Monday, July 15, 2024

‘Black and Blue’ Smuggles Heavy Themes Into a Fun B-Movie Thriller

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Black and Blue is a solid entry into the “one person against the system” genre. Deon Taylor who has recently been trafficking in exploitation thrillers such as Traffik and The Intruder has turned his eye to the brutality and racism in the modern-day police force. The result is a sometimes daring and often entertaining but utterly solid yarn with familiar tropes and cliches filtered through race and gender.

The lone man against the system is a familiar, popular, and timeless story. Except for Taylor and his screenwriter Peter A. Dowling, have made it a woman against the system. Alicia West (Naomie Harris) is a veteran whose done two tours in Afghanistan and is now a rookie cop to the New Orleans Police Force. We soon realize that Alicia is from New Orleans, but that she’s been away for a long time, and is unsure of her standing.

Our first hint is as she and her partner Kevin (Reid Scott) pass the apartment complex, Kingston Manor. He intones that no cop responds to calls from there unless it’s one of theirs in trouble. Alicia tries to tell them that the people there aren’t bad, just poor. His response is that things have changed since she left. Taylor has the camera pan Kingston Manor allowing us to see that the residents have committed the crime of being both poor and Black.

Unlike most movies that play today, Black and Blue has no bones stating that most Black people are treated as second class citizens when it comes to the law. It hammers it home again and again. Alicia finds herself, again and again, the target of speeches telling her she’s no longer Black, “You’re blue now.”

Through a string of coincidences, Alicia will find herself at the wrong place at the wrong time with her body cam on. She witnesses a murder of a child by a narcotics officer Terry Malone (Frank Grillo). The boy is later revealed to be the cousin of the local drug kingpin Darius (Mike Colter).

Terry and his crew soon go after Alica and her body cam. Over and over again Alicia is asked by cops and civilians alike to either just hand the evidence over or to leave them out of it. Deon Taylor has made an inverse of High Noon of sorts. One woman begs a community for help, but instead of people turning their backs on her because of cowardice, they turn their backs because of a feeling of helplessness and anger.

Taylor does a terrific job keeping a mood of paranoia and suspense as Alicia runs through the back alleys of New Orleans. It helps that Naomie Harris is a striking presence and can convey a brazen intelligence and vulnerability with her eyes. Frank Grillo excels at playing sleaze bags and he sinks his teeth into Terry Malone growling and cussing up a storm.

Dowling’s script flips another well-worn trope on its head by giving Alicia a partner of sorts, Milo (Tyrese Gibson). A man who wants no part of whatever Alicia has gotten herself in. But soon he finds himself dragged into helping her because she has convinced him it’s the right thing to do. This dichotomy is an old one but rarely do we see it where the woman is the lone hero who must convince and convert the man into helping her. Technically, it could be argued that we see this all the time except when it is the woman who must convince the hero to be the hero. Rarely do we see a woman as the hero convince others they too must step up, rarer still are those heroes Black women.

To be clear Black and Blue is above everything else solid b-movie entertainment. I don’t mean that as a diss. Oh no, I mean that as a high compliment. Colter’s Darius, for instance, is a stereotypical caricature of a drug lord. But he plays it with relish and turns in a performance dialed up to eleven with his gold teeth and fur-lined coat. He exudes means while also displaying charisma and intelligence as he tries to plot vengeance while also keeping his organization in order.

That a film even broaches the white supremacy aspects of the modern police force, much less set in New Orleans, is a notch on its belt; but that it’s so wildly enjoyable and engrossing to boot is just icing on the cake. I have a soft spot for heroes more interested in justice than the law and Black and Blue gives me that in spades. “Murder is murder. Don’t matter who you are.”

Harris’ Alicia struggles to reconnect with a community she ran away from. Her community struggles to accept her because, for them, she abandoned them. The push and pull of Alicia being a Black woman in blue is the driving force. Without ever saying as much Black and Blue looks at the notion of what happens when you take to heart the idea that race is a social construct but ignore the fact that the society you live in has constructed itself based on the very thing it says doesn’t exist.

It’s heady stuff and to be honest, at times Dowling’s script isn’t up for it. But when it does land it lands hard. Moments such as Milo calling the cops because he thinks there has been a break-in at his store. He soon discovers it is Alicia and when he goes to the door to tell the cops it’s alright he is immediately cuffed, frisked and interrogated. The cops are dirty and looking for Alicia, but Taylor makes it clear, these cops, dirty or not, are doing this simply because Milo is a Black man at the scene of a reported crime. 

Tears stream down Milo’s face as he answers their questions. He is humiliated and scared, possibly because this is not the first time it has happened. Black and Blue opens with Alica herself jogging in a white neighborhood only to be pulled over and treated similarly. It’s only when they see her badge do they let her go. They do not apologize but merely explain themselves, “You look like someone who we’ve been looking for.”

The opening moments declare loudly and clearly the film’s stance on cops. Much like last year’s Superfly, Black and Blue doesn’t pull punches when it comes to the depiction of police corruption, racism, or brutality. The names of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Botham Jean, and others are never mentioned but their memory looms large around the edges of the film. Nor does it shy away from its love for New Orleans; the anger of the city’s suffering fuels much of the characters and mood of the film.

Black and Blue wobble towards the end but nothing which undoes all the work it’s done. The weakness of the film comes when the characters try to give a voice to what the movie is about. Dowling is British and white; it becomes apparent that while Taylor is echoing and steeping his film in the ideas and anger of Black Lives Matter, Dowling is not. Or if he is he is trying to give both him and Taylor some wiggle room. Conversations where Black characters argue about it’s not about race despite the very clear fact that it is wholly about race come close to pulling us out of the movie.

Thankfully the conversations are brief and weirdly inconsequential. Possibly because, again, the director is vetoing, or flat out ignoring, Dowling’s attempts at both sides-ism. If anything it speaks to Taylor’s conviction and talent that he is able to navigate a script which tries to dilute itself so successfully. 

Dante Spinotte who has shot movies ranging fromThe Last of the Mohicans to The Mirror Has Two Faces; Manhunter to Xmen: The Last Stand; and others. He infuses Black and Blue with an immediacy and a bare-bones efficiency. Scenes from the bodycam’s point of view as Alicia runs for her life. The way the camera pans or slowly zooms into Harris’ or Gibson’s face. These characters are filmed with love in a way most characters in these films are not. 

Though much of the film takes place under overcast skies and in a constant drizzling, the scenes are lit to so we can actually see the actors. Not only that but he seems to understand how to light his Black actors. If you are confused as to what I’m talking about go watch a little of Proud Mary, a film whose Black characters are rendered all but invisible because of bad lighting. Before you argue it was clearly a bad cinematographer or an amateur, it was shot by Dan Lausten, who had just shot the Oscar-nominated The Shape of Water

The film may have its problems but not enough to damage the overall enjoyment of the film. Taylor’s gritty style fits the needs of the film perfectly and he ably makes sure the film drags as little as possible. Calling Black and Blue, a solid b-movie isn’t damning with faint praise; it’s exactly the opposite. 

Image courtesy of Screen Gems

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