Why are we still watching copaganda?

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Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker heralded a new era of the buddy cop subgenre in "Rush Hour," which proved that Black and Asian actors could topbill a successful Hollywood film franchise. But what about the film's copaganda (cop propaganda) content? Screenshot from WARNER BROTHERS ENTERTAINMENT

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s.

In the 1998 film “Rush Hour,” Los Angeles detective James Carter (Chris Tucker) accidentally answers the call of a kidnapper. It’s a tense and high-stakes situation, as the Chinese consul’s daughter is being held captive. But Carter’s feathers are hard to ruffle, and he takes on the kidnapper’s demands like a fast food order. The ransom money is set at a whopping $50 million, and Carter responds, “Fifty million dollars? Who’d you think you kidnapped, Chelsea Clinton?”

I was only seven years old when “Rush Hour'' came out, and it would become one of the most formative films I would ever watch; I can’t count the number of times I saw it on repeat via VHS tape. The action sequences were well-choreographed and the humor was quick-witted and rooted in pop culture. Like eleven-year-old Soo Young (Julia Hsu), I too enjoyed belting out to Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” and other classics on the way to school.

This action-comedy film, which mixed elements of martial arts by way of Jackie Chan as Hong Kong inspector Lee, went on to become a commercial success. With just a budget of $35 million, it would earn more than $240 million worldwide and lead to two more movie sequels and a 2016 television series. While a lot of the humor in the film franchise is at the expense of a racial stereotype, “Rush Hour” is inarguably groundbreaking work. (To be fair, the stereotypes are both positive and negative, and aren’t limited to one perspective. To wit, a now-deleted tweet has stated that “Rush Hour 2 is so racist in either direction that it just cancels out all racism in the movie.” Take that with a grain of salt.) Chan and Tucker heralded a new era of the buddy cop subgenre, which proved that Black and Asian actors could topbill a successful Hollywood film franchise. If there is anything about “Rush Hour” that I have trouble reconciling with, it’s that the heroes of said stories happen to be cops.

I don’t like cops. At least, not anymore. I grew up from a place of privilege that allowed me to view uniformed personnel as good people. To be in the police or in the military was meant to be an honorable profession. I had every reason to believe this: I knew good cops. I knew good soldiers. While popular media has suggested the existence of corrupt police officers, I held onto the belief that the good people I knew, doing the good work I knew they were doing, would ultimately invalidate the misconduct of those who acted otherwise.

But as I began to shed the innocence of youth, I saw that the police and military infrastructures were not corrupted by a handful of “rotten apples.” It was a system that is corrupt to its core. In the United States, the last year saw an outbreak of anti-police sentiment following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. The Black Lives Matter movement exists closely with the idea that “All cops are bad” or #ACAB, because the police force in the United States has always been instrumental in forwarding the ideals of White supremacy. Other democratic nations have also had examples of brutality committed by their own police force. In October 2020, Nigerian police opened fire on protesters demanding police reform, and ended up killing 12 people.

In the Philippines, brutality and criminality within the police force is so ingrained in the system that every Filipino has likely had a run in with a dirty cop at one point in their lives — whether it be evading a traffic ticket by way of petty bribes, or a much more sinister encounter. Academics and social theorists say that there is enough proof to say that the police force (anywhere in the world, but especially in developing nations) is a systematic mistake. It’s never just one or two bad cops. The culture that thrives is the problem — even a House representative said so. The padrinos, the secrecy, the open avenues for abuse. Surely you’ve seen older folks who carry business cards of their cop friends, just in case they have a run-in on the road. And no one openly says a thing about it. What emboldens these actions is the absence of any accountability. Filipino cops have always enjoyed a level of immunity akin to demigods; they who execute the law are also exempt from it.

How did we not realize that this unchecked power would be a problem? If the evening news isn’t enough, there are several examples in fictional work to show just how prevalent these problems really are. Filipino independent films have their fair share of dirty cops: in filmmaker Brillante Mendoza’s Cannes-winning, shakily filmed “Kinatay,” the cop antagonist commits the most heinous crime in the story — and Mendoza doesn’t glamorize the act, as if to suggest that a policeman would not hesitate to commit a crime in pursuit of his self-interests. That’s the image of the police that our country has shown the world, and as questionable as Mendoza’s own politics are, his portrayal of cops isn’t far off the mark.

Why do we keep watching copaganda and why do they continue to be so well-received?

Yet despite knowing enough to see that, indeed, All Cops are Bad, police-led works of fiction continue to be enduringly popular. And more often than not, the portrayals of cops in most films, television series, and books show them as flawed but ultimately heroic individuals. American television has countless television shows with cops at the forefront. Consider the popular sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which portrayed New York City cops as an office barkada that spends their days pulling off pranks and singing karaoke with notorious carnappers. Or the enduring “Ang Probinsyano,” which by now has become the longest-running drama series on Philippine television. It tells the story of police captain Cardo Dalisay (Coco Martin), a role that was originally played by Fernando Poe Jr. in the 1997 film of the same name. Hell, the animated film “Zootopia” was literally about a rabbit who wanted to become a policewoman. A message to all young women: be the girlboss cop you wish to see in the world.

I wish I could say that I am not as susceptible to the allure of cop content, but I’m not so different from my “Rush Hour”-obsessed seven-year-old self; I’m just a little more aware of how uncomfortable my media consumption actually makes me. Some of my favorite shows and films lately have police protagonists. The HBO series “Mare of Easttown” had a brief chokehold on me as episodes came out each week. Kate Winslet delivered a fantastic performance, but even as I marveled at how she practically disappeared into the role of a vape-smoking detective, it was clear how much power her character held in this position. And (spoiler alert) she did abuse it when she felt like she needed to. Still, as the well-written protagonist that Mare was, I rooted for her to win till the end.

The problem is that all this well-made cop content softens my own resolve, a strong belief that the police must be abolished and that no amount of good cops can change things in a positive light. We don’t need more cops. We need better social safety nets to prevent people from committing crime. But it’s hard to say that I believe in these things, when I continue to consume content that insists on a world that needs the police.

Why then do we keep watching copaganda (a portmanteau of cop and propaganda), and why do they continue to be so well-received? We’re all aware of the human cost of our actions; while we aren’t directly responsible for the production of these films and shows, our mere interest suggests that we’re absolutely okay with it. Cops can still act like thugs on the streets, because on TV, we let them do whatever they want. But that does a great disservice to those who aren’t as lucky as we are, people — not plot devices — who live in fear of death or punishment in the hands of the police. Are we doing enough to keep them safe?

I’m afraid I have no real answers to offer, only a question that I release onto the universe. For now, I’d like to think copaganda exists as our own modern fairy tales, fantasies that allow us to believe that the people who swore to serve and protect us will, in fact, serve and protect us.