Keepin’ It Real

Rodney Bethea and Skinny Suge’s DVD, “Stop Snitching,” has been one of the hot topics in the media this week. The DVD is being distributed underground, most prominently in Boston and Baltimore, and as its name suggests, the DVD is designed to warn people against testifying against street gang members. The documentary has aroused further controversy because Denver Nuggets hoops star, Carmelo Anthony, appears in the film, though he is not shown making any threats. I haven’t had a chance to see the DVD, but the debates about “Stop Snitching” or “Stop Fucking Snitching,” according to Rachael, raise all kinds of questions about documentary practice in general.

As Rachael notes, it’s important to ask whether or not these images are “real,” at least in terms of threats against potential snitches, and in her reading, much of the video consists of “boasting and talk.” I’d also wonder how much of the video (and the promotional materials for it) are staged in other ways. It’s worth noting that the DVD itself becomes a taped confession if the people in the film act on their threats. This description is more or less echoed by one of the DVD’s creators, Rodney Bethea, who claims that the video was made for “entertainment purposes” only and adds that “It’s no different than a documentary about a serial killer” (Bethea, according to Gregory Kane’s Baltimore Sun editorial has been reticent to talk since news of the video has spread).

From my reading of Kane’s editorial, I’d imagine that the underground distribution is also part of the posturing. As Scott Macaulay notes, the underground distribution “has the punch of an urban-themed Ring.” When Kane asks several Baltimore high school students whether they’ve seen the video, two of them respond that “Stop Snitching isn’t the only video of its kind, that they’re quite common and that they are the only type of movies they watch.” I’d imagine that these students may be playing up the significance of this video (and the presence of others like it) for the reporter.

I don’t want to sound like I’m being dismissive of the real problem of witness intimidation, which according to The New York Times, affects hundreds of witnesses every year, but I do want to asert that this video is a more complicated artifact than it might initially appear, something that Rachael and the Baltimore Sun columnist convey pretty effectively. As Fox Butterfield notes in the NYT article, this lack of witness protection disproportionately affects poor and working-class people like Ricky Prince, who was murdered, and his mother, Jackie Davis, who was forced to move out of state at her own expense, and I do think that some form of witness protection is a reasonable expectation for the people who put themselves at risk in order to help prosecute violent crime.

Quick Update: A comment in Renov’s book reminded me of something I wanted to add. I think I’m suspicious of characterizations of this documentary as an objective representation and want to emphasize the film’s “expressive” qualities, what it seems to be saying about crime and about street gangs. It’s also important to remember that the wider distribution of the DVD has most certainly carried it far away from its original audience (and that it’s likely worth reading, or trying to read, “Stop Snitching” from the POV of that audience).

2 Comments »

  1. Francois Lachance Said,

    January 18, 2005 @ 4:47 pm

    In a similar vien. Jill Walker at jill/txt recently posted an entry about the fiction/actual line.
    See http://huminf.uib.no/~jill/index.php?p=1210

    She picks up the terminology of Viviane Serfaty: veil and mirror. One commentator notes: “Mirrors can be broken; veils rent. Signs spin; narratives weave.”

  2. Chuck Said,

    January 20, 2005 @ 1:56 pm

    Francois, I like your reading of Hall’s video quite a bit. I’ve been a little overwhelmed with work (preparing for a campus visit, teaching classes, etc), so haven’t had time to tend to the blog lately.

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