Image: Cecile Emeke
By Kemi Alemoru
This story was originally published on the Dazed website.
While recent instances of police brutality in America may sometimes feel like a distant crisis, for up-and-coming filmmaker Cecile Emeke the possibility of becoming yet another hashtag was a shocking reality. On a recent trip to LA this June, the British-Jamaican had an encounter with police which left her sedated in a medical facility, feeling “traumatised” and “completely disempowered”.
The artist – who began making waves with her unique brand of transformative storytelling – is known for her international documentary series Strolling and her hilarious web series Ackee & Saltfish; which explored themes of sexism and gentrification. Both projects earned her success in the UK, and eventually across the pond, where she was invited to come to LA and direct an episode of HBO’s new show Insecure in LA for two months.
During her time in America, Emeke claims she had to move around cockroach-ridden Airbnb rentals, because she hadn’t been provided with a place to stay for the duration of her stay, or been paid by HBO – which is technically against the rules of the Directors Guild of America. “I took all of my money to come out there, because my managers convinced me to do it but every day I was miserable because I was being treated like shit,” says Emeke. “My family were really worried and they didn’t hear from me for a few days.”
Eventually, her family grew concerned, and ended up calling the police to check in on her. “Two black police officers came in (and said) ‘we’re just coming to see how you’re doing’,” explains Emeke. “I was just really high, because I was just on my own watching films smoking weed. They looked around my apartment, and then they just walked me out of the apartment, put me in a van.” Confused about where she was going, Emeke alleges that she was then taken out of the van, put in an ambulance, and laid down by the officers. They then attempted to sedate her.
“I started screaming and a white officer came in and started shouting ‘shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up!’ and put a cloth over my mouth. I looked at one of the black men in the eyes like, what the fuck are you lot doing to me?” she adds. “Then they sedated me in the arm, and I was like crying as I was looking at him and didn’t know what to do but he was like ‘shh, just do what he says.’”
After waking up in the hospital, she discharged herself and went home, before telling one of her friends what had occurred. He advised her to never open the door to police, but the following night the police returned. “There was a fireman outside, like call an ambulance, and there was loads of police, I could hear them. The fire guy was like open the door, and I was like crying. I was terrified, upset, and powerless,” she remembers.
She was then put in a mental institution under the name Cecile Emeke – a professional pseudonym, rather than her legal name. Allegedly under the influence of medication that had been forced on her, Emeke signed a series of documents; including one which claims she tried to kill herself (a fact her friends vehemently deny). She was then apparently called crazy for saying she worked at HBO, and was told she could not make international calls despite the fact she has no family and friends in LA. “The more sane I acted they were like ‘okay you’re being rude now stop being aggressive, sit down,” the director says. “If you want to eat you need to sit down.”
Eventually, an American friend found her by visiting her apartment and asking neighbours where she had gone, before coming to the hospital to help discharge her. A month after the ordeal, Emeke posted the full story on Twitter, along with photos of her documents, and evidence that she had in fact worked on the set of the TV series.
“I want you to highlight the militarisation of the police in America and the deliberate and legal disarming of black people. I’ve read the New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, I’ve seen the news. It’s either I open the door and people are coming for me, or I get shot in the back, and then I’m on Twitter like a hashtag. That’s why I’m upset,” she explained. “Because there’s no video of me dying you lot don’t care. Because I’m here to tell the tale no-one cares. There were loads of black women in that institution that had nothing wrong with them.”
Emeke said she does not want to take any legal action against the police or HBO she just wants to make budding creatives aware “of the industry” and make it harder for police to “bury the truth”.
When asked about Emeke’s story, a spokesperson for HBO said: “Like other HBO directors, Cecile Emeke was engaged pursuant to the DGA Agreement, and like all such engagements, Ms Emeke was afforded all of the benefits and protections of that agreement.” They refused to comment any further on the issue.