This impressive first feature from writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green deals with a fictional event which mirrors several real life incidents in America – the shooting by the police of an unarmed black man. This is not about the victim though, nor about his killer. What Green is interested in here is the effect the incident has on the community and in particular three members of it, making it almost three films in one.
The story opens with a powerful incident, which sets up the uneasy atmosphere. A black man driving his car and listening to music on the radio is stopped by the police. He is himself cop, he shows them his badge but they feel the need to check that in case the badge is stolen. The man Dennis (John David Washington – so good in Black KkKlansman) treats the incident with weary resignation. It has happened many times before. Later in the film he asks his white, female officer partner how many times she has been pulled over. No prizes for guessing.
We then move to the first of the three men who will be affected by the murder. Manny (Anthony Ramos) is a cheery soul, who rides a bicycle round the neighbourhood, has a lovely partner and child and is about to start a well paid job as a security guard to support his family. He witnesses the incident which results in his friend Darius’s death and almost by instinct, as soon as the altercation starts he gets out his mobile phone and videos it. His dilemma then is, does he or does he not go public with what is evidence that the cop made a mistake in thinking the victim was armed? Despite warnings by the police that this would not be in the public interest – I’m surprised they don’t find an excuse to confiscate the phone – Manny’s conscience tells him to post the video online. It makes the headlines – and the police take their revenge, framing Manny with a trumped up charge.
The focus then shifts with a clever link onto Dennis. A conflicted cop in a white dominated world, which makes it in many ways the most powerful and interesting of the three stories. While not involved in the actual incident, Denis finds himself having to defend the force to his wife and friends, citing his own fear that any suspect he has to arrest could be armed. When being questioned by the officer investigating the incident he finds himself putting his loyalty to his colleagues first. While all the time his moral sense and own experience tells him that the system is unjust and loaded.
The final story centres on promising young sportsman Zee (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), whom we’ve glimpsed earlier with Dennis in a friendly cops versus kids basketball game. Zee is being considered for a professional baseball team. But as his dad and the team manager warn him, any suggestion that he is a trouble maker and his prospect of sports stardom will disappear. So will he open his mouth about the injustice of his friend and neighbour’s death and join the anti police protests that have been sparked off by Darius’s murder?
The strength of the film is in the way it goes it gives us such a three dimensional view of its protagonists, going as it does into considerable detail about their lives and their relationships with family and friends and the authority figures they have to deal with. Together the three stories form a powerful piece, which is an often uncomfortable and conscience provoking journey for a non American audience in terms of relating the film to the racism in our own society. It is also a strong warning for us about the dangers of arming our own police force.