Netflix has dropped a new project, Cops and Robbers, as a part of their new series of short films including Canvas. The film, from Timothy Ware-Hill and Arnon Manor, is mostly animated and features a poem about the failures of the American justice system. Jada Pinkett Smith is an executive producer.

The initial poem, written by Ware-Hill, came about as a response to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Arnon Manor saw it on Instagram, reached out to him, and the short was born. Manor was inspired to create an animated version of Ware-Hill’s poem, which resulted in their collaboration. Per Netflix, “Over 30 individual artists, students and VFX companies from around the world collaborated, to each create a short segment of the poem with their own visual interpretation of the subject matter and individual animation technique.” Additionally, over half the animators for the project are Black artists. Also, the project was not for profit and 100 percent of the proceeds from Netflix are being donated to a Black charitable organization.

“What intrigued me most about Cops and Robbers was the creativity,” Pinkett Smith told Shadow and Act exclusively. “I felt like the film took a very unique approach to the subject matter in which I could actually feel the pain of it all. When we communicate about this exact subject matter, I know for myself, I have feelings of anger and hostility. I don’t always connect to the pain; but Cops and Robbers, the communication of this project, it took me straight to my pain, the pain that I feel and the vulnerability that I feel regarding this particular subject matter.”

The entire short is now streaming on Netflix. You can view an exclusive clip from it below, as well as a conversation with the filmmakers:

S&A: What about Timothy’s poem struck a chord with you when you first read it?

Filmmakers: I [Manor] came across Timothy’s video poem on Instagram, the day following the release of the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder in early May 2020. I was outraged at the audacity of the cold-blooded killing and at the apathy of the local police and judicial system, who were trying to cover this up and did nothing for almost three months, from when the murder actually occurred.  Timothy’s lyrics and performance were so powerful and tragic in the context of Ahmaud’s killing, yet also gave a glimmer of hope. I watched it several times that day and I was moved, angered and inspired. Growing up Jewish in England, I had my own bouts with racism and antisemitism aimed personally against me, and I’ve always had zero tolerance to any forms of racism or injustice. Timothy’s poem took me on a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Back and forth, from the yearning to go back to more innocent times, when we were kids and things were simpler, to the brutal reality of the ongoing police violence against African Americans, mixed with the pain that mothers and families endure as a result. And with little or no justice. In the four minutes of the video poem, Timothy managed to capture an essence of this issue, which resonated with me and I immediately knew that I wanted to do more with it, to be an ally, and I envisaged the animated version as the best platform for that. 

Were there any challenges with conceptualizing this during the pandemic and not being able to meet in-person? 

The main challenges were coordinating our schedules and adjusting to a creative collaboration without ever being in the same location. We were in different states, countries and time zones. Arnon was in California, Timothy was in New Jersey, our production hub was in Toronto, and our artists and animators were spread all over North America and the world. None of us met in person during any part of the production (Arnon and Timothy have yet to meet in person), so we had to use online visual tools and video conferencing to communicate and watch the evolution of the work. This was tough because it required us to be very focused on our communication and to be patient with the process, as we always had to ensure we were downloading, watching and commenting on the same versions and works-in-progress of the animation, the edit, music and sound FX. We were always at the mercy of our WiFi signal! 

Why was animation the best method to primarily tell this story? 

Animation allows us true artistic freedom to create imagery that is limitless in its creativity and can be both fantastical and removed from realism, while at the same time it can push the emotional expression in a way that traditional filmmaking can’t. We wanted to bring a unique aesthetic that can be both beautiful and disturbing at the same time. Using animation for Cops and Robbers also allowed us to reach out to a large number of individual artists, animators, students and visual effects companies, who would use different animation styles and techniques (2D, 3D, stop-motion, graphics, etc) to create their own visual interpretation of the subject matter, under our direction

In your opinion, how does this project differed from other projects that tackle police relations with Black people? 

Timothy chose to tell the initial story through poetry, instead of the common structure of a traditional screenplay, and that in itself was different, because he gives another quality and level of expressive storytelling that will hopefully broaden the appeal for a more diverse audience. We’ve all seen, too often, the disturbing real video footage of people being killed by police, as well as powerful “conventional” filmmaking on this subject, so with poetry, animation and music, we wanted to create our own imagined and abstract world, to make an impact in a way that has not been seen before on this subject. To move people emotionally, but also give them hope. Like most films that have focused on Black Lives Matter, we’re all striving to bring awareness to this issue with the hope of igniting real change within our nation.