A Matter of Black Lives
BFI London Film Festival 2015
The Hard Stop (2016)
The press screening of “The Hard Stop” was on June 22, the night before the referendum during which the Britain voted to leave the European Union. Since then the country has gone through enough upheaval to fill a thousand history books, and it is very far from over yet. But the most visible result of the referendum on British streets has been an increase of racist abuse — from an American academic being told to “go back to Africa” on a Manchester tram, to the Polish center in Hammersmith being daubed with abuse. It is a nasty, uncertain time, especially for immigrants and for people of color who are perceived to be immigrants regardless of their actual status. But there has as yet been no civil unrest like Britain experienced five years ago, after a man named Mark Duggan was shot dead by police in north London. After the shooting and the riots, director George Amponsah picked up a camera and began filming Kurtis Henville and Marcus Knox-Hooke, two friends of Mr. Duggan’s, while the investigation into the shooting was carried out. Mr. Knox-Hooke was so involved in the rioting that he was put on trial for instigating them; his act of smashing the window of a police car was found to be the spark which led to five deaths, hundreds of millions of pounds in property damage and criminal trials against thousands of people.
What the movie does is follow around Mr. Knox-Hooke, both before and after his prison sentence, as he tries to come to terms with his choices and what his life now holds for him. Mr. Henville begins the documentary living in a bail hostel (he is a convicted drug dealer), and Mr. Amponsah obviously spends more time with him as he searches for legal work — both in London and much further afield — in order to support his wife and sons. And the men talk. The questions Mr. Amponsah asks have mostly been edited out, but it’s clear that the men do not often have such a receptive audience. For the most part, they come off well. They are thoughtful and charming, grieving the loss of their friend and trying hard to take responsibility for their mistakes and do better for themselves. Their tempers, which do flare from time to time, seem no worse than that of anyone feeling crushed by a system which is not on his or her side. The parole officers and policemen who are featured in the film seem ruefully sympathetic. But it was also the police who lawfully killed Mr. Duggan.
His death was a tremendous shock Britain. Police here as a rule do not carry weapons; and specialist weapons officers generally only get involved when there is an active and imminent threat, as when Mark Saunders was shot dead in Chelsea — one of the wealthiest places in the country — in 2008. But of course Mr. Duggan was mixed-race and — as the lawful killing of Jean-Charles de Menezes proved — police in this country do not give people of color the benefit of the doubt. And that’s not even thinking about the awful news and unbearable footage coming out of different parts of America this week. In Britain, times have moved on since black men could expect to be stopped by the police multiple times a day, and when the Metropolitan Police were found to be institutionally racist in their dealings with the family of Stephen Lawrence, but not by much — there is an unhappy and continuing history here of people of color in custody being beaten to death, or denied medical treatment, or restrained in a way that they cannot breathe.
But the horror of the shooting of Mr. Duggan was on another level, and the state was not prepared for the strength of the reaction to it and how that reaction spiraled out of control. The violence which followed for several days across the country was mainly crimes against property, and when it became clear that it had led to some deaths it stopped almost immediately. That was not what was supposed to happen. Mr. Duggan’s death was a flash point that turned into a show of anger and destruction by the dispossessed, who felt that the lack of value placed on Mr. Duggan’s life showed how little their lives were valued, too. The system came down hard and the cleanup was swift, but five years later not much has changed. The British government still treats a large part of its population as disposable, and its bitterly contested austerity measures are designed to punish people for crimes such as having an extra bedroom in their state-subsidised home or having a job on a zero-hour contract which does not guarantee them a specific weekly income.
But this is not a context that the film provides. It focuses almost totally on Broadwater Farm, a housing estate (the British name for Section 8 housing, which is not nearly as stigmatized here as it is in the United States) in an area of Tottenham, north London that has been predominantly black for the past 40 or so years. In the mid-1980s, there was a notorious riot on Broadwater Farm during which a policeman was brutally murdered, and those murderers have never been brought to justice. The legacy of this crime and its impact on that part of London is discussed in some detail. But that’s the only context we get. It is a significant weakness of the film that Mr. Amponsah chose not to make the subtexts around the shootings, the riots and the aftermath explicit. There are two credited cinematographers, but it’s impossible to imagine this was made with a large crew. We are meant to extrapolate everything from the lived experience of Mr. Henville and Mr. Knox-Hooke, which might be fine if you are from their patch and you know the history, but those are pretty big provincial assumptions. There’s no wider analysis of those subtexts for anyone else in the world. There is no discussion of race, racism and its effects in London as a whole, much less across Britain.
In a further strange decision, since these men were chosen as the documentary subjects due to their relationships with Mr. Duggan, there is very little about Mr. Duggan himself. He was clearly involved in criminal activities beyond his convictions for handling stolen goods and the failure to acknowledge that honestly only gives the sense that there is something bigger to hide. And in another major failing, this documentary fails utterly to engage with any women. Those that do feature, such as Mr. Henville’s wife and Mr. Duggan’s widow and mother, are shown only in passing, usually with a child on the hip. All of these choices are extremely frustrating.
“Fruitvale Station” — another movie about a shooting of a black man by the police in front of witnesses — fell into none of these traps. But that film was fictional, it made clever use of flashbacks and characterizations to give depth to all the different sides of Oscar Grant’s life; and Ryan Coogler is the smartest new director in Hollywood. To hold up “The Hard Stop” in comparison is unkind, but comparing the two shows how much a good director can bring to a project.
On the other hand, it is extremely unusual to see men like Mr. Knox-Hooke and Mr. Henville on-screen, much less speaking for themselves. Britain’s elites are not interested in ensuring diverse representation in their systems, not even how the United States tries to. Whether on television programs, in the political area or in the corporate boardroom, whom you know is generally more important than what you can do, and there is embarrassingly little will to change that. So the fact that “The Hard Stop” exists is a good thing, but it’s regrettable it missed several obvious opportunities to be a better work of art.
Right now the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining traction in the United States, as it should — the recent shootings by police that were captured on film have shocked the world. And while there have been solidarity protests in London this week and there is similar concern here about how people of color are treated by the judicial system, it’s important to remember the nations are not the same; the history is not the same, and the consequences differ also. That is said without ever forgetting that the deaths are the same. A life is violently cut short by people meant to serve the public; children are left to grow up without their fathers, and the racism that is a crucial factor is pretended not to exist. If this documentary had the answer to that, it would be something great. But if enough people see this movie and stand witness to the lives it represents, we might have an easier time ending this kind of violence.