This article is part of the Arc of Justice series, responding to the killing of George Floyd and the international movement it has sparked.
I have not stopped thinking about Atlantics since I first saw it. Written and directed by French-Senegalese actress Mati Diop, and featuring a largely unknown cast, it was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, where it won the Grand Prix, and was released on Netflix late last year. I went into it thinking that it was a romance, but the theme that has stayed with me is a ghost story about injustice. I’ve been trying to find a different conclusion than the one the movie suggests.
Set in Dakar, Senegal, Atlantics is centered around a young girl, Ada, and her lover, Souleiman. Their love is complicated because Ada is betrothed to another man – Omar. While Omar is a wealthy man, Souleiman is a common laborer, part of a group of construction workers who are building a skyscraper for a local tycoon, Mr. N’Diaye, who funds and controls the police force.
The film begins with Souleiman and his fellow workers pleading for their wages, which they haven’t received for months. After failing to win their appeal, some of the workers decide to leave the country in a dream of building a better life in Spain. Souleiman hides his plan from Ada until after he is gone. He and the others are lost at sea.
Left behind, Ada goes through with her marriage to Omar. On their wedding day, Omar’s bed is burned in a suspected arson attack. Ada becomes a person of interest, and the detective assigned to the case begins to follow her around. The movie then becomes fantastical. As Ada is investigated, her friend Fanta and the detective fall ill, possessed by the spirits of the drowned laborers.
Inhabiting a group of local girls, the ghosts visit Mr. N’Diaye to demand that he pay them what they’re owed, threatening to burn down the tower they had been building. Mr. N’Diaye refuses several times until the ghosts begin to destroy the tower, when he finally relents and gives them their lost wages. The ghosts then force him to dig their graves and mock him as he spends all night doing their bidding.
Meanwhile, it turns out that the detective himself, possessed by the ghost of Souleiman, was responsible for the arson attack. He closes the case after he realizes that he was –physically, at least – the culprit. He also goes to visit Ada, and through him she and Souleiman have a chance to say goodbye.
While the love story has its sad but satisfying closure, the indignity at the center of the film still haunts me. The boys must come back as ghosts to seek recognition and the small payment for their work. Modest as their demands are, they are apparently too much to ask before the ghosts resort to fear and fire. To the powerful, to the world at large, such people are disposable.
The graveyard scene calls to mind The Perjured City, a play by Hélène Cixous in response to the infected blood scandal in France. Between 1984 and 1985, a national transfusion center knowingly infected hemophiliacs with HIV-positive blood. When this came to light, the doctors responsible served only a few years in prison. A bit of money was given to the victims.
The Perjured City imagined what justice could look like after the system fails for victims. The meaning of the play “is clearly explained by the chorus. They say the past trial was bad, it didn’t solve anything, which is exactly what happened in reality,” Cixous has said. The doctors “are now free and thriving, while hemophiliacs go on dying. The Perjured City wants to try and open another scene or stage where more of the truth of justice is evinced.”
The play ends in the cemetery, where the doctors are brought to be confronted by the mothers of their victims. All the mothers want is to be able to speak of their pain, and for the doctors to admit their guilt and ask for forgiveness. The doctors, advised by their lawyers, refuse to admit guilt. But the chorus tells the lawyers that because they are not in a courtroom, their refusal will lead them to disaster, because “we don’t give a damn about the law. What we seek is justice.”
These stories ask not only how those on the margins of society can get justice, but what sufficient justice is. These confrontations suggest that it is critical that they be accorded the dignity of being heard and acknowledged. But there’s still a void. The guilty keep living; their victims are dead. Survivors are compensated, given a slice of justice, but it is not enough. The sons of the French mothers, and the young Dakar laborers, are still gone.
I’ve been thinking about this as the protests in honor of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and generally against police brutality and white supremacy, have raged across the country. It took days of large protests and violence before the officer who killed Floyd was arrested. At the time of writing, the perpetrators of Taylor’s death are still free.
Sometimes it feels like such protests move in an infinite loop. Coming out against police brutality seems like a perennial tradition, each time with the same conversations. Arguments continue, over the better way to protest, the corruption of protest by outside agitators, the legitimacy of protest when violence is involved, the role of police in escalating violence, the value of destroyed property versus human life, how the state gets away with violence by legalizing it, and what is to be done to stop senseless killings of black people at the hands of police. Many protesters, no longer confident that the police can be reformed, are now demanding that they be defunded and stripped of their qualified immunity.
Each time I engage in these recurring protests, I think about how absurd they are. Not the protests in themselves, but the fact that they have to exist. The demand seems so simple, like Souleiman asking for his wages, that needing to make it is degrading. It is begging for something that already belongs to you.
Black people are asking for their humanity to be recognized and to be treated and protected on equal terms with their white counterparts. A natural right. And for the police officer that coldly held his knee on Floyd’s neck as Floyd died, as well as those who guarded him as he did so, and the other officers who have murdered black people and defended their actions in ways that are insulting to reason, to be appropriately punished. This seems the least a people could ask from their society.
Yet those demands have been consistently met with indifference, after so many years and countless deaths. Sometimes politicians use fake sympathy to appease people for the moment, but nothing changes. And so the protests go on.
I argued with someone recently who suggested that if the protests were more peaceful they could lead to actual change. Consider how many peaceful protests have been ignored, and the long history of the governments escalating protests and using the ensuing violence to call them illegitimate, I said. To what part of such a system can people it doesn’t recognize appeal?
Should they appeal to the police themselves? In the United States, policing has long unjustly targeted black people, whatever the personal decency of individual officers.
Should they appeal to the politicians who, from the local to the federal levels, have militarized police forces and created the laws that protect abusive officers from consequences, even for the most horrific acts?
How should a people ask for justice from a world that has already denied them?
Or should they petition the judicial system, which time and again has refused to charge or convict killers so long as they were wearing blue – while also disproportionately dealing out harsher punishment to black people and filling the prisons with black inmates? In these and other ways, all levels of government reinforce the enduring and dynamic white supremacy that the protests are fighting against.
How should a people ask for justice from a world that has already denied them? That they have to ask at all says so much.
Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 novella Michael Kohlhaas is also about demanding justice, showing the lengths to which one man goes to get what is owed him.
It begins when the horse breeder Michael Kohlhaas is stopped at a toll barrier on his way to sell his horses in Saxony. He is told by a nobleman that he doesn’t have the proper permits to cross, apparently a new rule he didn’t know. After trying to bargain his way out, he is asked to leave his horses behind but assured he will get them back once he returns with the proper papers. In Dresden, he finds out that there is no law requiring permits to cross. When he returns to retrieve his horses, he finds that they have been overworked and the man he left to take care of them abused and chased away.
Kohlhaas sues the noble for the medical costs of his groom and the rehabilitation and return of his horses. From there, the story becomes comically absurd. First his suit is denied due to the noble’s political influence, and his numerous other attempts to get simple justice fail as well. Eventually his wife, who goes to deliver his petition in person, is killed in her efforts. Her death inflames him to violence.
He attacks castles and towns looking for the noble, in the process building a threatening army. He is portrayed by the powerful as an evil man, yet each time he is asked what he wants, he states clearly that he simply wants what he is owed. Despite his growing power, those things are denied him; he ends up in a cycle where his demand is denied because he’s violent, but he only became violent because he was refused what was his to begin with.
“Outcast is my word for a man who receives no protection from the law.”
In my favorite part of the book, none other than Martin Luther admonishes Kohlhaas in an open letter, and Kohlhaas, a religious man, is so deeply hurt that he visits Luther in disguise in order to explain himself and ask for benediction. Luther condemns Kohlhaas, asking who gave him the right to destroy the society that protects him. Kohlhaas agrees that what he is doing is sinful, or would be if he hadn’t been cast out of society. Luther demands to know who cast him out. “Outcast,” Kohlhaas says, “is my word for a man who receives no protection from the law. I need such protection for the peaceful exercise of my profession; yes, that is the sole reason why, together with the fruits of my work, I took refuge in a community. And whosoever would deny me such classes me with the savages of the wild; he gives me, and how can you argue with this, the cudgel with which I protect myself into my hand.”
Kohlhaas tells Luther that if he is returned to a society which would protect him, he will disband his army and again plead for the things that he is owed. Luther assumes that he is asking for something unreasonable, but he repeats his modest demand. All he wants is the things that were taken from him.
In the end, Kohlhaas gets his justice, but he is also beheaded for his violence. He walks to his death happy. The violence he commits is contemptible – he admits it and accepts his punishment – but the irony is that he only receives attention and sympathy because of it. Were it not for his crimes, no one would have acknowledged his plight. His actions in the fight to be recognized degrade him, but more than anything else, they reveal the lengths to which society goes to deny him such simple things and to protect the powerful.
In Atlantics the dead must return, in Michael Kohlhaas a kind man be turned into a beast, for their righteous grievances to be recognized and their demands met. The boys in Atlantics are recognized only after their deaths, and Kohlhaas acknowledged only just before his. In both cases, the restoration of what they’re owed is not enough. The boys have died, and Kohlhaas is reduced to such an offensive state that he can’t be allowed to live. There can’t be true restoration without life.
When I think of all the black people who have died at the hands of police officers – George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and so many other hidden names crushed by the same system – the calls for the officers to be punished seem as inadequate as the demand for wages or horses. The victims are dead. Nothing can bring them back.
If I were a despairing man, I would end there. But what remains is to take meaningful action to keep this list from increasing. The fight is not so much about justice. It’s a fight about protection. It’s about what Kohlhaas asks Luther, to be brought into society.
Each time the demand for life and protection is denied, this world and all of us in it are immensely degraded.
Many protesters are now throwing their bodies upon the gears of the machine in order to put an end to the cycle. I don’t know if this time will be more successful than others, or if the machine will crush this group too, and keep spinning. What is clear is that this system of injustice must be continuously challenged from all sides. Each time the demand for life and protection is denied, this world and all of us in it are immensely degraded.
I do not accept that the only way to restore what black people are owed in the United States is through the fantastical, as in Atlantics, or that it can only come at the end of the story, as it does with Kohlhaas. Each time these protests recur, I feel frustrated and deeply saddened by the cycle, but I also feel – especially this time, with so much energy toward change – that there’s hope.
Given our history, maybe the fantasy here is that there’s a world in which humanity on the margins is recognized and protected. But the way to save future lives and present souls is to make that fantasy a reality. In my heart, I have never truly believed that the arc of the moral universe does bend towards justice, but I do know that we are each obligated to keep pulling in that direction. Either we’re all liberated, or we’re all condemned.