Black and Blue is a racial polemic that could only be made in this modern world we live in – which is to say, it’s the kind of high-key potboiler that can jackhammer its way into the conversation in our toxic atmosphere. It’s an angry film, but not in the complex manner of a Spike Lee joint. There’s not a scintilla of nuance in the film’s vernacular – it communicates in impassioned shouts and ear-piercing stings – but why shouldn’t there be? We no longer live in a nuanced world. This is a shoot first and ask questions later culture, and director Deon Taylor aims to return the fire.
This is Taylor’s second film released in 2019. The first was The Intruder, with Dennis Quaid maniacally jitterbugging across the screen and feasting on the scenery in a film I said should screen exclusively as a midnight movie on drive-in screens (update: it has yet to attain cult status, but just give it time). Taylor also has no less than seven (7) projects in development on his IMDb page, laying bare a Tyler Perry-esque ubiquity in B-movie culture. Whereas Perry’s focus is on low-brow comedy with a kicker of retrograde religiosity, Taylor’s stock-in-trade is social issue dramas shoved through a hyper-sensationalized filter. Historically, the results are laughable, albeit in a quasi-enjoyable campy sort of way. But with Black and Blue, Taylor has stumbled upon a subject matter – institutional police corruption and internalized racism – that’s hyper intensity can’t be elevated more than it already is in the real world.
If suspension of disbelief is the most crucial element of the cinematic experience, a film as overwrought and on-the-nose as Black and Blue usually obliterates it. But in this current climate, where each new instance of police brutality feels more and more like the plot of a bad movie, all of the sudden the movie plot isn’t so bad anymore, and our disbelief doesn’t require so much suspension. There is a strange fusion of film and reality here, one that is almost surely by accident, borne not out of intention but of the tragedy and rage that swirls violently in communities all over the country, where police brutality of all sorts, from aggressive physical force to outright murder, disproportionately impact people of color. I can’t say the film wouldn’t be more effective if it handled its material with more subtlety, but I can say that this blunt-force approach works for this achingly relevant topic.
Echoing the societal bruises that just can’t heal, the title Black and Blue distills the very specific crosshairs of its central story. Alicia West (Naomie Harris) is a rookie cop with the New Orleans Police Department, serving the Ninth Ward, an area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina to the point that it never fully rebuilt. Alicia is a NOLA native who left to join the Army, a move that already puts her at odds with those residents who lacked such opportunity, only to return to her hometown wearing a badge, which essentially makes her a traitor. Her goal is to “be the change,” act as a bridge between the suffering residents of her childhood home and the local law enforcement they’ve come to resent.
That resentment is well-founded – the kindest police treatment in the Ninth Ward is willful ignorance. If cops engage at all, it’s usually to profile with the threat of force. The NOPD employs body cameras to mitigate any improper conduct, but Alicia is questioned when she wears one. “Just don’t point it at me,” her partner tells her, at which point you know something’s about to go down. Indeed, it does: Alicia witnesses a trio of cops murdering a local drug dealer, and her body cam records every incriminating second. When she escapes their clutches, the film becomes a non-stop chase picture with the walls closing in on all sides – the cops will stop at nothing to procure the body cam, empowering not only the bulk of their NOPD colleagues in the pursuit, but also compelling the local drug cartel to hunt Alicia down as well by publicly pinning the murder on her.
It all plays out hard and heavy, the energy level set at a constant fever pitch, never coming up for air, with beads of sweat dripping from the screen. Outside of a few stray mentions of the police chief striving to clean up the department, there’s nary a clean officer on the beat, the sort of narrative hardline that will be unavoidably labeled cartoonishly obvious, or unfair to the valiant real-life officers on the force. I, however, have no such problem – the “few bad apples” defense doesn’t wash when you have entire departments lining up to defend those bad apples, a justice system that rarely penalizes them, and a federal government led by fascist reality TV host enabling the entire enterprise with his rhetoric. Hard to label a movie “ridiculous” when the real world is becoming ever-more ridiculous by the hour. Regardless of whether Black and Blue is consciously critiquing that reality or merely reflecting it, it’s particular brand of brash, no-holds-barred anger offers recognition and catharsis for those caught in this ridiculous nightmare.