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A rise in the wider awareness of just how many unarmed black men die at the hands of racist white police officers has had a ripple effect on the big screen, felt forcefully last year with a string of angry, urgent films, big and small. From a brief yet devastating scene in Widows to the powerful triptych storytelling of Monsters and Men to the ferociously effective and criminally underrated The Hate U Give, the multiplex provided only intermittent solace from the world outside.
Inevitably seeping through to the action genre, racial tensions have now influenced two mainstream cop thrillers this season: 21 Bridges and Black and Blue. Both focus on black cops, and while the trailers for 21 Bridges only hint at a tweak to the bros-and-bullets formula (in one scene, Chadwick Boseman’s “cop who kills cop killers” confronts a suspect, played by Stephan James, who says: “You’re the only cop tonight who speaks first and shoot second”), the suggestively titled Black and Blue is more strident about what separates it from the pack. With a black female lead (a striking rarity in the action genre) and a bristling throughline of mistrust between police and communities of colour, it’s a film deeply rooted in the time we’re in. But noble intentions are up against dog-eared cliches and frustratingly, it’s a battle that too often leads to us, the audience, losing.
Naomie Harris, whose post-Moonlight career has so far thrown up one thankless role in dumdum Dwayne Johnson caper Rampage, is allowed far more to do here as an Afghanistan vet who returns to police the impoverished New Orleans community she grew up in. It’s a difficult position, stuck between people who don’t trust her on either side, and her life is thrown into chaos when she witnesses, and records via her bodycam, the unlawful killing of an unarmed young black man by a group of corrupt narcs. So begins a chase through the projects, as she risks her life to ensure that the footage is made public, forced to rely on the community who sees her as an enemy.
Director Deon Taylor has carved out a career making hokey but watchable schlock, quickly made and quickly forgotten about. In the last 18 months alone, he has released Traffik and The Intruder, and while Black and Blue does have more substance than both combined, he’s still hemmed in by a certain mediocrity. Salient observations about how crippling fear of police can be within black communities are watered down by cartoonish silliness, especially in the film’s portrayal of its villains headed up by rent-a-baddie Frank Grillo. It’s a competently made action thriller that teases at something far more interesting, but something that perhaps Taylor and British screenwriter Peter A Dowling are ill-equipped to really pull off.
Harris, who has shown impressive physical adeptness with action before in 28 Days Later (arguably her greatest work to date), gives a commanding performance as a rookie finding her footing, trying to be, ahem, black and blue. She fights her way through the often hackneyed dialogue (“Murder’s murder, don’t matter who you are!”) and rises above, taking the often laughably rote material with seriousness. There’s also a surprisingly effective turn from Tyrese, playing a man haunted by a life of being mistreated by police, and in one particular tearful scene as he’s mistakenly accused of a crime, he’s so good that one wonders why he’s been relegated to playing supporting characters in franchise fodder.
It’s scenes like this and the odd stinging line that made me wish Black and Blue was better, that inserting topicality into a wide-releasing genre movie could be done with more finesse. It’s a film with something to say but it’s not all that good at saying it.
Source: The Guardian
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