Wyatt Cenac’s ‘Problem Areas’ streaming for free due to its focus on policing in America
In the wake of the nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice -- which are still happening; don't let the news or your timeline tell you otherwise -- many are turning to films, TV series, books, and other resources to further educate themselves on how deep the systemic racism in this country runs and how it still affects the Black community today.
One of the series being turned to is Wyatt Cenac's HBO show Problem Areas -- which lasted for two seasons in 2018 and 2019 -- because of the first season's attention to policing in America. If you haven't seen the show, this excerpt from a 2018 SPIN feature on the show gives you an idea of what to expect:
Cenac takes on the project by earnestly playing the part of an Average Joe seeking information about modern policing from experts that include officers, politicians, community organizers, professors, and students, who bring first-hand accounts and impartial expertise to the circumstances of [Philando] Castille’s death. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, Black Live Matters affiliate Chauntyll Allen, and Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, make appearances in the episode about police training in St. Paul. There’s little fluff: the show’s cameras go into precincts and city halls across the country, and the subjects deliver illuminating, truly informative interviews about hiring practices and character screening. By exposing audiences to how policing currently works behind the curtain, Cenac aims to reveal areas in which policing may be improved, a solution-oriented approach to the conversation that has largely escaped public discourse. “Monsters aren’t as scary if you start shining lights on them,” he says.
One of the episode’s best bits digs up examples of internal police training, which includes a cultural diversity class, a video game that simulates traffic stops turned violent, and a self-described “killology” expert, who helps officers desensitize themselves to the prospect of violence with promises that, after killing a bad guy, they’ll have “the best sex they had in months.” Cenac cuts in right on time, offering up less bloody roads to great sex: “What about a Sade record? Or eye contact?”
To put the show in front of even more people, HBO agreed to put both seasons for free on YouTube in their entirety (for the month of June), as Wyatt explained on Twitter:
Enough people agreed with the idea, so HBO made the first season of Problem Areas (which looks at policing in America) available on YouTube for free... for a month. (And maybe only in the US?) Does that means that retweets actually are endorsements??
For those unfamiliar, Problem Areas spent its entire first season examining policing in America and what reforming it looks like. Recently, Barack Obama spoke about the need to be specific in trying to bring about reform. Our show tried to do that along with some dumb jokes.
Our first episode, we looked at the many ways police officers are trained and encouraged to have a "warrior mindset," which took us to Minnesota to see how that mindset played out in the death of Philando Castile.
Episode two asked the question, "do cops ever apologize for anything?" The answer might... not surprise you. That took me to Birmingham to meet Daroneisha Duncan-Boyd of Trans United Fund to see what "police accountability" looks like for Black trans lives.
Politicians will talk about "community policing" as a way to bridge the divide police have with communities of color, so for the third episode we went to Illinois to see if having a cop as a neighbor really changes the way cops see the people they serve.
The idea of "defunding police" and "police abolition" felt worth understanding more and LA CAN helped show the effects of what happens when Los Angeles politicians choose to spend people's tax dollars to police the homeless rather than empower them.
Given how frequently the police interact with people in mental distress, a question that felt worth asking was if cops are the best equipped people for that responsibility? The fifth episode stays in LA, to try and explore mental health a bit.
On TV shows, cops shoot first then go to commercial to forget they just killed a person. Episode six goes to Oklahoma to meet a deputy who took a life and to Seattle to meet citizens trying to change laws around "police use of force."
Episode seven looks at sexual misconduct and the abuse of power some cops have made against people they swore to protect and in some instances work alongside.
And how civilian review boards like, NYC CCRB, want to give people a place to find justice.
This episode focuses on how Seattle has tried to shift away from declaring a "war on drugs" to using their inside voice to suggest a "more compassionate approach to human beings dealing with drug use and addiction" and the role police play in that shift.
Spending a season focused on police reform, it made sense to also look at the broken criminal justice system that cops are placing people into. Sujatha Baliga helped me understand why "restorative justice" could provide a better model for society.
Twenty years ago, Cincinnati was outraged after a cop killed Roger Owensby Jr. in a situation similar to George Floyd's.
The final episode of Problem Areas looks at the role the DOJ and ACLU play to give people a say in how police departments operate.
All ten episodes of Problem Areas.
All free (for a month).
Pass them around if you like.
The show is in no way a comprehensive solution to anything, but the hope in making it accessible on YouTube is that it can point towards people and organizations that are doing the work.
The show's not perfect.
You can see when my eyes are reading a teleprompter because HBO's legal team needed me to say something very specifically so they didn't get sued.
But the show wasn't about being perfect or even about being right.
It was about trying to have a dialogue.
When the smoke clears, we're still going to need to find a way forward.
And we're going to have to find a way to do it together because this country is a dingy apartment and we're all just a bunch of Craigslist roommates that have to find a way not to eat each other's cheese.
My thanks to HBO for making the show available on YouTube for free... even though it's only for a month and only in the US.
My thanks to everyone who helped make Problem Areas for two seasons.
My thanks to everyone who shared their time, expertise and stories for the show.
And huge thanks to everyone who helped amplify a silly tweet to spread the idea around.
I don't really work for HBO anymore, so they're under no obligation to listen to me, but I'm glad they listened to all of you.
The second season looks at education, and you can read Wyatt's Twitter thread about that one here.
Wyatt also spoke about getting the show on YouTube for free on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and you can watch that below, alongside a playlist of the entire Problem Areas.
Wyatt also recently spoke about the show on the WYNC podcast.
In related news, producer John Oliver's episode on defunding the police is also free on YouTube. HBO also just made Watchmen available to stream for free this past weekend, partially because the series involves the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, though the free streaming period is over (but it's still on HBO Go, HBO Max and On Demand).