Lee’s Children v. Superpredators


Lee’s caring, considerate portrayal of children as children, entitled to childhood and mischief, speaks directly to the rise of the term”superpredator”. Coined in the mid-1990s, the theory was that America was on the verge of being terrorized by “feral youths devoid of impulse control or remorse” – coded, institutionalized language meant to inspire fear in the hearts of white people about black youth. Look to Hillary Clinton using this same language as she campaigns for Bill Clinton’s crime bill, in which she says “we must bring them to heel,” referring to black American youth. This bill would go on to create, in large part, the prison industrial complex as we know it today: everyone should watch this video of a Black Lives Matter protestor crashing one of Clinton’s private donor lunches to confront her.

It’s worth noting that Hillary’s use of the term superpredator is nothing new – in fact, it comes from a long, historical, racist tradition of white people imagining black people as superhuman and monstrous, as something inhuman, as incapable of feeling pain or demonic. This kind of racist imagination begins its language in the colonial encounter,  and stretches throughout the history of America from slavery into the present day.

Many of the films we’ve discussed in class were being made at exactly this time, as the idea of the superpredator inspired a nation-wide fervor and got mobilized by various governmental and social entities to criminalize and dehumanize black children. Lee has never shied away from being political, and so the preeminence he plays on portraying black children and adolescents humanely, kindly, and lovingly stands in direct opposition to the language of the superpredator and the personhood that that term denies.

I quote a New York Times article above, which for the most part lays out some weak points about the myth of the superpredator, but ends on a note that I wanted to share with all of you:

“As for superpredators, not everyone has abandoned the notion. In the ‘90s, Mr. DiIulio called those youngsters “remorseless” and “impulsive,” describing them as unburdened by “pangs of conscience.”

Hmm, said Richard Eskow. Or words to that effect. Mr. Eskow, a senior fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future, wrote for The Huffington Post two years ago that he knew a group of people who matched those very descriptions. They were, he said, the reckless bankers and Wall Street high rollers who almost brought the United States economy to its knees a few years ago.”

I know some of the articles I link to are rather long, but they’re definitely (besides the NYTimes one) worth reading! Let me know what you guys think.



  1. As politicians have been exploiting marginalized communities of color as “morally corrupt” and “unredeemable” since the Tough on Crime campaigns which began in the late 80s early 90s, I think this same discourse being applied to children is a very difficult pill to swallow. If you trace the beginning of juvenile detention centers, much like prisons, they were centered on rehabilitation and reintegrating these youths so that they would be able to avoid adult incarceration. Somehow down the political cycles though, politicians began exploiting these detention centers and these often underprivileged children to increase their “vote-ability” by perpetuating this idea of “cleaning up the streets”.

    On a side note, I think its also interesting to note that though Lee does portray most children in Crooklyn in a very positive, innocent light, he does include teenage glue-sniffers. Though they don’t quite fall under the umbrella of “super predators” I wonder why Lee chose to include this middle-ground depiction of children.

  2. This post reminds me a lot of our discussion on the last day of class regarding what representation matters in film. As you’ve suggested, many of the representations in Lee’s films exist in direct contradiction to the imaginations politicians based on manipulated statistics or enduring assumption about black youth. In this sense, representation matters because it does the work of countering dehumanizing representations that seem to otherwise be left un-checked.

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