Black and Blue, the new documentary from Daniel Avery, is a devastating reality check. Avery uses his camera to warn America that it is moving closer and closer to becoming some kind of authoritarian dystopia where those in power freely marginalize and oppress the less fortunate without consequence. It is a collage of stories involving police officers murdering innocent people, and how bureaucracy finds ways to tie up the truth and prevent true justice from being served. It may be a tough watch, but it is well worth the hour and 45 minutes Avery requires to tell you this story.
The film begins with a confusing voice message from Bobby Henning to his mother. At the time, Bobby was suffering from a mental breakdown on the side of a local highway. A passerby, Ruben Estrada, called 911 with the hopes of getting this boy safely to a hospital. Instead, the officers who arrived shot Bobby in the chest and back because he didn’t hear them when they ordered him to stay down.
This is one of many stories that Avery presents involving police officers using brutal, excessive force leading to the death of an innocent person. By the ten minute mark, the audience learns of another man who was beaten into a coma by police for resisting arrest and another who was shot to death by police as he ran to them to report a robbery because they thought he was the robber. Even more disturbing is how Black and Blue reports that the court system has acquitted all of these assaulting officers of any charges.
If Black and Blue makes you angry, it’s because it presents its argument that police officers are getting away with murder very well. Avery doesn’t just show official police reports to extract what happened in these incidents. He interviews the families of the victims and eyewitnesses to get as well rounded an account of what happened as he can. Black and Blue is structured like a university thesis paper. Avery begins the film with one incident, and each clue he reveals leads him to something else. Before you know it, he’s in different cities and states talking with private investigators or other police officers to go over these cases and offer their insights.
In true documentary fashion, Avery puts himself at the ground level, attending funerals for the victims, protests calling for greater police accountability, and even Black Lives Matter rallies. Never once does Avery admit to condoning or supporting anything that he records. Rather, he uses these stories of police brutality as the context for how emotionally riled up some of the event participants can get. It’s as if Avery is asking the audience a rhetorical question. How is it even possible to stand by and not take some form of action when innocent people are being murdered all around you by the very people who are supposed to be your protection?
If Black and Blue ends in an anti-climactic fashion, it’s because Avery knows that there is still a lot of work to be done. The film presents so many incidents like the shootings of Michael Brown and Oscar Grant that what starts as a presentation of disturbing similarities becomes an exhausting epidemic that has plagued communities all over the United States. Avery follows the parents of victims and ex-cops who are lobbying for changes in policy and greater accountability, not just through rallies like Black Lives Matter but in actual courtrooms and senate meetings. However, the amount of progress made by the film’s third act is minimal at best. It leaves the audience unsure of what the future holds for them or any potential victim of police brutality. This isn’t the film’s fault. It is the fault of the justice system for failing to represent the people.
Black and Blue is an important documentary about injustice. The film mourns the senseless loss of life at the hands of officers who are supposed to protect it. While law enforcement in general is never portrayed as wholly evil or corrupt, Avery isn’t afraid to point out how the system protects its own, especially when the victims are of marginalized stature, a visible minority, or from poverty-stricken neighbourhoods.
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Black and Blue is a confused and unsettling film for confused, unsettling times. With more than enough examples, the film isn’t afraid to ask why hasn’t anyone in the justice system done anything to hold these abusers of power accountable for their actions? By the end of the film, you will be asking the same question.
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