1. The video opens in near silence as we see and hear a lighter ignite a Molotov cocktail (click, whoosh) CU.
2. The music begins. A large leading figure backed by his fellows hurls the Molotov cocktail. Most of the action cuts back and forth from the police line to the protestor line down the narrow defile of an urban street. A certain amount of fog, heavy shadow, and a monochrome color palette serves to highlight the yellow flame.
3. After throwing the bottle the leader raises his arms in defiance, giving the “fuck you “ gesture with both hands which is echoed by his fellows.
4. After the protestors rush the police we have a quick montage of the clash with police shown to dominate with tear gas and pepper spray in the face of individuals they catch, horseback police beating individuals with batons, and other assaults. A fallen black man is menaced by a fierce police dog. The close-ups tend to show the civilians in fear and pain.
5. The already dark and obscure scene turns more to night with flames from fires set by the protestors, overturning cars, pushing a flaming police car into the police lines.
6. New Molotov cocktails penetrate the police line sending long trails of flaming gasoline. Using the z axis as the line of flame movement in the deeply silhouetted scene combines contrasting color and movement to heighten drama.
7. As the scene becomes even more obscure due to smoke/tear gas clouds. A new element appears with neon green laser lights, familiar as gun sight target tools. But these also flash on and off giving an impression reminiscent of the use of lasers in concert venues. Police menace on the street is vaguely associative with the experience of hearing Jay Z and Kanye West on the sound track as if in an arena show.
8. Again the initial Molotov cocktail thrower faces off against the police line, arms raised in a repetition of the theme of defiance.
9. In the finale, after a cop engulfed in flames runs back to the police line and collapses, the image returns to another triumphant image of the protestors, this time joined by a rampant elephant, unexplained and not seen before in the video.
If we try to think about the music video and ask about its meaning, things get sticky. We can say it represents something vague and general, such as “defiance,” which would let us account for the images of fighting with the police and for the lyrics, even when they refer to something quite remote from the events displayed, such as lines of cocaine or the ethics of “open marriage” relationships. But perhaps this is the best we can do given the severe dissociation of image track and music track.
The work does have a pretty radical form in terms of the disassociation of image and music. But is that politically radical or a flaw? We never learn what the protestors are protesting. Many of the mostly white protestors look like skinheads and the European equivalent of violent youth who actively attack immigrants and minorities and support an extreme right political stance. How should that be read? But this video also shows a racially mixed group. Certainly it does have powerful content in images of street fighting. And that might remind us of the romantic fantasy heroic anthems of an earlier era: the Rolling Stone’s “Street Fighting Man” (1968), the Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” (1969), and even the more skeptical/dubious songs of the Beatles’ “Revolution,” (1968) or the Beach Boys “Student Demonstration Time.” (1971).
Riot Porn is usually dismissed by the left on political grounds as viewers just seeking the thrill of anti-authoritarian action rather than contributing to an effective grassroots movement for change. (There is a defense of it on affective grounds which I will detail later.)
If we look for my third measure, sincere intention, it seems the answer is “ clearly not.” For the musicians: this is just another song, well within common rap themes. For the filmmaker: it might well be a calling card film in a bid to be the next Zach Snyder (300, Sucker Punch, Man of Steel, etc.).
Let me offer a political critique. Is this video subversive? Well, it depends. In a general way, both lyrics and images challenge the dominant power structure, dominant mainstream values. But does it really go very far? Rap music is always about a confrontation with “power,” yet it is itself part of the dominant commercial music system—especially at the level of Jay Z and Kanye West who are multi-millionaires, earning money through concerts and music royalties. Romain Gavras’ video can also be read as a spectacular image out of an action movie. So the video recycles images of transgression, but is it also really transgressive in itself?
Gavras’ video can also be read as a spectacular image out of an action movie. When I see the image of the rampant elephant in the last shots, I always think of a producer running up to Gavras on the set, jubilant: “We have enough money in the budget to rent the elephant!” As someone who has participated in various civil demonstrations, marches, and events where the demonstrators faced armed vigilantes, or hostile police we assumed might attack us, and so forth, the elephant is such a level of hyperbole that I can only be amused. “Don’t forget to bring your elephant” to the next demonstration. When I made this point in my talk at SF State, someone objected and argued that it was an easily understood symbol of uprising, like the rampant lion statues in Eisenstein’s October. I said in response: that the entire five minute music video had no larger narrative frame in contrast to well known dramatic fiction depictions of political rebellion such as Eisenstein’s October (1928), Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), Pontocorvo’s Burn! (1969) or Sergio Giral’s The Other Francisco (1975). Rather than using the images in the way that they appear in such clearly politically motivated films, the music video strikes me as basically a calling card piece to show prospective producers. “No Church in the Wild” shows the director could work in the same vein as say, Zach Snyder. Snyder has made a reputation for spectacular action sequences which often go completely over the top (the battle rhino in 300, the steampunk battlefield in Sucker Punch, etc.). Romain Gavras has made his bid.
Where the music video, “No Church In The Wild,” works fairly effectively is on the level of fantasy affect. It makes street fighting look like something adventurous and worth trying, if just for the thrill. There’s actually a fairly thoughtful critical discussion of this aspect of “riot porn” and Black Bloc tactics that has taken place. Those who put a positive spin on this kind of imagery tend to read it as a gateway tactic to recruit (especially) white middle class youth to the political struggle. (Note well: this means males, and carries the peculiar ideology that people of color are already “politicized.”)
But to return to the question, just how subversive is this music video? The short answer is “that depends.” There’s a well-developed leftist critique of this kind of anarchist confrontationism. First of all, it involves a superficial attack on symbols (smashing the windows at Starbucks doesn’t stop neoliberal globalization). Second, it is a tactic that is easily infiltrated by police provocateurs, whose goal is to provoke protestors into acts for which they can be arrested. And in the media, the protestors then lose public support by picturing them as dangerous to the public good. Third, street fighting has been used as a cynical recruiting tool by miniscule groups. They aim to show they’re tough, the rightful leaders. They deliberately intend to provoke police. They imagine this will make them appear to be the radical vanguard. Fourth, the tactic opens a space for police to take on greater powers by seeming to be the guardians of peace and security. Further, direct aggression against police is not widely supported by the masses of people under most circumstances and can be manipulated by the dominant media. Street rioting confuses spontaneous militancy (which is thrilling for participants) with effective action that has a long-range effect. It is founded in a confusion of tactic and strategy.
We might remember here an old left adage: “Terrorism is People’s War without the people.” That is, the actual process of guerilla warfare or asymmetrical war uses some of the same tactics, but in the case of riot porn, what is lost is the political logic of understanding action itself as a developmental process with various interacting phases. Effective political change involves legislative and electoral action, challenges within the legal system, community organizing, nonviolent direct action, and on occasion violent action. The underlying strategy of mass mobilizations as public displays of noncompliance and protest can show the community’s depth of sentiment and the range of the population committed to change. Anarchist “propaganda of the deed” is an elitist attempt to cut short the long hard work of organizing a democratic base. It appeals to emotion rather than rational self-interest, political ideals, and community solidarity.
Another way to think about this would be by referring to some of our own recent history. “No Church in the Wild” is now three years old. But rather than this dramatic fiction, let’s look at some documentary images. These are from a standard Google image search for “Ferguson,” meaning the protests at Ferguson, Missouri, around the police shooting of Michael Brown in summer 2014. Subsequent protests followed the grand jury acquittal of the policeman involved in the fall.