Black and Blue Movie Review: An honest film that lays bare racial prejudice and police corruption
Naomie Harris and the supporting cast (headed by Tyrese Gibson) give credence to much of what the film gets right
Black and Blue starts off with a telling scene that sets a precedent for all that is to follow. Naomie Harris’ character Alicia West is jogging in a hoodie in what appears to be a well-to-do neighbourhood. A police car with two white cops pulls up, and they begin questioning her. When she asks what her crime is, the roughing up commences; the cops draw their service weapons, shove her against a wall, do a body search, and ask her aggressively to calm down.
Unbeknownst to the officers at this point is that she belongs to the same department. As soon as they find identification on her, one cop says to the other, “She’s blue” (meaning police). The resentful look in her eyes is followed by a non-apology apology by the two men. “You know how it is,” says one of them, before the other hands over her ID and welcomes her to the New Orleans police force.
This kind of deep-rooted prejudice towards black people by those who are to ‘serve and protect’ is nothing new. An openly racist stance, espousing the abhorrent view that if the person is African-American (this extends to other people of colour, too), he/she is somehow up to no good or is involved in criminality. “What are you doing in our part of town,” gets thrown at an unsuspecting Alicia when she is initially questioned. If Alicia were white, this sentence would have never been uttered.
Director: Deon Taylor
Cast: Naomie Harris, Tyrese Gibson, Frank Grillo, Mike Colter, Reid Scott, Beau Knapp
Alicia West is a military veteran who has recently returned from Kandahar to join her hometown police department in New Orleans. As she drives through the old streets with her partner and looks back on her youth, she understands the extent to which things have changed. “We don’t respond to calls from there anymore,” says her white partner, Kevin, when they drive past a run-down set of low-income apartments. This neighbourhood was once home to Alicia. There are many such instances in Deon Taylor’s film which tell us how deep the rot really goes.
A powerful scene early on sets the tone. When Kevin goes in to buy something from a convenience store, Alicia attempts being friendly with a kid outside. The child’s mother admonishes him, insisting that he get back into the car. The attitude towards a person in uniform is clear: they are not to be trusted. It doesn’t matter that Alicia is black; to the African-American population, she forms the 'them' part of the ‘us versus them’. There's suspicion in the woman’s eyes as she combatively asks Alicia if there is a problem. This young mother is one of the rookie officer’s former best friends. “Missy, it’s me,” Alicia says (recognising her), but all she gets in return is denial. They want nothing to do with her. The clerk in the convenience store, though relatively less judgemental, keeps her at a distance. She tries to pay for her partner (who picks up a couple of items and walks out), but is informed the police refrains from doing that sort of thing here.
The first half, before the action and thriller elements kick in, is what impresses. Examples (both subtle and direct) of racial bias, sexism, and corruption that dig itself deep into the heart of the city’s police department are laid bare. As Alicia informs her senior (a black officer) about filling in for Kevin on night patrol, she gets this half-dismissive, half-derisive look from all the officers gathered (most of whom are white). What is made abundantly clear through minimal dialogue is that the New Orleans PD (like most PDs the world over) is a boys’ clubs. Being a woman, and a black woman, at that, will not go down well.
As for any armed force, team spirit trumps everything. Going against said ‘spirit’ (even if that means exposing the lies, the unlawful treatment, the murders, the blatant corruption, etc) is deemed a definite no-no. The New Orleans PD goes out of its way to protect its crooked cops over an upstanding officer bent upon doing her job. Alicia is looked upon as a rat or a snitch. This important critique is handled rather well thanks to the writing and direction.
Alicia’s fight — her initial naïveté, her idealism, and her battle against great odds with a power-hungry/corrupt department that cares more about protecting its own than actually doing its job — is given credence by an earnest portrayal from Naomie Harris. It is fair to say that the film rides on the coattails of her fine performance. Though not nearly as good, Tyrese Gibson, in his understated role as the store clerk, impresses. A scene in which he is unfairly frisked and humiliated by two white policemen in his own workplace, is one of Black and Blue’s highpoints.
Despite all it has going for it, and delving into a subject so essential and relevant, the film becomes predictable in the second half. The betrayals are not surprising. Even the black gangster, Darius (Mike Colter), looking to avenge the murder of his drug-pedaling nephew, is drawn up as a stereotype with gold implants for incisors, much bling around the neck, and a fur coat. The dialogue falls into ordinary territory in this phase too.
However, a pivotal scene makes an impact as the end nears: Alicia walks into her old neighbourhood (uniform and body camera on her person) to the sound of cat-calls and open threats. The primary objectives are to prove her innocence and expose members of her department, but the cons outweigh the pros in every respect — the key is that she risks it anyway. Black and Blue (subpar title, notwithstanding) is a good film that delivers a strong underlying message. There are several moments of cliché and predictability, but on the whole, it is worthy in what it sets out to prove.