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In Tackling Bias In Policing, 'Zootopia' Veers Into The Uncanny Valley

Nick Wilde and Judy Hopps.
Nick Wilde and Judy Hopps.

For the past two weekends, the biggest movie in America has been an ambitious exploration of profiling and bias set in a police department, an unmissable sign of how broad the conversation around these issues become. Of course, the characters grappling with all this in Pixar's Zootopia are anthropomorphized rabbits and foxes and lions, which should ostensibly make all this topicality easier to swallow.

There are ways in which Zootopia is surprisingly sharp, yet it stumbles in the same places lots of well-intentioned movies about race and society tend to. It's difficult to grapple with big, systemic issues in any movie; it's a trickier task in one carried by woodland creatures and aimed at 9-year-olds.

But first: Zootopia's premise. A likable bunny named Judy Hopps leaves her rural community to pursue dreams of becoming a police officer in the big city. She wants to make a difference. Along the way, she learns to navigate complicated interspecies urban politics and confront her own biases.

Zootopia, which is also the name of the metropolis where the movie is set, is populated by predators and prey of all different kinds who live in relative harmony. We learn that about 90 percent of the population are prey, while about 10 percent are predators. The movie is full of fun "Let's Talk About Race" Easter eggs. Judy thinks she's complimenting a fox by telling him he's "articulate." The fox is later reprimanded for touching the wool on a sheep's head without permission. When a fellow cop, a cheetah, tells Hopps she's "cute," she gently corrects him — only other bunnies get to use that word.

In her first days on the new job, Hopps quickly runs into systemic problems in police departments that mirror the real world. She's the first rabbit officer in the history of Zootopia's police force — she was valedictorian of her class at the academy — which the assistant mayor counts as a win for the department's"mammal outreach program. But the police brass, staffed mainly by big, burly predators, dismiss her hire as a feel-good publicity stunt and promptly relegate her to meter maid work with the thankless task of handing out 100 parking tickets by day's end. Because she's so ambitious, Hopps gives herself an even loftier goal: 200 tickets, by noon. (Uh, more on that in a second.)

Through sheer determination, Hopps makes it her mission to convince Zootopia's big dogs that creatures who look like her belong just as much as they do. (There's also another storyline involving a racial-profiling panic inadvertently set off by Hopps, in which the predators are suddenly the ones under the microscope; sadly, that arc could play as an allegory to any number of racial panics in America right now.)

Films about big social issues tend , almost by necessity, to follow along as one individual that impact the world. Maybe they're a crusader figure or someone far more malign, but in the end, this treatment of Big, Thorny Issues suggests that promoting — or removing — those individuals will untangle whatever knots might be strangling progress.

And it's in this way that message films often end up so wildly mischaracterizing the way the Big Thorny Issues at their center actually work that the takeaways from those films becomes irrelevant — if not outright damaging — to how people understand the real-world expression of the Big Thorny Issues in question.

A good (read: awful) recent example is Spike Lee's messy Chi-Raq, a parable about gun violence in Chicago in which a woman upends a cycle of shootings by organizing a local women's campaign around sexual abstinence. At some point, the "just be better people" treatment is too simplistic for the topic on the table.

Which brings us back to Zootopia. Again, our hero, Hopps, hands out hundreds of tickets to overcome workplace discrimination and prove that someone who looks like her can be a valuable member of the force. She rolls up her sleeves and really leans into it. We're meant to cheer along.

But ticketing is not some neutral, benign practice in real life. As my colleague Joe Shapiro has reported, the festering tensions between police and residents that exploded in Ferguson sat upon a long history of aggressive, racially skewed ticketing and fines — part of a scheme by the city to generate revenue to cover its costs. Outside of Ferguson, ticketing and stopping pedestrians and drivers for minor violations are often used by law enforcement as pretext for more expansive searches. Those searches are, of course, wildly racially skewed.

At this very moment, there's a closely watched lawsuit in the works brought by several black NYPD officers who claim that these monthly ticketing quotas still exist in that city — where such quotas are technically illegal — and that those quotas are enforced most heavily in neighborhoods where people of color live. (There's a fantastic, disturbing This American Life episode about an NYPD officer who tried to speak out against these ticketing quotas from his superiors, and what happened to him when he did.)

Zootopia's take on diversity is a common one: its scrappy, pint-sized hero uses her gumption to win over her wary police department colleagues. Which is to say, Hopps ends up doing exactly what any real-world cop trying to rise in the ranks might do — she doubles down on the status quo. Tracie Keesee, a former captain in the Denver police force and one of the leaders of the Center for Policing Equity, told me recently that police officers — regardless of race — will become acculturated to the ethos and systems of their departments, even when they see their departments approach as unjust or broken. If they want to change the system from within, they have to move up the ladder and secure a position of power from which to do so — and no one gets to do that by flipping over tables. They get their by excelling at the game in its existing form.

Hopps' reward for cracking the big case at the end? More prestige in her police department and an impressive new ride — which looks a whole lot like an MRAP.

I know, I know — this reads a lot like come over here and get you some of this wet blanket. And to be sure, Zootopia suggests that these conversations about policing and profiling have spread beyond the spaces we tend to see as expressly political. But Zootopia demonstrates, again, that the most pernicious ways these issues play out are really hard to dramatize (or, in this case, animate). They implicate not just individuals, but entire municipalities — even the public at large. All of that defies the easy moralizing needed to make a movie like Zootopia work.

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