How to get away with addressing social issues

In early October, How To Get Away With Murder, another one of Shonda Rhimes’s brilliant series, aired the second episode of Season Four titled “I’m Not Her.” The episode exemplifies a multifaceted approach to addressing an array of social issues such as mass incarceration and police brutality. In the episode the main character, a high-profile African-American lawyer named Annalise Keating, takes on a case defending a former cellmate, Jasmine Bromelle, who helped protect Keating when she served jail time for a wrongful murder conviction.

Bromelle is being tried for the possession of a firearm and solicitation of a police officer, which angers Keating because she views Bromelle’s offering of sex to the policeman as her own fault. Bromelle shuts Keating down, telling her that sexually accosting a police officer usually frees her from arrest, exposing the harsh reality that policemen often abuse their power and take sexual advantage of low-income, women of color (the episode recalls the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, the ex-Oklahoma City police officer that serially raped black women).

Bromelle becomes infuriated with Keating’s accusations of her culpability, revealing the stark difference in these two women of color’s experiences. Bromelle says, “You wanna save me? Go back to when I was 13 and my daddy sold my ass to a crew for a couple of bags of smack. You know what they do to the new girl? Strip you naked and take turns…because then you are so broken, they can work you full time – in vans and basements. And the only way to get through it is to shoot up and get numb…So you plead out and you do your time only to get back out, sell your body again for more drugs, get arrested again…until you have spent your whole life in a cell.”

Bromelle uncovers that her life has been riddled with sexual abuse and drug addiction, since her own father sold her into sex trafficking. As the two women of color stand face-to-face, Keating’s privilege is made apparent. When Keating later talks to her therapist about the case, he tries to draw a comparison between their experiences, and Keating responds with the episode’s title, “I’m Not Her.” She continues, “Horrible things happened to me as a child, but I had a mother who loved me, teachers who told me I was smart and I could go to college and I believed them.”

This statement dismantles the idea of a homogenous experience in Black America, and underscores the importance of addressing intersectionality: to dispel myths that arise from the juxtaposition of successful black men and women to ones who spend their entire lives in an out of the prison system. 

After Keating meets with Bromelle, she returns to the courtroom ready to question the judge that convicted Bromelle of prostitution charges at the age of 13, instead of recognizing that she was a victim of sex trafficking. The judge, acting as a witness to that case in 1968, answers, “The whole concept of sex trafficking is relatively new. In my day, you book for solicitation and let them do the time.”

Keating defiantly rejects his ignorance saying, “and in your day, did you actually believe that a 13-year-old child was making the choice to have sex with grown men for money,” and then presents to him numerous cases in 1968 for under-age solicitation in which he sent every girl to rehabilitation. After the judge anxiously tries to assure Keating that every case is different, Keating confronts the reality of the situation: all the other girls were white and Bromelle is black. Keating not only dislodges the judge’s argument that ignorance is bliss, but also unveils a history of racialized convictions that have and continue to subjugate black and brown bodies in the prison system. Keating highlights the crippling injustice of the legal system for many oppressed groups: “because that’s what we do to black people, women and gay people in this world, we turn a blind eye and we tell them that their lives don’t matter, but they do matter. Jasmine Bromelle matters.”

This language reinforces that the Black Lives Matter movement stems from deep historical trauma that is vital to understanding the movement. The judge of this case, a white man, deeply considers Keating’s points about the historical significance of this case better concluding, “Miss Bromelle, this courtroom owes you an apology. The law was in the wrong when it treated you like a criminal instead of a victim…the best I can do is seal your prior convictions…it’s as much as a fresh start as the law will allow, the one you should’ve been given in 1968.”

This poignant scene seeks to make amends for years of oppression, and underscores the role that the oppressor can play in attempting to make right a history of injustice. The judge’s statement reveals that although this does not make up for a brutal history of slavery and Jim Crow, it does help one woman, and combats the legal system head on while simultaneously using itto offer reparation. 

Soon after Bromelle is freed from jail, Keating is called to the morgue to identify Bromelle’s body with track marks up her arm. This disturbing ending is a stark reminder that often the ingrained injustice is not as escapable as we may think.