“Either you’re one of us or you’re one of them.”
Most movies of this type – seedy, procedural, B-movie movie crime dramas – tend to start strong and continue to falter along the way, ending up in a lesser place than where the story began. Black and Blue is the polar opposite, starting in spot that’s terribly on-the-nose and devoid of nuance and ending in a place that’s finally worthy of being taken seriously. It’s a movie that matures and evolves as it moves through the streets of New Orleans, and the picture champions the righteous pursuit of morality in the face of multiple avenues paved by systemic injustice. Deon Taylor’s ode to the late great John Singleton is all about doing the right thing despite the voices on your shoulder trying to persuade you otherwise. It gets the job done.
Black and Blue’s initially forced and transparent interactions with the characters almost seem like something out of a crappy PSA. Alicia West (Naomie Harris), an African-American veteran and a calm new cop on the force, jogs with her hoodie up. She’s stopped and frisked and openly harassed, entirely because she fits a supposed criminal’s description. West has to say she lives there, has a badge, that she’s part of their team. Even then she’s treated as a non-entity and a lesser. She complies though, used to the racial discrimination, and goes on the morning rounds with her partner Kevin (Reid Scott). Old stomping grounds introduce faces from her past, Kevin has a date night planned with the wife, and West volunteers to take his double shift, getting her first glimpse of the city at night. It doesn’t turn out pretty.
With corruption rumored to run rampant throughout the force, it’s unsurprising that West stumbles upon the villainous narcs Terry Malone (Frank Grillo) and his co-conspirator (Beau Knapp) committing an execution on a drug dealer, all recorded on her body cam. At this point the film transforms into something I can only plausibly liken to 1987’s The Running Man, following West as she tries to survive the night. The crooked cops want to erase the guilty footage. The gangs, convinced she pulled the trigger, want an eye for an eye. Besides the reluctant help of her old friend Mouse (Tyrese Gibson), she’s alone in this race against the clock, like a wounded gazelle limping through and hiding out in the Serengeti as a leap of leopards are ready to pounce. I wonder if writer Peter A. Dowling gave her the last name West to suggest that she always maintains a sense of direction and where she’s going. If not, the choice is serendipitous.
Yes, the film can be way too forward with its deserved social messaging. And yes, it comes together in a way that feels more like a potluck hodgepodge than a planned offering. But the fact of the matter is that Black and Blue works because Naomie Harris (somehow in her first leading role to date), acts with such clear-eyed conviction and such a passion for the message burried beneath all of the fireworks and shootouts. Similar to The Hate U Give from last year, Black and Blue battles against the unfair labeling practices minorities are often forced to entertain, showing a strong woman of color who not only can clearly decipher right from wrong, but is brave enough to defy outside definitions of who she is. She’s black, she bleeds blue, and Harris owns every single second of this complex character. It isn’t a great film, but it’s led by an undeniably physical & emotional performance that’s worth seeing in and of itself.
“A murder is a murder. Don’t matter who you are.”
Rating: 3 out of 5