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Tuesday, December 3, 2002

Minorities Report

By Kevin John

In the future that Steven Spielberg's Minority Report posits, a phalanx of criminal investigators can see a crime before it's actually committed, using an elaborate visual policing system called Precrime. Clearly, Spielberg intended a cautionary/paranoid tale. But his conception of crime ignores how government rule has already spun out of control in the present.

When Precrime is first introduced to us, it's not through a routine session. Detective John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is investigating a precrime of passion. A crime of passion, we're told, is a crime with little premeditation. So Anderton only has a brief window of time to stop the crime from taking place. But let's look at where and with whom that crime will take place.

The precriminal here is a white man who has just found out his wife is having an affair. He lives in a middle-class neighborhood with 2.5 kids. And, again, his murderous rage supposedly hits him in the spur of the moment. I would never claim that no institutional forces are at play in white, middle-class neighborhoods. But I bet those forces would come to the fore more readily if this precrime were, say, a drive-by about to be committed by a black man in an inner-city ghetto. And one subtle way to ignore that institutional factors have any bearing on criminal activity is to situate crime as an irrational, barely interpretable impulse that wells up from within a person at a moment's notice.

Given Spielberg's stance against institutionalized thought control, it's difficult to see the narrow view of crime as a shortcoming. In fact, someone like film theorist Peter Lehman might find it quite beneficial. As Lehman states in his 1981 essay "Looking At Look's Missing Reverse Shot: Psychoanalysis and Style in John Ford's The Searchers": "Important artists frequently let more into their films than they can handle...Their films are thus more likely to glaringly reveal the tears and fissures — the symptoms that cannot be controlled."

Lehman's example is the mistreatment of the Native American character Look. At the very least, Lehman contends, disturbing, racist moments in The Searchers allow us to contemplate racial tensions at large. For instance, The Searchers, released in 1956, could be said to lay bare the tensions that would boil over at Little Rock just a year later where a lesser film would make no room for such contemplation.

Indeed, I found Minority Report to be enormously engaging on an intellectual level because it allowed me to contemplate racist conceptions of crime whereas films like Orange County, Eight Legged Freaks and Signs infuriated me for sending (and failing to examine) the same oppressive ideological message I'd seen in countless other films valorizing the nuclear family. But there's a sense in which Spielberg missed a golden opportunity to analyze precisely how criminal activity often leaves a trail leading back to socioeconomic constraints.

John Ford may have had more nerve and intelligence than most, if not all, of his contemporaries. And for this, "we would do well...to not simplistically condemn The Searchers as a film or John Ford as a man because of the disturbing treatment of Look," as per Lehman's suggestion. But what are we neglecting in a rush to reserve condemnation of a film or director? And in our supposedly more permissive era, couldn't Spielberg have displayed even more nerve and intelligence in Minority Report? In a film with so few minorities (although why is Anderton's black female ally at Precrime pregnant? and, while I'm at it, why do the Precogs who predict the crimes float in a tank of amniotic-like fluid resembling the pod prisons of The Matrix and countless other sc-fi films?), concerning ourselves with Spielberg's greatness seems like a minor priority indeed.

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