Film & TV

Black and Blue Teaches Civics, Badly

Naomie Harris in Black and Blue (Sony Pictures)
A gaudy exhibition of action-movie and progressive clichés

Every scene of Black and Blue teaches a progressive civics lesson. Example: The film begins with rookie New Orleans cop Alicia West (Naomie Harris) jogging-while-black when she is stopped by white patrolmen who are stunned to discover: “She’s blue!”

West’s harassment and the suspicion of her are the point of this scene and of the entire film, which exploits public distrust of police — and even distrust by one of their own. The background of black cops’ social expectation and racial indoctrination, detailed by Charles Burnett in The Glass Shield (1994), is ignored.

Set in a post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans of dilapidated, still-unrenovated neighborhoods — the result of natural catastrophe, local ineptitude, and government corruption — Black and Blue bruises the image of modern urban America. In addition to furthering the bad reputation that cops have suffered since the 2014 Ferguson protests, the film perpetuates civilian negativity. It’s a thriller that sells cynicism: skepticism as entertainment.

Heroine West is an Afghanistan war veteran who came home and joined the force, looking for a purpose. (“I want to help,” she explains. “Food banks and inner-city programs help,” she is told.) West’s ideals are shaken when she discovers systemic corruption among a squad of narcs. The only new gimmick is that West’s body cam — standard issue after Obama’s response to Ferguson — records dirty cops executing several black drug dealers. This ignites a subplot in which West’s former disenfranchised homies also turn against her. Behaving like enraged activists, the lawless New Orleans blacks fight against the cops, leaving West in the lurch. Is she more blue than she is black?

Black and Blue doesn’t have to be high quality to be treacherous. Director Deon Taylor and screenwriter Peter A. Dowling borrow black urban grievance as carelessly as a politician. The film is bracketed by disillusioned rap records: Lecrae’s “Welcome to America” and KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police (That’s the sound of the beast).” Still, it’s implausible that after two tours of duty in Kandahar, West would be so naïve about American life. Or do the filmmakers intend to portray modern America as Afghanistan, an irresolvable tribal war?

As the title clearly indicates, Black and Blue operates on the premise of clichés. What makes it of passing interest for us is how it takes those clichés (feel-good, action-movie formulas) and uses them to animate political truisms — the platitudes behind news reports devoted to social-justice narratives.

In movie speak, it translates the issues associated with Hurricane Katrina and Ferguson, Mo., into the Denzel Washington police thriller Training Day, modifying that fevered police-brutality scenario with a female protagonist so that it fits the millennium’s Me Too agenda. It’s a cliché maze in which viewers are led into confusing reality with fantasy, allowing comfortable sentiment to oppose difficult history.

Black and Blue’s rush of movie excitation — of chases and shootouts — overwhelms us with angry cop faces that are indistinguishable from thugs and with chaos that’s underscored by constantly booming sound effects. There’s no way out of the film’s twists and turns except, in Quentin Tarantino’s memorable phrase, to “reject its hypothesis.”

Black and Blue represents a form of commercial and political calculation too amateurish to call irresponsible; it’s merely desperate. (Ultraslick Training Day was irresponsible.) No one in this film’s second-tier cast is even remotely believable — from Harris’s British mien, which lacks authentic cultural nuance (just as her role as a crackhead mom in Moonlight merely relied on ghetto-wretch clichés); to Tyrese Gibson’s lonely storeowner Mouse, a black male so demoralized that he seems zombified, who helps West hide from her crooked colleagues; to Mike Colter’s exoticized drug dealer Darius, whose gold teeth, gold necklace, purple pimp’s attire, and glowering, seething manner is even more outlandish than his role as TV’s Luke Cage.

My favorite detail in this wildly contrived sociological horror-plus-redemption story is its New Orleans housing-projects location. The apartments feature numerous African artworks, and Mouse hangs a Kehinde Wiley–style poster of Malcolm X surrounded by printed repetitions of the word “Freedom.” Where’s the more likely MLK-Malcolm-Obama Trinity on black velvet? Cinematographer Dante Spinotti (Last of the Mohicans) stylizes this postmodern landmark so that its gaudy, graffiti-splattered terraces are brightly illuminated oases at night. It resembles either a very progressive penitentiary, a carnival, or an art museum such as New York’s PS1 or the Whitney Biennial showcasing the latest enlightened social-justice, identity-politics exhibition.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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