If I were one of those hackish ’90s screenwriters in Robert Altman’s The Player, my pitch of Black and Blue to the coked-up executive du jour would simply be “It’s Training Day meets The Hate U Give.” Just like Denzel’s unofficial Oscar reel from 2001, Black and Blue is about an idealistic rookie cop named Alicia (Naomie Harris) coming across violent police corruption and struggling to survive the day as she’s being hunted by both the crooked cops and residents of the astronomically underprivileged neighborhood she patrols, who understandably hate her guts simply because of her job and the race-based brutality it represents. From that end, it’s a pulse-pounding, tightly wound thriller that sticks its predictable but nevertheless effective ending in order to provide a satisfying genre retread.
What elevates the material and gives it social immediacy is in the way screenwriter Peter A. Dowling meticulously provides a structural balance that deftly explores the deep fear and distrust communities of color feel toward those who are meant to protect and serve them, while never forgetting to gradually dial up the tension and the stakes for our Hitchcockian “wrong place at the wrong time” protagonist. Like Starr from The Hate U Give, Alicia yearns to find common ground and be part of the change that both communities desperately need—to hold bad cops accountable and rebuild trust between the community and the good cops who actually put their lives on the line in service of justice. Like Starr, she’s consistently punished for approaching both sides not as archetypal boogeymen, but as people.
The first time we meet Alicia, she’s harassed by two white policemen who immediately go for that super-non-racist cliché of “What are you doing in my neighborhood?” It’s only when they realize she’s a cop that they let go. So we’re left to wonder: What would have been the outcome if she didn’t have that badge on her? Would she have survived the altercation? Director Deon Taylor doesn’t even let the opening credits finish before cutting to this scene, as if to underline the urgency of the issue. Once Alicia gets to her job after being harassed by her colleagues, she finds herself on the other side of the fence, the focus of disdainful and suspicious looks in the poor New Orleans neighborhood she patrols. Despite a unique understanding of what they’re going through, and efforts to inject a modicum of trust and good faith into this broken relationship, she is met with both dehumanization and ridicule. Both sides tell her, either through clear body language or admittedly on-the-nose dialogue, you’re either blue, or you’re black. There isn’t any gray area.
After Alicia witnesses some bad cops led by corrupt narcotics officer Terry (Frank Grillo) executing drug dealers they’re in business with in order to tie up loose ends—and records it with her bodycam—the script immediately switches into one of those simple “get from point A to point B” thrillers where the bad cops have to kill Alicia before she can make it back to the precinct. (Let’s take a moment to appreciate Grillo, whose rugged intensity might have made him an action star 20 years ago, when Hollywood still pumped out hard-R, mid-budget fare.) For a good thriller premise to take off, you need a clear McGuffin, a clear goal for the protagonist, and a clear conflict. In Black and Blue, all this is established economically by the time we get to the first act break.
There are a few times when the script follows in Training Day’s footsteps a bit too closely—considering the scene where the protagonist is pushed into a bathtub and has to frantically express innocence, as a gangster manipulated by the crooked cop main antagonist is about to execute them with a gun, it’s hard not to make comparisons. But Taylor’s gritty and fairly realistic execution of action set pieces avoids quick-cutting and shaky-cam, and Dowling’s focus on the story’s thematic urgency manages to help Black and Blue stand on its own.
Anyone who saw Harris’ heartbreakingly raw performance in Moonlight will not be surprised that she carries this starring vehicle. Some of the socially relevant monologues may be a bit on the nose, but at least Harris sells them with conviction. Most Hollywood productions shot in New Orleans focus on the city’s jubilant reputation. Michael Mann’s go-to DP Dante Spinotti creates a blue-tinted, cold and grimy world full of pain and distrust, as if the city still suffers from a gaping wound that won’t close anytime soon. As a result, Black and Blue is the perfect choice for those looking to add an exciting new thriller to their viewing queue.
Director: Deon Taylor
Writer: Peter A. Dowling
Starring: Naomie Harris, Tyrese Gibson, Frank Grillo, Mike Colter, Reid Scott, Nafessa Williams
Release Date: October 25, 2019
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.