Black and Blue (2019)

Black and Blue first published by Sight & Sound, December 2019

Review: Deon Taylor’s Black and Blue begins with a black woman in a hoodie jogging along the street. A police car pulls her over, its front tyre splashing her with water from a puddle. Two aggressive white male officers get out, one pushing her roughly against a wall without cause or provocation. It is a familiar scenario that has repeated itself up and down America, triggering the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 – except that, as the other officer confirms awkwardly after checking her ID, “She’s blue.” For after serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan, Alicia West (Naomie Harris) has returned home to America as a rookie policewoman. What she sees and experiences on one of her first shifts will reveal gaping fissures (of race, class and gender) in American society. For, as Alicia is hounded both by the colleagues whose acts of murder she has recorded on her bodycam, and by the local gang bangers led to believe that she carried out the killings, this film evokes both the police corruption of Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973) and the amoral initiation of Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day (2001).  

The expression ‘black and blue’ is typically used to describe a contusion – like the bruises and bloody damage which Alicia and others acquire over the 24 hours of the film’s narrative. The setting, too – the neglected suburbs of post-Katrina New Orleans – is an open injury of derelict buildings and abandoned communities, bandaged over only by boarding and graffiti. Which is to say that Black and Blue comes scarred with traumas, not just corporeal or architectural, but also psychological, social and even national. Its most festering wound is the sour relationship between the African-American community and the police.

Alicia’s race puts her at an uneasy intersection between the people from her old neighbourhood (now a crime-ridden slum) and her new colleagues on the force – two opposed groupings marked by similar tribal loyalties and flexible attitudes towards the law. Idealistic if not exactly naïve, Alicia will, in her desperate pursuit of justice, turn not only to old friends from the block Milo “Mouse” Jackson (Tyrese Gibson) and Missy (Nafessa Williams) – whose instincts steer them well clear of the police – but even to vengeful drug-dealing kingpin Darius (Mike Colter), who wants her dead. Meanwhile, bent narcotics detective Terry Malone (Frank Grillo) will stop at nothing – including further murder – to prevent the incriminating bodycam footage from being exposed (Exposure was the film’s working title). Alicia’s difficult passage between these two worlds can be measured by the different points in the film where she either wears her uniform or disguises herself under a civilian hoodie – and by the end, even Milo will don Alicia’s kit to pass as a policeman and infiltrate a station. Blue, after all, is just the transferrable colour of clothing, able to be worn by anyone.

Written by Peter A. Dowling (Flightplan, 2005), Black and Blue brings humanist, communitarian concerns to its urban thriller frame, and tries to record signs of hope and healing in a divided, unequal and raw America. 

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Synopsis: New Orleans, present day. Out on an extra nightshift, Rookie police officer Alicia West accidentally captures on her bodycam narcotics detectives Terry and Smitty murdering three black dealers in cold blood. Herself shot by Smitty, Alicia flees – and is soon being pursued by Officer Doyle too, who is in cahoots with Terry. Alicia heads to the store of her old friend Milo ‘Mouse” Johnson, who gives her a hoodie as disguise. She meets her usual partner Jennings, but, realising he is also planning to hand her over to Terry, seeks refuge in Milo’s apartment. Terry calls gang leader Darius, who is related to one of the victims, and tells him that Alicia was responsible. Darius puts out word on Alicia, and the young son of Milo’s neighbour (and Alicia’s old friend) Missy calls Darius. Linking Milo to Alicia, Terry and his crew also head to Milo’s apartment. Alicia escapes, but Darius’ men capture Milo. At Darius’s tenement, Alicia offers the bodycam footage in return for Milo. Darius sees the footage proving Alicia’s innocence (and Terry’s guilt). An army of police and Terry’s men raid the tenement. In a close fight, Terry shoots Darius. In a tussle with Smitty, Alicia shoots him with his own gun. Disguised in Alicia’s uniform, Milo sneaks out with the bodycam footage, and uploads it at the police station. Being filmed by the estate’s residents, Terry is about to shoot Alicia when both Missy and Jennings intervene. As the footage goes live, Terry is arrested.

Anton Bitel