No one raindrop thinks it caused the flood. -Melanie Cross (Mayhem)
While traveling through Mississippi on the way back from New Orleans on Monday, I saw flashing blue lights behind me and felt a lurch in my throat. Like a lot of us, I was on auto-pilot traveling down the highway, going five miles over the limit. When the cop approached the vehicle, he came from the passenger side where my wife was sitting. As to be expected, the officer asked for my license, which I gave to him. I complied for the entire interaction. What he told me next deviated from the usual exchange I have had with the police. He told me to get out of my vehicle and walk behind my car. Caged between his cruiser and my Camry, he said, “I pulled you over because you were traveling in the left lane and because you were speeding up and slowing down.” He did not say that I was speeding. He said he was only issuing a warning.
Further confounding me, the cop said, “I need you to come sit in the passenger side of my vehicle.” Although I found this order to be a strange one, I did it anyway. Running my license, the police officer began interrogating me on where I was coming from, where I lived, and where I stayed while vacationing. In a snide and arrogant tone, he said, “Why would you want to go to New Orleans?” Never once in our communication did he explain what he was doing. Once the man had finished his procedure, he told me, “I am not going to print anything. I am only giving you a warning.” Not until now did I consider that by not producing documentation, the individual operating under the authority of the law might have been protecting his interests more than mine.
I write about this encounter not to elicit pity or to portray myself as being victimized. What black Americans and other minorities have to go through in their dealings with cops is far worse than what I experienced and far more frequent. In my entire life, this is the first time I have had this occur, and I walked away feeling invaded and violated. However, I walked away. If I had been black or a black person who questioned the way in which he was being policed, I am not sure the outcome would have been the same.
I can hear the counterarguments now. Do you know how hard it is to be a cop these days? What if you had a gun? That man was just doing his job. And therein lies the irony. The Far Right promulgates accountability while maintaining and upholding a system that denies any culpability.
Not even ten minutes into director Joe Lynch’s Mayhem (2017) do we get the statement from our epigraph, “No one raindrop thinks it caused the flood.” When carrying out systemic oppression, the individual purveyors of injustice can acquit themselves as just following orders. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me,
The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.
How do you confront a corrupt structure when institutions absolve themselves of their pillaging of the poor and marginalized by hiding the individual agents behind the system itself? How do you address white, male dominance when it is shielded behind an unassailable whiteness or maleness? After all, as I had one individual tell me this past week in New Orleans, I cannot alter the fact that I am white or male.
This is a question that the film Mayhem explores, and it does so while channeling the contemporary economic current with all of its volatile rapids. The angst of our cultural mood is on full display as we follow the story of an outbreak of the ID-7 virus, a contagion that causes victims to lose the balance between emotion and reason and to engage in acts of impulse and instinct. What follows is a narrative that is a paean to corporate comeuppance as Derek Cho, played by Steven Yeun who you will recognize as Glenn from The Walking Dead, seeks to exonerate himself from an unjust termination. Instead of hacking down the undead, Steven is represented as slaughtering corporate zombies, termed redders for how the disease spreads by contaminating the eye by changing its color to a crimson hue. But what is notable about these hordes is that they are not reanimated corpses but rather humans acting in an inhumane way. As the opening of the film tells us, “The virus isn’t lethal, which is technically true. But while the virus can’t kill, the infected, or redders, can.”
Resonating with the contemporary Zeitgeist on many levels, Mayhem encapsulates the COVID-19 crisis where, under quarantine, what is duplicating and multiplying in a manner that is more deadly than any virus is indecency. Such indecency not only manifests itself in our ongoing public dialogue about racial injustice but also in the Millennial who enters public places without a mask because, of course, “the virus isn’t lethal”, which we should perhaps now amend with, “but you, the asymptomatic carrier, are.” Love of neighbor seems to be jettisoned, and we wonder why that morality migrated (and if it will ever return) in a nation that values avarice and individualism. As my good friend and fellow Grindhouse Theology contributor, Ian, indicated to me earlier this week, the claim that an individual can be just or good apart from the relative justice or goodness of the society to which he belongs is untenable. Our own Constitution enshrines the Lockean atomism that isolates the individual as a sovereign self as opposed to a social self. We are only moral subjects to the degree that we belong to one another in concrete commitments that sideline our schedules and put off our own priorities for the priorities of another.
Showcasing the sickness of self-interest early on, the movie starts with the narration of the protagonist Derek Cho as he discusses how he joined a consulting firm called TSC and scored a huge promotion by finding a loophole in the case of Nevil Reed, the first individual suffering from the illness to murder someone. Experts, we are told, call the symptoms of the afflicted emotional hijacking, and Derek is able to get Reed acquitted on the basis of temporary insanity. Nevil did not kill anyone; the virus did. Seeming unfazed by this kind of moral hand-washing, Derek sequesters himself from any of the immoral actions of the firm by sheltering behind the amorphous entity of the firm. He tells a pleading woman named Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving) who is trying to prevent the bank from foreclosing on a house that, “The bank is kicking you out.” Replying with, “The bank is your client”, Melanie is met with denial from Derek who says, “The bank is the firm’s client.” And the firm, of course, is inoculated from responsibility or accountability by being a faceless organization. Separating himself from any wrongdoing, Derek is disengaging from community and privatizing his ethics, what is good is what is good for the self. When we detach from any sense of obligation to others, we engage in the ultimate form of social distancing, shrinking our consciences to convict us of only sins of personal immorality rather than collective malfeasance, policing only our private thoughts and not supervising our social actions.
None of this systemic scapegoating, blaming an institution that cannot, by design, be impugned, seems to bother Derek until he himself is scapegoated. A client is mishandled by his superior, Kara “The Siren” Powell (Caroline Chikezie), and she takes it to John “The Boss” Towers (Steven Brand), who describes the predicament to both Kara and Derek by sketching a scene of a bomb with a short fuse and three soldiers running away. Who will jump on the bomb? Kara and John agree that it will be Derek, who is then fired. Magnifying the militarism of corporations, director Joe Lynch keenly describes the suits as soldiers and the dissatisfied clients as corpses. The army metaphor combined with the plague that will soon descend serves to escalate the tension and to accentuate the theme of cutthroat capitalism. Over 86 minutes that careen forward at breakneck speed, audiences are exposed to a stylized splatterfilm that sullies viewers, contaminating them with moral outrage. Earlier in the work’s exposition, Derek puts it aptly, “Basic human dignity takes a sick leave.”
Barreling towards the doors after being let go, Derek is stopped by individuals in Hazmat suits who have cordoned off the building because of a case of ID-7. As the virus spreads through the building, inhibitions fall and rise, and chaos ensues. Deciding to team up with Melanie the rebuffed borrower, Derek hatches a plan to make it to the top floor to speak to the board, referred to as the Nine, in order to exculpate himself from his wrongful termination and get one of the partners to reverse the foreclosure on Melanie’s house. Blood is brushed across the screen as liberally as the paint, and the cross cutting of the brutal violence and reign of man’s ID with Derek’s canvas strokes make the parallel clear. Art is revolution and revolution is art; sometimes beauty is in the burning.
This is not to say that violence is justified or that is condoned just that the emotions underlying it are understandable and that the outrage must be processed and felt. Reverting to our baser impulses while promoting human dignity undermines our message. Rioters and looters are condemned with the bigots and racists. More must be said though. When majoritarians emphasize the evil of the rioting and looting, they are guilty of short-circuiting POC’s righteous indignation over oppression as well as approving or ignoring violence as long as it is state sanctioned or system supported. Violence that is perpetrated on certain bodies or communities is deemed acceptable or, at least, minimized as not being systemic. As Ta-Nehisi Coates says elsewhere in Between the World and Me,
But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic–an orc, troll, or gorgon…Considering segregationist senator Strom Thurmond, Richard Nixon concluded, “Strom is no racist.” There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally.
The madness of our moment is that there are two deadly diseases transferring through our culture and neither of them are the coronavirus. Plagued by the pathogen of privilege and the infection of incivility, our society is nauseated by the inhumanity in how we subjugate others and dizzied by the indecency in how we dialogue on a way forward. What is clear is that what is infected cannot be amputated meaning that none of us can assert independence from another nor can we exclude voices from the discussion. “I was just doing my job”, as Lester “The Reaper” McGill (Dallas Roberts) tells Derek when he is the object of our protagonist’s animus for firing him, never has been a viable excuse. We belong to one another. We are a superorganism that grows best when individuals stop acting parasitically and start functioning symbiotically.
During the quarantine and coronavirus, we may have tested positive for our collective barbarism but we were always carriers and the symptoms, while more manageable and concealable, were present. However, we are not presented with a problem but with an opportunity. As Derek persuades Melanie when they are teaming up to go to the penthouse to get vindication from the board, he tells her that it is their moment to hold the executives and the partners accountable for all the damage they have done. Subverting the trope of wanting to escape a quarantine, Joe Lynch brilliantly employs the quarantine motif as a time window in which the main characters can exercise social justice. Thus, the countdown is to be resisted not rallied on. By employing such a technique, the filmmaker is able to offer sly social commentary and biting satire. Also, it lends the movie a kind of uncanny prescience, as it speaks to our own quarantine, our own shelter-in-place, which affords us the time to finally demand and act for change. A socio-economic system that rewards sacrificing others to get ahead instead of sacrificing self is not one that is based on the ethics of the kingdom. Unwillingness to examine those principles out of some nationalistic devotion shows a betrayal of allegiance to the celestial country which we pledge to before any earthly land. And though the new humanity that the Church should foster is not born of bloodshed, we cannot be silent to a system that tells you to be rational and calm all while perpetrating acts of violence in the name and under the guise of the law. Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) words from The Dark Knight (2008) ring all the more true, “You thought we could be decent men in indecent times.”
But, to quote another on ethics, Friedrich Nietzsche says, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” Dismantling a corrupt system must not result in replacing it with another corrupt system. If we care about the marginalized and the poor, we must make sure that there are not casualties in our efforts to bring about political reform. Derek understands this, intuits this, as by the movie’s climax when he has assumed The Boss’s position, he does one noble act by reversing the house foreclosure and then quits. He will not become part of the warped hierarchy he fought to overthrow. A POC and a woman have risen to the top.
And yet the movie too readily dismisses the body count, the legions of dead and dismembered that Derek is responsible for. This is perhaps the movie’s greatest weakness. And while I realize that this is an allegory for the urgent and aggressive resistance to oppression, I think it fails precisely because it is an allegory. If in seeking to take down what we see as immoral we only enact more immorality, then we have become infected no matter how asymptomatic we appear.
The cross of Christ is the needle to vaccinate our infected moment, pumping mercy and grace into our bodies. At the cross, there is no social ranking, and we are all equal. Jesus gave up his privilege and became poor so that all might become privileged (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:9). He distributes his wealth among the community of the faithful and shares it with all. More than that though, he took on Incivility by being policed, harassed, abused, and lynched for our sake so that we might receive the Civility of God. He became Indecent so that we might become Decent. We are invited into a new humanity and a new city where we can exercise empathy and understanding for all.
The madness of our moment is temporary as Christ ushered in the sanity of shalom, a peace that comes with the future age that is here-but-not-here. May we be petitioners and protestors of any authority that usurps that rightful dominion.