For his feature directorial debut Black Cop, Canadian director, writer, and actor Cory Bowles (best known for his comedic work on Trailer Park Boys) holds nothing back and lets loose a scathing, terrifying satire about racial profiling that’s appropriately thoughtful and squirm inducing in equal measure. Deeply indebted on a thematic and visual level to the works of Spike Lee, John Singleton, Abel Ferrara, and Stanley Kubrick, Bowles’ Black Cop is a purposefully confrontational gauntlet thrown in the direction of anyone who foolheartedly espouses the virtues of a “post racial” society in North America. Although Bowles is pulling from a wide ranging number of racial and political injustices committed against people of colour from recent memory, this story of a rogue black officer turning the tables on racist culture is so smartly written and mounted that the dialogues surrounding it will continue beyond the obvious surface level satirical jabs. Black Cop needs a confident, strong hand to succeed, and Bowles’ film is one of the most assured Canadian debut features of recent memory.
Ronnie Rowe Jr. delivers a bold, commanding leading performance as the titular, unnamed black cop: a less than stellar, openly crooked police officer who doesn’t fit in anywhere because of his race. In an age where “black lives matter,” the officer is repeatedly told by members of the black community that his silent presence on the other side of the barricades makes him complacent in racial injustices and profiling committed by his employers. The officer himself is initially one of those people who refuses to take race into account, gleefully referring to himself in one of his many direct addresses to the viewer as “The Boogeyman,” and that he’s just as prone to roughing up a black person as he is a white person. He repeatedly reminds us through his narration that he has a list of reasons why he wanted to become a cop, but all of them are clichéd.
But something snaps inside of the officer when he’s stopped outside a convenience store by a pair of white cops while he’s off duty. His treatment as a potentially hostile threat awakens something inside of him, and the officer heads out for patrol the following morning believing this to be his “retirement day.” Instead of doing his job as he normally would, the officer starts profiling white people as potential criminal suspects in the same way black people are targeted and treated. If a call comes in about a “male in a hoodie” suspected of assault, the first person he’ll find is a white one. If there’s a call about someone joy riding in an SUV, any SUV is fair game. And woe betide anyone who dares to question or confront the officer’s authority in any way, as he has no hesitation in resorting to violent force.
Black Cop is the work of someone who’s not only pissed off at the broken state of policing, but also someone who has studied what it takes to make the greatest of bleak satires. Bowles’ story is a work of potency and timeliness, but also a crash course in film history. The idea of an already less than exemplary police officer is a clever reworking of Bad Lieutenant. When trying to make a film that’s as amoral and politically loaded as possible, there are few people better to turn to than Ferrara. Similarly, there’s only one character that seems willing to stop the rampage of the black cop: a conflicted, rookie, black, female officer played smartly by Sophia Walker as a woman with tenuous power, little agency, and strong sense of morality that will be put to the test. She’s not in much of the film, so Bowles, like Ferrara, makes sure the viewer is locked into Rowe’s cycle of bad behaviour with as few escapes from it as possible.
Visually, there’s assuredly something Kubrickian about Bowles’ approach, but one has been modified for a greater social purpose. Watching Rowe’s officer violently cut a swath through his city often means that Bowles will transition between dashboard cameras, body cameras, and cell phone videos capturing the violent acts from a distance. The rampage depicted in Black Cop is a bit like watching A Clockwork Orange playing out in reverse, but one where the droogs used more modern technology to capture their dirty deeds. Each of the black cop’s violent acts are shown to the audience in the exact same way that similar images and injustices are broadcast to the public on the evening news every night. It’s a savvy, confrontational, and visually metaphorical storytelling gambit that underlines the immediacy of the story brilliantly.
The direct address segments from Rowe to the audience brings about the comparisons to Lee and Singleton, most notably in a moment where the officer gleefully goes into full-on Bamboozled-mode and starts shucking and jiving in an old timey musical number. That comparison is further reinforced by the back drop of a black oriented talk radio broadcast that’s Rowe’s officer often finds himself tuned into. It’s a playful film that’s not afraid to get a little weird or purposefully get in the face of the viewer to make a point. Bowles’ knows that Black Cop is an obvious metaphor and satire to some degree, but he’s never afraid to remind the viewer of why anger has to be obvious and devoid of sugar coating. For many, Black Cop will give the viewer exactly what they’re looking for in such material. For others, it will give them more than they expected. And some will get more than they can handle, but those are the people who should be paying the closest attention. Bowles’ use of direct address showcases how a film about the nature of offense can’t be made without potentially offending.
But as outlandish as it might seem that someone committing as many treacherous acts as Rowe’s lead antagonist wouldn’t get caught at some point during his work day, what Bowles has crafted is an impeccable look at human nature and our provoked responses to aggression. Through this journey, Bowles seeks to show viewers how everyone will react the same when cornered, confused, and scared, and that black people shouldn’t be vilified for standing up when their civil liberties are being trampled upon. White fears and the fears of people of colour are very similar on a psychological level, but white people never experience nearly the level of fear that people of colour live with on a daily basis. It’s a message that comes through with the force of a sledgehammer battering drywall into dust repeatedly, but sometimes it takes a large hammer to get the job done.
Satires, by nature, aren’t meant to be subtle, or even all that funny, but Bowles has imbued his messages with enough small touches that Black Cop almost defies such a classification. It’s a righteous work of anger and heartache cleverly disguised as an amoral thriller. Bowles probably knows that many who see Black Cop will miss the point entirely or misconstrue what’s trying to be said, and the film invites push-back in any and all forms. Some will view the film as a descent into hell, but those tuned into Bowles’ wavelength already know that hell is already here for many people of colour. Black Cop isn’t an understated film, but it’s power can’t be underestimated as a result.
Black Cop opens in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax, Calgary, and Winnipeg on Friday, June 1, 2018. It will be available exclusively on iTunes on June 5, and arrives on VOD platforms June 19.
Check out the trailer for Black Cop: