‘The Sinner’ and why white killers are imagined as victims easier than the Black & killed
White people get all the stops pulled to justify their right to kill. But we can’t even move past justifying our right to live.
Editor’s Note: Contains spoilers for The Sinner and Seven Seconds
“When a boy that young kills, it’s really never just his fault.” — Detective Harry Ambrose, USA’s hit series The Sinner
“The threat just became incredible. I had to make the decision fast because Frank and I were in immediate danger. We were easy targets… there’s nothing else I could have done.” — Officer Timothy Loehmann, whom a grand jury declined to indict after he killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice within seconds after spotting him with a pellet gun in a Cleveland park in November 2014
Detective Ambrose is saving a white person. Again. Not from dying. From facing the consequences of killing.
The first season of The Sinner hooked me enough to give season two a try. I like a good crime thriller, the endorphin rush it provides in the journey through a challenging, life-or-death stakes maze—especially when there aren’t any Black casualties. And with its stellar direction and acting, The Sinner is good enough for its title of last year’s No. 1 New Cable Drama to be well-deserved.
But there are always Black casualties.
The Sinner follows Homicide Detective Ambrose as he comes to believe there is more to the stories of what look, on the surface, to be cut-and-dry murders. In season one, its a middle-aged mother who is triggered by a song while at the beach with her family and stabs and kills a young man who seems to be a stranger. In season two, it’s 13-year-old Julian who kills a couple after they take him on a trip from the secluded commune where he was raised.
As Julian’s mother cautions the child, a homicide detective’s job doesn’t generally involve exculpating someone who has clearly committed a murder, but Ambrose has an almost impulsive drive to do just that in both cases (against some weak protestations from other cops and the district attorneys). That impulse, of course, is whiteness. As my fiancé pointed out as we were watching the show together, it wouldn’t just be difficult to imagine him doing the same for a Black mother killing a white stranger on the beach, or a Black child murdering two white adults premeditated, it would be impossible to.
In our social imagination, it’s natural for white people to get all the stops pulled to justify their right to kill. But we can’t even move past justifying our right to live.
I break my “no Black victims” TV vow for special occasions. Netflix’s Seven Seconds offered Regina King, and there’s nothing more special than that. The show follows King’s character as she searches for answers in the hit-and-run killing of her 15-year-old son, which brings her to a group of corrupt police officers who are engaging in a cover-up of the crime because one of them was involved.
As you can easily imagine, King’s character’s son, Brenton Butler, is painted by the cops and the acquiescent media as a thug and a criminal. Most of the show deals with the Butler family reckoning with a more complicated image of Brenton while still trying to assert his humanity in the face of the indomitable force of the police.
It’s so easy to imagine what happens because it’s a media loop we’ve been stuck in for what seems like eternity. A Black kid is killed. We yell “Black Lives Matter.” They remind us that killing Black people matters more. We try to justify our right to live and fail. They try to justify their right to kill and succeed. Because justification is a rigged game.
Even though the show critiques it, the media world as portrayed in Seven Seconds that quickly caters to law enforcement’s directives to paint Brenton as a monster cannot be completely separated from the media world that shapes the show. Seven Seconds tells the story on this anti-Black world’s turf, using its rules. This is why as much as Brenton is demonized over the course of the show, the officer who killed him is made more sympathetic. We learn that the hit was an accident, that the cop’s wife is pregnant with a child, that he was not part of most of the corruption the others took part in, and he even honorably struggles with wanting to come clean (he is eventually sentenced to just 364 days behind bars, while all the other cops get off).
This turf is always racialized. As ripped straight from the headlines as its plot is, Seven Seconds is based on a Russian film called The Major. In that film, the child who is killed is seven years old and his mother witnesses his death, both facts that function to make his victimhood more straightforward.
In our conditioned imagination of Black death, there is never a such thing as a straightforward victim, and we are always compelled to complicate that idea.
This compulsion forces us to stay fighting for victimhood (and losing), at the expense of challenging what guilt means when it is applied to us, as Detective Ambrose so instinctively does for the two subjects of The Sinner. In real life terms, this means white people who kill three colleagues can easily be imagined as “brilliant misfits,” but we can’t be imagined as doing anything brilliantly other than dying, and even that is always a fight that we lose.
When Micah Johnson killed five police officers in Dallas in 2016, citing unimpeded law enforcement murders of Black people, even the national Black Lives Matter organization issued a statement condemning him. No one imagined the validity of why he did what he did, or whether these officers were “truly” victims. No one dug into the officers’ past to ask whether they did or did not deserve death, and you didn’t even have to dig to see it was more blighted than Tamir Rice’s past. No one was Johnson’s Detective Ambrose, and no one ever would be.
Black lives can’t matter if they can’t be complicated, like all lives should be. If they can’t be more than victims. If we only fight for them when they are. And shows like The Sinner remind us that, in this world, that privilege is only afforded to some, at the expense of the rest. But until we create another world where we just as easily imagine Black people as complicated enough to have stories that aren’t so simple, we will stay stuck in this loop forever.