With its gruesome violence, brutal subject matter, and grim message, [artist id="1803648"]M.I.A.[/artist]‘s “Born Free” video isn’t the kind of thing you’re ever really prepared to see, though first thing on a Monday morning, it’s especially tough to watch.
That doesn’t mean, however, that it shouldn’t be required viewing. Because “Free,” which debuted Monday (April 26) on M.I.A.’s website, depicts the kind of things that most nations — including the U.S., which is portrayed as the aggressor in the clip — often pretend don’t happen: the rounding-up of ethnic minorities, the trampling of personal liberties, the bullying of the powerless by those with authority. And it does so in an unflinchingly, unapologetically real way.
Directed by Romain Gavras (who sparked controversy with his violent clip for Justice’s “Stress” in 2008), “Free” follows a group of ski-mask clad, body-armor swathed, U.S. flag-wearing police officers (or clandestine special forces) who forcibly abduct red-headed males — the “minority” in the video — take them out to the desert, brutalize them, assassinate one, and then hunt down the others when they try to escape. Shot vérité-style, it looks like it could’ve been yanked from YouTube (since the networks don’t show stuff like this), and that’s half the reason why it works so well.
The other half is, of course, the real-life parallels, of which there are many: the ongoing issue of immigration in states like Arizona, the treatment of prisoners by U.S. troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, and, more universally, the brutal tactics used against minorities by government forces all over the world. It’s a credit to M.I.A. and Gavras that they don’t shy away from any of them: removing the flags from the uniforms of the police officers would have diluted the statement.
Interestingly, most people with whom I’ve discussed the video seem to take issue with the presence of the U.S. flag more than, say, the incredibly graphic violence inflicted on the red-headed prisoners — probably because no one likes to confront the fact that even the so-called “good guys” aren’t always as good as we might like them to be. And while the majority of our men and women in uniform (be it military, police, or otherwise) certainly — hopefully — don’t behave like the officials in this video, it’s foolish to believe that this kind of behavior, this wanton abuse of authority, doesn’t occur at all, even within our nation’s borders.
And that’s why this video deserves to be seen. Yes, it’s brutal and at times a bit overly dramatic, but it’s also a form of political protest, a downright subversive bit of art created by an artist on a major label, Interscope. (At press time, a rep for M.I.A. had not responded to MTV News’ request for comment on the video.)
But I’m also invigorated by the video, the message, and the rather massive cajones M.I.A. displayed by making it in the first place. Of course, Ms. Arulpragasam, who is of Sri Lankan descent, has never been one to shy away from the political: Her father was a Tamil militant sympathizer in Sri Lanka, and she’s spoken out about the long-running civil war in the country, both verbally and in her work; this video is the latest in a long run of political commentary on her part.
And the message here is simple, which is why everyone should listen, even if it isn’t the kind of thing you want to hear first-thing on a Monday. What she’s screaming, of course, is, “Wake up!”
What do you think of M.I.A.’s video for “Born Free”? Let us know in the comments below.