turns to the camera and winks. Fade to black)