For the past two weekends, the biggest movie in America has been an ambitious exploration of implicit bias set in a police department, an unmissable sign of how broadly saturated this conversation has become. Of course, the characters grappling with all this in Zootopia are talking rabbits and foxes and lions, making all this topicality easier to swallow.
There are a bunch of ways in which Zootopia is surprisingly sharp, but the places it stumbles are the same places where lots of well-intentioned movies about race and society miss the mark. It’s difficult to grapple with big, systemic issues in any film, let alone 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, the movie’s eponymous metropolis, is populated by predators and prey of all different kinds who live in relative harmony; about 90 percent of the population are prey, and 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, largely staffed by burly predators, isn’t feeling the relatively tiny Hopps.
They 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. (More on that in a second.)
Through sheer determination and the sweat off her furry brow, 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; that arc, depressingly, could play as an allegory to any number of contemporary racial panics in America right now.)
Films about big social issues tend, almost by necessity, to follow along as one heroic individual makes choices that change the world. This tack often places Big, Thorny Issues on the shoulders of people who happen to be good or malicious, and suggest that promoting — or removing — those individuals will untie whatever big, hoary knot is strangling society at large.
That is to say, the elements you need to tell a great story hardly ever play well with the structural unpacking involved in real-life social change. That’s why it’s awfully easy for “message” films to end up wildly mischaracterizing Big Thorny Issues to the point that the takeaway becomes irrelevant — if not outright damaging — to ongoing real-life discussions about the issue in question.
In Zootopia, we follow along as 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. We’re meant to cheer along as she rolls up her sleeves and really leans into it.
But this 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 rested upon a long history of aggressive, racially skewed ticketing and fines as a widely used mechanism for generating city revenue. And it has been pointed out that the practices of ticketing and stopping pedestrians and drivers for minor violations are often used by law enforcement as pretext for more expansive searches.
At this very moment, there’s a closely watched lawsuit in the works brought by several black NYPD officers who claim that monthly ticketing quotas still exist in that city — where it’s technically illegal — and that those quotas are enforced most heavily in neighborhoods of color. (There’s a fantastic, disturbing This American Life episodeabout an NYPD officer who tried to speak out against these mandates from his superiors, and what happened to him when he did.)
In its zeal to show how a scrappy pint-sized hero subverts the system through sheer force of will, Zootopia misses the real-world implications of how she chooses to succeed in that mission. Ultimately, Hopps ends up doing exactly what any real-world cop trying to rise in the ranks might do — she plays by the rules. As Tracie Keesee, a former captain in the Denver police force and one of the leaders of the Center for Policing Equity, told me, officers, regardless of race, are likely to become acculturated to the ethos and systems of their departments. Any cop invested in trying to change the system from within first has to move up the ladder and secure a position of power from which to do so — and the surest way to get there is by excelling at the game in its existing form.
To wit, Hopps’ reward for cracking the big case at the end: more prestige in her police department, as evidenced by her 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 is welcome evidence that the conversation about policing and profiling has outgrown spaces we tend to see as expressly political. Clearly, marketers have identified a mass-market appetite for this stuff across huge swaths of America. But as this big-budget, name-brand exploration demonstrates, the most pernicious manifestations of these issues remain difficult to dramatize (or animate). When it comes to storytelling, they defy the very elements you need to make a movie like Zootopia work.