Louis Theroux is a bland, Insulting joke of a journalist. “Law and Disorder in Philadelphia” is a terrible documentary.Posted: July 17, 2014
So for those who are uninitiated, Louis Theroux is one of the many private school, Oxbridge educated white dudes who have dominated British public life forever. In Louis’ case; he has taken it upon himself to wonder around the world pointing at things. I’ve always been annoyed by the popularity of Mr Theroux’s assent to position of BBC staple documentary making, I’ve always really hated that his method of asking inane questions to people with very clearly stated world view; be it asking people hanging out in a swastika draped garage if they consider themselves Nazis (spoiler; they do), Asking White segregationists if they think racism is strange (you will be supprised to find out they don’t) or asking members of the Westrbo Baptist Church if they think homophobia has a place in Christianity (shocker; they do), Louis Theroux has boiled down awkward redundancy to an art form.
The apparent idea is that Louis is showing parts of the world that we don’t really see, this is somewhat true when he visits places like Californian prisons, or even pseudo-hospitals that are in fact prisons. This tends to mean that the style of looking at people who are not white middle class and English whilst they say all manner of non white middle class English stuff is not nearly as grinding because very few documentary makers actually enter these places, this don’t make those documentaries good, just less redundant than they might be, establishing the existence of such places for hopefully more competent people to come a investigate a particular part of the world.
“Law and Disorder in Philadelphia”, arguably the first documentary in which Louis is trying to drop the whole “wacky” bullshit he made his name in during my childhood and teenage years, this makes the whole experience jarring as whilst he seems to have dropped the overt stupidity at the level of playing jaunty music whilst meeting white separatists he hasn’t stopped the general gawping and stupid questions, making the whole endeavor feel like a bad joke at the expense of Philadelphia’s population.
It’s pretty annoying that this is the entire documentary is an advert for the Philadelphia police department; the fact that this entire documentary comes, care of the permission of the Police department is abundantly clear from the very clearly set up shots of the drug cops posing with their hardware to to the completely unquestioning acceptance Louis gives to police officer’s views on why the social problems that plague Philadelphia, never asking them if they feel they play a factor in the cycle of poverty, drugs and violence, allowing a relatively complex issue of the world of inner city violence into one of honorable cops fighting to save the inexplicably violent inner cities of America. This is particularly jarring considering the city’s history of police brutality, and street harassment. Louis’ failure to question the officers featured in the documentary beyond how hard they find tussling with hardened criminals, never wondering why the police might be hated in Philadelphia, beyond the fact that poor black people are just like children. In fact I would like to quickly consider the last clip I’ve just linked; Louis, having watched the police chase down and arrest a young man and having a entire block of people express anger about the fact that as a community have no agency or redress in what is at the end of the day; a highly policed area, Louis begins the questioning thus;
when you’re mopping up the bad guys, how do you make sure you don’t alienate the good guys?
firstly that’s a stupid question, it’s based on the Idea that policing a modern inner-city with many layers of socio-economic factors that have driven poor, mostly people of color into the least well maintained and most brutalized parts of the developed world can have anything so simplistic as “good” and “bad” guys. This boils the question down to LaPierre levels of idiocy. not only to be dragged down further by the frankly telling awnser Louis gets;
The good guys aren’t here. The good guys are the ones who went back into the house when they were told… The ones who want to start trouble are the one’s mouthing off on the corner… They grey area guy ain’t here either. He’s back in his his house too when he was told the second time. These are the people you’ve gotta tell five, six, seven times to get off the corner and they don’t want to do it, so they get locked up
There are several places to go with that statement, why, for instance, are you equating vocal opposition to the police a sign of criminal behaviour? Do you think that for a public servant you are taking a weirdly controlling attitude to people who ultimately pay your salary? You seem to be talking about them as though they are rowdy children, do you think that effects the way you interact with them? and so on, my reaction would not be to cut away to finding a dead homeless person we can all stare at, minimizing the anger people feel in certain neighborhoods in certain parts of America into just a silly thing that silly people say because they’re not grown ups. It should also be noted that this is the one and only time in the entire hour long documentary that we see people who are not involved in the drug war in any capacity but also living in the area. Respect for the subject/people involved would surely dictate that Louis follows up with these people, possibly when they’re not having an highly charged altercation with the police? Possibly so as not to depict the citizens of north Philadelphia as incoherent crazy people. Or not, I’m sure that would mess with the narrative we’re trying to construct here.
I just want to put two images side by side for comparison.
To the left is a picture of Louis Theroux standing in between Israeli boarder security and Palestinian protesters, you will note that said Israeli police have automatic rifles. To the right is the same Journalist walking up to a group of unarmed teenagers hanging outside a corner store in north Philadelphia. I don’t want to get too defensive of the Kensington area but I do currently have a day job in the area this documentary is filmed in, and despite the fact that I get offered heroin on a daily basis, north Philadelphia isn’t anywhere close to as violent or dangerous as the West Bank. It is particularly not dangerous for foreign journalists, particularly when they’re being escorted by uniformed police. The entire visual of a posh English guy wondering around the 6th most populous city in America in a bullet proof vest is ridiculous, and only adds to the Idea that Kensington is a war-torn hellscape populated by drug addled maniacs against which all methods are justified, so we better not question the methods of our boys in blue.
My anger around this documentary is something that’s been stewing with me for a while. I think it’s because as much as I try to forget the fact, Louis Theroux is one of the BBC’s primary documentary makers and this documentary is the only one about Philadelphia that I’m aware of to play in the U.K. in recent years. British people don’t generally know anything about the City in which I live beyond Boxing, A.I.D.s and that Will Smith was born and raised here, so for a lot of people in the country of my birth this is their modern reference point for how people in Philadelphia live their lives. This city isn’t perfect, It is rough around the edges and in some places dangerous, but no more than any other city and the people who live here are about as weird/violent/crazy/high as people are generally and they don’t deserve to be displayed as unfathomably violent, drug addled and incoherent.