Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

Roman J Israel 2

Every weapon is a tool if you hold it the right way. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system. Denzel Washington stars as a driven, idealistic defence attorney whose life is upended when his mentor, civil rights icon William Jackson, dies after being in a permanent vegetative state following a heart attack.  Roman has been the backroom boy, a kind of savant talent unaccustomed to the rough and tumble of the courtroom where he immediately gets cited for contempt. He desperately needs money having no recourse to compensation for job loss.  He is recruited to join a firm led by one of the legendary man’s former students – the ambitious George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – and begins a friendship with Maya (Carmen Ejogo) a young champion of equal rights at a community centre but his old-fashioned views drive him out of an activists’ meeting. He is assigned to a case to defend a young black man who apparently assisted a man in the murder of a store worker. Roman receives privileged information about the shooter. What he does with that information turns his life upside down, triggering a turbulent series of events that put the activism that has defined his career to the test... What a freak. Admittedly while being a fan of the hugely talented Dan Gilroy this was a project I was half-dreading. The prospect of the great Denzel in a Black Panther  ‘fro, doing a quasi-autistic act put me right off:  it seemed like an actual throwback, the good guy against The Man. Indeed, his former employer is a hero to the civil rights movement which places this neatly in a time warp. However, from the Gil Scott-Heron soundtrack, literally permitting us entry into Roman’s brain, iPod permanently clamped to his head, this (eventually) sidesteps neatly around expectations in an LA-style shuffle.  It shifts at the midpoint sequence, when Roman takes his newly acquired money and treats himself first to maple turkey donuts (OMG) at the beach and buys some decent suits and Italian shoes to fit into the sleek new workplace. And then he gets a case that turns everything around and that buzzing in his ears isn’t interference, it’s the sound of justifiable paranoia due to inexplicable ethical failure. This is a different kind of LA-based alienation (and conscience) than that explored by Gilroy in Nightcrawler but when it ultimately gains traction (and it takes its sweet time) it’s hard not to like. The bigger plot point is one that is barely dealt with:  his lifelong class action project to defeat the plea bargaining scam that sees disproportionate numbers of black men in prison. Good construction, subtly pitting Roman Vs. George in the final third (and then against himself, in a neat legal argument) makes this a compelling protagonist-antagonist drama with a rather pleasing twist to a story that questions how far idealism can last in a world driven by the need to survive and the guilt that sometimes follows the money, no matter how badly it’s needed. How Roman changes George is the whole point in a strange character study that has echoes of the terrific Michael Tolkin screenplay for Changing Lanes;  how George’s bad guy persona infiltrates Roman’s value system is a sinister aspect defeated by the film’s conclusion which has it both ways.  I am the defendant and the plaintiff simultaneously. I know you get it!

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Detroit (2017)

Detroit theatrical.jpg

I’m still so 1997 I thought Kathryn Bigelow was making a film about Kent State, which I at least knew about. Instead, it appears she and writer Mark Boal teamed up again to make another political film, this time about the race riots in Detroit in July 1967 and an incident of astonishing police brutality in the Algiers Motel during which three innocent black men were murdered and a handful more were beaten to a pulp. Adapted from witness testimony, this isn’t quite biographical but attempts to be factual and realistic. When the police break up a party for returning Nam vets in an illegal after-hours venue the black community responds by firing at them, looting stores and rioting leading to a city-wide curfew. You gotta agree with the councillor who asks an assembled crowd why they feel compelled to burn down their own property. And therein lieth the problem, at least at the beginning. This is a most unreasonable riot. Out of context. Then a bunch of cracker cops led by Krauss (Will Poulter) open fire on looters and he chases one, shooting him in the back. Back at the PD, they can’t decide to prefer murder charges against him so he and his compadres Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor, looking particularly gormless, like Dougal in Father Ted) are let back on the streets where the Army and the National Guard are swarming, taking potshots at perceived sniper fire. Dismukes (John Boyega) is security at a grocery store and when he saves a black kid from the Army he earns the title Uncle Tom.  A new doo-wop band in town The Dramatics are about to go onstage when their showcase is shut down and one of them, Larry (Algee Smith) takes refuge at the Algiers with Fred (Jacob Latimore) where they befriend two white girls hanging out at the pool. One of the girls’ black friends Carl (Jason Mitchell) is also holed up at the motel’s annex and he fires a starter pistol.  It brings the cracker cops down on them with Dismukes attending the scene to try to prevent any violence but Krauss has already shot Carl in the back. Their interrogation technique involves pretending to shoot the men one by one as they separate them from the group in an attempt to get them to reveal the whereabouts of the non-existent rifle and a soldier Dismukes brought coffee joins in the party … This is more impressive the longer it goes on, but it does go on. And on.  It starts problematically and the characterisation is in many ways too on-the-nose if not stereotypical but the revelation of systemic corruption, the decision of the eventual trial jury (it all seems like a preview of coming OJ attractions in reverse) and the racism inherent in society so overwhelming that even without knowing the conclusion (included in a text over real-life photographs) we figure it out for ourselves and it’s finally wearying. The persona of Dismukes seems deployed to present a good – if stupid – black man:  he’s predictably identified as a perpetrator for the police in a lineup despite having protected the white girl in question. Maybe it’s true but it doesn’t ring right for this dramatic purpose. The overlength (and underwritten) sequence of mind-numbing violence in the annex doesn’t help. It feels like it’s straight out of a seventies exploitationer, particularly in the shots of Flynn, sweating out his hatred before applying the butt of his gun to another black man’s head. Perhaps it’s a story that needed to be told but it’s unbalanced. There simply isn’t enough drama to portray a story of innocent people caught up in something that – as presented here – was woefully avoidable in a context that is under-explained. This is a failure of screenwriting, with the lingering suspicion that a true depiction of a police conspiracy, social destruction and legal corruption was literally beyond the pale. What a pity.