Missio’s “Can I Exist” video is a pertinent commentary on historic and current police brutality, exploring the manner in which the black body exists…
Missio have been making music for a while now – they’re not new to the indie-electronic scene but they certainly have something new to show us in their recently released music video for “Can I Exist.” The track, featured and therefore popularised, on MrSuicideSheep‘s YouTube channel, is an evocative haze of collapsing beats and characteristic otherworldly vocals.
Formed in 2014 in Austin, Texas, the duo (comprising of singer/songwriter Matthew Brue and producer/instrumentalist David Butler) released “Can I Exist” way back in the summer of 2016, adding to and shaping their dark-pop repertoire. Their debut album Loner was recently released in the spring of 2017 and Missio has not stopped there– just a week ago, they unveiled their official music video for “Can I Exist” – a track that has been formidable in carving a niche for them in alternative music – and paired it with the following message in the YouTube video description:
“As artists, we believe and strive for every human being to be able to have their voice heard. We used every resource we had at the time to make this now 8-award-winning film with Jeff Ray and we hope it becomes an impactful piece in this chaotic world we currently live in.” – MISSIO
This is a powerful statement. And yes, their video is just as powerful. Having directed videos like “Varúð” by Sigur Ros previously, Jeff Ray does an intriguing job with “Can I Exist,” shifting between scenes at particularly gritty moments and refusing to employ a cohesive linearity in the video’s narrative. That is not to say that the video lacks in storytelling per se, but that it plays itself in flashes, in crescents and shards, as if to reflect the very texture of the song that it’s set against.
Watch: “Can I Exist” – MISSIO
The IMDB description of the video is as follows: “Separated during childhood due to the color of their skin, two friends are reunited years later during the Baltimore City race riots of 1968.” What is perhaps the most powerful and the most disturbing aspect of the video is that it does not feel like history at all. It feels relevant, almost alarmingly so. It is devastatingly relevant to the current surge of race-based violence in the United States, and while some might zero in on 8th of November 2016 as the fateful day of a powerful resurgence of white supremacy, racism is not so easily explained. Even a hundred and fifty-two years later, after the historic abolition of slavery in the USA, even after the stunning election of a Black President in 2008, if the sight of white violence against black bodies is not unusual, is not thoroughly shocking to us — then there’s a lot more at stake than we realize.
“Can I Exist” opens on a scene of two boys- one black (Mason Duane), one white (Trent Jolie)- clutching each other. Their slowed-down motions of running, smiling, and playing allowing us to glimpse the smaller, finer details; the muscle rippling across one’s back, some loose-flowing blue trousers, the perspiration across a forehead, the browning grass at their feet. The colours are soft, almost tinged with amber, and as the camera cuts from intimate close-ups of their faces, shadows spilling across hair to larger frames where the boys are seen in a field, there is a feeling of apprehension, a sense of waiting that permeates across all of this. From a brilliant shot of tree reflections distorted by rippling water to a shot of the boys playing in the water, their skins starkly different from each other’s, bronzed in the muted sun, the colour palette on display is earthen browns, golden tinges and dull greens; a stellar depiction of the American South’s landscape.
There’s a sharp switch to a cooler, sharper set of colours as we get a portrait shot of a white policeman in uniform, stood against a brick wall– entirely distinct from the previously warm scenes. There’s a sense of detachment that we can almost feel as light smoke passes across the policeman’s face before we’re taken back to the field, to the image of a white man running towards us- the previous calm has shifted, changing into something far more uneasy. Flicking between the rural South and the harsher, cooler urban space, the portrait of a black man drenched in water is unnerving- his gaze unwavering, as we watch the drops of water fall from his chin.
The motif of water changes drastically, with the fall of the beat, from the soft, beautiful spray thrown by the young white boy in playful mirth to the demeaning, hard-hitting spray used by the white man – the sharp cutting from one frame to another only adds to the harrowing nature of violence against the black body; the image of Henry J Smith III braced against the wall, screaming soundlessly as the jet of water hits him is one that will linger long after the video is over.
The parallels between the warmer scenes of the boys and the cooler scenes with two black men and the police are disconcerting – the older white man (Cory Frith) shoving the young black boy away from his son and the white policeman shoving (Jeremy St. James) against the wall as he exchanges a look of fear with the other black youth both have such a sense of force that is gutting to watch but impossible, really, to look away from. There’s another brilliant frame of the two policemen in blue, stood behind the two black men, holding them against the wall – there’s the faint smoke again, the darker, more impersonal hues of blue sharpening the contrast but no longer acting in strict opposition but merging instead with the (constant) violence – muted in the rural field scenes, more explicit in the urban ones.
It’s when the younger black man (Tre Whitney) breaks from policeman’s hold as Henry J Smith III is being dragged away, his eyes bulging and fear palpable, that we reach the turning point of the video. The scenes of movement, interspersed with the still shots of the young black boy, and the young white boy, are jarring and there’s a parallel again, entirely distinct in slow motion- the father (Cory Frith) raises his arm firmly to hit Trent Jolie as the boy attempts to pull him away from his black friend and the white policeman raises his baton to hit Tre Whitney as he attempts to step in between the police officer and his black friend. We are spared the moment of impact- instead taken straight to the aftermath; a bloodied face heavy set in confusion, a mouth distorted in soundless agony, the portrait shots flashing in between.
Realization is not abstract, but sorely – even painfully evident on Jeremy St James’ face, coming to terms with what he’s done as Henry J Smith III rises from the ground, blood pouring from his temple, his body shaking. His son’s head is pressed to the mud, held down by the other white officer; Jeremy’s eyes are glassy, his expression unreadable and the black man launches himself at the officer. There’s a scene switch here- the young white boy, bloody face and all, then the white policeman, stood against the wall. We’re expecting retaliation, more violence, more blood but we’re surprised even further when Henry J Smith III embraces the police officer- possibly because of their childhood, or out of sheer grief – his fingers digging into the uniform.
The young black boy is stood in the brown water as his friend is dragged away, the amber glow not quite warm anymore. The black man steps away from the white policeman, shuddering still from the confused, violent exchange— then the screen blacks out.
Excellently acted and just as well made, “Can I Exist” takes on an entirely new meaning, a more far-reaching one with its video. One might go as far as to say that it is the video that lends poignancy to the song, that while the track is well made, it’s the video that charges it with definition, allowing the plea of “How can I exist?” to transcend and apply to a larger, more systematic destruction, a far more violent devaluation of human beings at the hands of those in power. When the black body is thus brutalized and discriminated against, when it is subjected to acts that render it powerlessness, that make it turn on itself, that defile and demean, how can it exist?
This is not an old question for the United States. Its long and complex relationship with racism has informed and challenged its idealization as a land of freedom, a land of possibility. With their video for “Can I Exist”, Missio may be dealing with subject matter from 1968, the fact that it does not surprise or shock us speaks for the sheer immensity of what James Baldwin once called the ‘Negro Problem’ (The Fire Next Time) of the USA.
Missio’s video is a pertinent commentary on historic and current police brutality, exploring the infinitely conflicted manner in which the black body (man, woman, child- people of all ages) exists and raises the question of whether a black body can exist, in peace, in prosperity, alongside the white one. Given the traumatic history of race-based violence that has polarised both the black and the white community, “Can I Exist” does not leave us entirely hopeless. It’s the ending minute of the video that allows us a glimmer of hope, a strange kind of uncertain redemption — the possibility of coming together, of healing.
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photo © Jeff Ray