One of my formative professional experiences was clinically assessing individuals entering addiction treatment in Detroit at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. I follow each patient up many months later to see how their lives were going and whether they had benefited from treatment. In the low-income, predominately Black neighborhoods of an industrial city in steep decline I witnessed and heard about horrifying things, but also came away impressed by the resilience and decency human beings can summon in extreme circumstances. No film brought me back to those experiences more than Laura Paglin’s powerhouse 2016 documentary Unseen.
The subject matter of the movie could at one level not be more grim: the serial rape and murder of 11 African-American women in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Cleveland. Though the sociopathic killer behind the crimes committed them over a series of years, almost no inquiries were made by the police until a brave woman survived his attack, went to the police, and was believed (I emphasize this last point because the police had done little or nothing when presented with similar complaints by other women in the past). Unseen asks why so little notice was taken for years of multiple human beings being assaulted, tormented, and murdered.
To answer this question, Paglin takes an approach unlike most documentaries about serial killers: putting the focus on the victims rather than the perpetrator. Multiple women who survived terrifying assaults tell their shattering stories directly to the camera with courage and insight.
Why did no one intervene? The victims were all low-income Black women who were addicted to crack cocaine, engaged in sex work, or both. Many were already estranged from their families or anyone else who could have noticed and reported their disappearance. They had no worth in the eyes of the killer of course, but the film makes clear that this was a disturbingly widely held sentiment. A local shopkeeper says the killer did a service by cleaning up the neighborhood’s “garbage” and many of the police clearly could not be bothered to investigate complaints of sexual assault filed by drug using prostitutes. The women themselves sometimes took this devaluation into their own hearts and therefore lacked the self-respect to demand better treatment from the world around them.
The film’s great achievement is humanizing the victims. It does this via moving interviews of those women who survived and of the friends and family of those who did not. Several interviewees are particularly skillful as well at humanizing the neighborhood as a whole, illuminating how the loss of jobs, prosocial cultural institutions, and hope for the future, ground down almost everyone in Mount Pleasant. The interviews are interspersed with scenes of the neighborhood, from the court trial, and from the police interrogation of the killer, making the movie even more compelling.
I also respect the way this movie dismantles myths (some conservative, some liberal) that many people who have never been in neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant propagate. The bigoted stereotype of inner city immorality cannot survive the love for family and community that the interviewees evince. The trope that crack cocaine was just another drug about which there was an overblown moral panic (which my friend David Kennedy, who worked in the same sorts of neighborhoods I did, eloquently refers to as “bullshit”) is also deservedly left in ruins by addicted women describing its uniquely destructive effect on their lives. And the currently fashionable idea that getting rid of police would help low-income African-Americans looks both naive and dangerous in light of the monster that stalked and murdered so many. These women needed more and better police, not a perpetual absence of protection from law enforcement. The latter would be the ultimate fantasy of the man who raped and murdered them.
Can material this dark be uplifting? I think it can. You weep with the victims and share their pain and rage, but also come away in awe of their grit, honesty, and desire for justice.