It begins with a scene that will surely strike a chord with many African-Americans: Alicia West (Naomie Harris), out for her morning run, is pulled over by a pair of white cops, both of whom barely hesitate before roughing her up. All her protestations are dismissed and the situation seems like it’s going to get violently out of hand. Then one of the cops pulls out Alicia’s ID and discovers she’s a fellow officer, a rookie in her third week on the New Orleans police force. They let her go, but with no apology, just obnoxious justifications like “We’re looking for someone fitting your description” and “You know how it is.”
Alicia knows how it is, and the admixture of hurt and rage on her face is so powerful and provocative that you wish Black and Blue, Deon Taylor’s race-against-time cop thriller, better capitalized on it. More often, the pic — which premiered as the closing night feature at the 2019 Urbanworld Film Festival — is content to be run-of-the-mill trash, though the plot précis is quite clever and filled with possibility.
Alicia volunteers to take a night shift from her partner, Kevin (Reid Scott), during which she witnesses a triple murder committed by several of her own. She captures the whole incident on body cam and soon enough has the police force, led by the brutish undercover officer Terry Malone (Frank Grillo), as well as a group of Lower 9th Ward criminals, overseen by the vengeful Darius (Mike Colter), in pursuit. Somehow she has to get the body cam footage back to her precinct so she can upload it to the interdepartmental cloud and expose the harsh, horrible truth.
Being a black woman on the force, Alicia has few people she can trust, including the residents in the community she’s sworn to protect. Because of that blue uniform, almost everyone looks at her with disdain. Her only hope may be Mouse (Tyrese Gibson), a grocery store owner who unwittingly assists in her initial escape from Malone and his crew, then becomes her equally authority-defying and verity-seeking confidante.
There’s a tight, tense thriller in all this. Unfortunately, director Deon Taylor and screenwriter Peter A. Dowling stretch things out to a logy 104 minutes. Too often, the suspense dissipates between action scenes when it should be consistent and relentless, even in the quietest moments. It’s still apparent, however, that Taylor understands the topicality of Black and Blue. And, in concert with his two excellent leads, as well as the great cinematographer Dante Spinotti, he occasionally comes up with imagery that stings.
Early on, a cop threatens Mouse in his store at gunpoint and the fear on his face is so palpable and upsetting it suggests Gibson is drawing on some all-too-real experiences from his own life. In a later scene, when the tables finally turn in Alicia’s favor, she repeatedly bludgeons one of her pursuers in a way that evokes the Rodney King beating, though with the oppressor and victim roles reversed. Never underestimate the power of a movie star to cathartically transform the terrors of everyday life, especially for those people who know such horrors as enduring birthrights. Black and Blue would be a better film if it more consistently tapped into these perpetual anxieties and allowed them to potently suffuse the pulp fiction.
Production companies: Hidden Empire Film Group, Royal Viking Entertainment, Screen Gems
Cast: Naomie Harris, Tyrese Gibson, Frank Grillo, Mike Colter, Reid Scott, Beau Knapp, Nafessa Williams
Director: Deon Taylor
Writer: Peter A. Dowling
Music: Geoff Zanelli
Cinematographer: Dante Spinotti
Editor: Peck Prior
Producer: Sean Sorensen
Executive producers: Joshua Throne, Roxanne Taylor
Venue: Urbanworld 2019 (Spotlights)
Rated R, 104 minutes