Last week's Montgomery, Alabama, riverfront brawl wasn’t a Hollywood production, but taken together, the videos that documented it had all the hallmarks of a great movie. If you found yourself transfixed, as I did, watching the footage over and over, you’re not alone. The Aug. 5 fight, which began when a white man refusing to move his boat attacked the Black man working on the dock who asked him to move it, had clearly defined villains and heroes, unexpected action sequences, multiple camera angles, hilarious narration and a satisfying ending that included no one being seriously hurt.
The brawl had clearly defined villains and heroes, unexpected action sequences, multiple camera angles, hilarious narration and a satisfying ending.
The videos arguably struck a chord, especially with Black people, because collectively they mimicked the best of the Blaxploitation era in Hollywood when Black people weren’t the sidekicks but the heroes in our own stories. We weren’t the characters destined to die early in the movie, but the ones who were triumphant at the end.
On the title track of the soundtrack for the 1970 movie “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” George Tipton sings, “Down South, we sweat and strained, we were the prisoners of Cotton / But when cotton comes to Harlem, we kick cotton’s butt.”
Montgomery, of course, was made by cotton, cotton exported from that very same riverfront, but on Saturday “Cotton” came at “Harlem” and then more “Harlem” came back at “Cotton” and kicked its butt.
Then “Cotton” got arrested.
Montgomery authorities said that Allen Todd, 23, and Zachary Shipman, 25, turned themselves in Wednesday to be booked with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor. Mary Todd, 21, turned herself in Thursday. Richard Roberts, 48, was already in custody, authorities said. On Friday, 42-year-old Reggie Ray, a Black man alleged to be the man on video who hit at least two people with a folding chair, turned himself in and was booked with a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge.
On Wednesday morning, Mayor Steven Reed, the first Black mayor in the city’s history, told MSNBC that officials there were “very intently looking at all facets of this case,” including allegations that the white people booked with jumping dockworker Damien Pickett used racial slurs as they attacked him.
It’s likely that so many passengers aboard the Harriott II Riverboat had their cameras out because, according to authorities, the ship had been idling for about half-hour as the ship’s captain and Pickett tried to get the group of white boaters to move away from the place where the ship needed to dock.
Cinema at its best forces us to feel something and root for the main protagonist.
In this case, Pickett served as our unassuming protagonist and hero. He was doing his job when he was wrongly attacked. We feel angry when we see what's happening to him. But as in every great story, our hero is pushed to the brink, seemingly overmatched. Initially, he was squared up against one white man, but eventually he’s being attacked by multiple white people — in plain view of the passengers who are on the boat that’s waiting to dock.
Pickett served as our unassuming protagonist and hero. He was doing his job when he was wrongly attacked. We feel angry when we see what's happening to him.
But unbeknownst to his aggressors, help was on the way. By land and by, er, sea. I know it’s kind of corny to say it that way, but you can’t say that I’m not right. Other Black men who were on the riverfront rushed to Pickett to help even the odds, but then, in what was the most unexpected action sequence of all, a Black teen employee of the riverboat — whom Black Twitter has since nicknamed Aquamayne, Michael B. Phelps, Shaquille O’Gills, Sharkus Garvey and Scuba Gooding Jr. — jumped off the Harriott, swam to Pickett’s rescue and performed a WWE-style wrestling move on one of Pickett’s attackers.
That’s why you watched video footage from the brawl so many times. That’s why Black Twitter went into overdrive with meme after meme, each funnier than the one that came before. The jokes were coming in almost as fast and furiously as the teenager on video swam to Pickett’s side.
Most importantly, consistent with virtually every superhero movie, the good guy won. Consistent with the Blaxploitation movie, the Black guy won. At a time when we’ve seen so many videos of Black people being wrongly attacked and even killed, the Black guy winning was a strange but welcomed experience for African Americans.
Pickett didn’t become a hashtag. That’s why so many African Americans felt neither guilt nor remorse in cheering along while watching videos of the brawl.
Nobody was seriously hurt. And justice was spectacularly served.