“Murder is murder, don’t matter who you are!“
Contrary to what you might be thinking, no, I did not pull the short straw for this week’s new releases. Seeing as how I don’t get The Lighthouse, this week , I voluntarily opted to be the one to go see and review the latest Naomie Harris, racial police drama, Black and Blue. The central theme of the film is corruption, but entangled alongside that, we get healthy doses of racial discrimination, police brutality, the flawed loyalty of the “Great Blue Wall” (I’ll touch on that later), and most predominantly, the central body camera plot device. Heads up, feel free to take a swig of your choice beverage, every time you read, “body camera”. While cop dramas are never at risk of drought, it’s truly difficult to find a worthwhile entry that has something fresh to say. This year alone, we’ll be getting Black and Blue, Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas), and 21 Bridges (Brian Kirk) but last time I was impressed by a cop drama may have been David Ayer‘s End of Watch (2012), and prior to that James Gray‘s We Own the Night (2007). When it comes to police corruption, I will always hold up the new film to the classics that are Serpico (1973), Cop Land (1997), and Training Day (2001) and regardless of its very topical theme and interesting dependence on the body camera, Black and Blue starts with the massive disadvantage of being directed by, Deon Taylor (The Intruder, Meet the Blacks).
Before I get into the film, I’d like to openly disclose that my father used to be both a police officer and a lawyer in a crime riddled metropolis. For the sake of not wanting to over share on his end, I’ll leave it at that; but I’d like to additionally state that in no part do any of these facts blind me to global law enforcement actions and beliefs, flawed or not. Despite being a minority member of my community, and contrary to what the global news may claim, I grew up not only respecting law enforcement, but wanting to join. My father’s experiences and vivid stories printed both a fascinating realistic picture, as well as one of true horror and shock. Having been on the forefront of the action and behind the lawyer’s desk his input painted quite an informative canvas for me. I mention all of this because it has always had a lingering imprint and voice in my mind whenever I watch cop dramas and action films, similar to how a veteran, or family member to a vet, may see war films with a slightly more narrow/open perspective. In addition to that, I actually had body camera usage and effectiveness as a presentation topic for one of my past courses. But I digress.
The somewhat low hanging yet appropriately titled, Black and Blue takes place in contemporary still Katrina affected New Orleans, Louisiana. Shown as derelict, grimy, and ungentrified, the film sets the desolate tone of a city quite literally and politically abandoned by its own people, at least by those with the means to make any immediate progress. We follow Officer Alicia West (Harris), an Army veteran turned doe-eyed rookie who states that she joined the force because she, “wanted to make a difference“. Despite that eye-roller cliché of a line, this greenhorn is played by Academy Award nominee, Naomie Harris (Moonlight, 28 Days Later, Skyfall). Pairing a rookie cop wanting to make an impact in her community, the 18th most dangerous city in the United States, might already have you mentally running through all the tropes and clichés the film might offer. I wouldn’t hold it against you, seeing how this is just another run of the mill cop drama. When a standard routine call with her commanding officer turns into an unexpected double execution by cop, Officer West (Harris) is not only shot ala attempted fratricide, but becomes target number one due to the body cam footage she captured of the murders. With her entire police force on a manhunt to capture or, more likely, kill her, she must rely on the rural streets she once came from but now lawfully patrols. But who exactly can she trust, when some of her very brothers and sisters in blue want her dead, and those she once called neighbors believe she betrayed them for the badge. Wounded and stranded in the urban jungle, officer West decides to single handedly take down the system of corruption that many police forces propel by brushing scandal and illegal acts under the rug of blind blue fraternity and stringent loyalty.
Black and Blue tries to provoke audiences with the possible conflict of being both a minority and a police officer: two ingredients that lay ground for animosity amongst the civilian communities, and the baggage that comes along with the badge and gun. On her first day, West is sat down by her superior, and told, “You’re not black anymore. You’re blue“. Combined with the opening scene, where an off duty jogging West is forced against the wall by her own colleagues, thought to be a suspect because of her “matching profile“, these moments set the tone and message for the most part of the film. How can you stand for blind law and justice, when you work for an entity that dictates their actions and notions by class and colour. A force that just as easily turns their back on its civilians, as it would on you, for the greater good of the blue. Despite being a two tour serving Army veteran, West is still confusingly played as being problematically naive and very idealistic. I have nothing against Harris‘s admirable performance, but I strongly believe that the lackluster script was far below the punching weight of the Academy Award nominee. More adequately matched to the somewhat hollow and surface value script, is a more subdued performance from Grammy nominated, Tyrese Gibson (Fast & Furious and Transformers franchises), who plays a polar opposite role from his usual antics. Despite having some very light emotional moments, Black and Blue, suffers from teasing large sections of various characters’ pasts, and never allowing that development to come full circle. I was far more interested in the all too briefly teased reasonings that certain individuals had, in regards to their present day situation, that were unfortunately cut off before getting entirely resonant.
Regardless of both Mike Colter (Luke Cage) and (the poor man’s Jon Bernthal) Frank Grillo (Captain America: Civil War, End of Watch, Pride and Glory, The Grey, The Purge series) hamming it up all the way, Black and Blue is relegated to Harris‘s solo lead performance. One aspect I thought was intriguing although more than likely unintentional, was that I read into certain actions being committed not out of any racial concern, but of a pure power dynamic. Black and Blue has race at the forefront, but it does touch upon the fact that absolute power can and usually will corrupt absolutely. The trailers mislead you into thinking this is an action packed cop thriller, that promises multiple high-octane shootouts and car chases. In reality this is just a Training Day-lite, with detachable training wheels. It’s a very mediocre, baseline checkmark film, that rides a perfectly average line, only elevated by the central performance. It’s certainly not a film you need to rush out to, and it’s certainly more probable of having success in the streaming platforms. Grillo, himself, has been in far better cop dramas. I expected a more in depth commentary on the dichotomy between race and law enforcement affiliation, especially when the plot dynamic was surely something a better writer could have benefitted from. It’s topical and while social commentary is present, the film and director lack the extent and commitment to say something beyond the basic humanist appeals of, cops being just like everyday people, and that not every single minority in a ghetto is a thug or drug dealer. Despite director Deon Taylor‘s faults and lack of ambition beyond mashing what other mutual genre films have accomplished decades prior, it’s surely a step up from his previous filmography. Paired with the wide sweeping cinematography from Michael Mann regular, Dante Spinotti (Heat, Last of the Mohicans, Red Dragon, Public Enemies, Manhunter, The Insider, L.A. Confidential, Ant-Man & the Wasp) and the almost Sicario booming, Geoff Zanelli (one of Hans Zimmer‘s protégés) score, Black and Blue does have its brief moments.
As I mentioned prior, the “Great Blue Wall” is what many politicians and news outlets call the protective barrier of police silence, typically placed to protect their own. To any who are familiar with cop dramas or the myriads of police brutality and shooting headlines, you know what I am insinuating. The endless press conferences and captured civilian or official footage that is either cut off or denied by two of the deadliest words, “no comment”. Body cameras have been a large piece of discussion revolving around law enforcement agendas and future plans. And the rationale behind its widespread implementation and civil urgency has its validity, particularly after the Ferguson, Missouri shooting. “After the public uprising in response to the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., advocates and many police officials turned to cameras as a way to reduce violent encounters and build trust. By 2015, 95 percent of large police departments reported they were using body cameras or had committed to doing so in the near future, according to a national survey.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/20/upshot/a-big-test-of-police-body-cameras-defies-expectations.html). And yet regardless of what most believe, the body camera is not a be all end all remedy solution to police corruption and brutality. Not only do recent studies show how minuscule the effects have been (which you can read more in depth on this Washington DC active study: https://bwc.thelab.dc.gov/TheLabDC_MPD_BWC_Working_Paper_10.20.17), but they have begun to showcase how the problem might just be in the actual training and selection of police: a sentiment that truly harkens back to how pivotal the fundamentals are, and how easy it is to infect an entire system if even the smallest of defects and loose bolts are left to wiggle and expand over time. Along with the countless variables, body cameras also bring to question budgetary concerns, privacy alerts, open disclosure of usage, public access, and perhaps least thought about, the data storage and time management. There is no quick fix, and as long as the case is treated like covering an open problem with a band-aid, there will be no progress. Apropos to the body cam usage, Black and Blue, utilises it as a primary and central advantage to its plot. Much like in reality, the film brings to question some of the benefits that a body cam may provide when functioning and used properly. One of the brighter sides to the debate, is that while not an immediate cure, the mandatory body cam use and collected footage may help in mending any flawed or antiquated training exercises and drills, provide insight in adapting new methods of action and prevention, and hopefully deterring any unwanted abuse of power (which has been varied in actual success, due to various psychological and on-field factors). Unfortunately, I did not get the slightest of care for actual real world politics regarding body cams, in the film. It quite literally seemed like something the writer’s room threw up as being a topical buzz word to attract some interested parties, such as myself. I’ve seen better use of the body cam in police shows, and while it’s not a laughing matter, there are blatant scene set ups in the film just to get West to turn on the camera to progress the slow pace.
Police protect their own, and unfortunately that does at times condone corruption and allow for quite a large amount of purposeful oversight and media manipulation. It’s a flawed old boys club system that will always overshadow the good cops by the onslaught of allegations and controversies surrounding the latest questionable shootings or racially targeted abuses. The body camera was introduced in hopes of solving this concern, which is further advanced by the single fact that almost every police altercation (good and bad) is filmed and posted to social media by the public, regardless. This is one of the central messages that Deon Taylor‘s film tries to argue and shed light upon. Not all cops are bad, not all cops are easily corrupted, not all cops are racist, but unfortunately those are the primary types that get the attention and discourse. When’s the last time you read or heard about an honest hardworking cop saving or helping out their community? Odds are likely slim, because for the media, that doesn’t sell. I’m not certified expert in the field, but I’d like to think I have enough knowledge to hold up in the conversation. In a nutshell, this is just the synopsis, the tip of the iceberg for the problematic and flawed system. This is what officer West is up against when she decides to turn her back on her law enforcement family, doubling down on her goal to expose the dirty cops and the system willing to side with them. Black and Blue may lack sufficient character development, but it’s filled with the evident and forefront social commentary. There’s enough to get you thinking, and despite its downfalls and plot holes under inspection, it provides enough of a basis to expand off of over dinner. But ultimately, the script does not allow for any truly significant depth or consideration to take place, weighing down Harris‘s film carrying performance, by the unworthy and already explored material. If you’re a fan of cop dramas such as myself, then I can see you gleaning some value from Black and Blue, but it’s not something you need to prioritise.
C- Review 2019 21 bridges ant-man & the wasp black and blue brian kirk C+ captain america: civil war cop land dante spinotti david ayer end of watch frank grillo geoff zanelli hans zimmer heat james gray jon bernthal l.a. confidential last of the mohicans luke cage manhunter meet the blacks melina matsoukas michael mann moonlight naomie harris pride and glory public enemies queen & slim red dragon serpico sicario skyfall the grey the insider the intruder the lighthouse the purge training day transformers tyrese gibson we own the night
Film Studies/History graduate, using my love and knowledge of the medium to pass as a critic. I’m typically known for longer write-ups, and my eclectic taste ranging from awards darlings, European filmé, indie spirits, cinematic universes, and most notably 80s cult films. Hope you’ve enjoyed your visit, and remember, watch whatever, whenever, with whomever.