Canadian writer-director Cory Bowles talks about his debut feature, Black Cop

by Andrew Parker

Haligonian director, actor, and screenwriter Cory Bowles isn’t afraid to reinvent himself. He’s also unafraid to speak his mind. With his debut directorial feature film Black Cop (now playing at select Cineplex locations across Canada), the performer best known for his more comedic, recurring turn on the sitcom Trailer Park Boys has accomplished both tasks as vibrantly and pointedly as possible.

Sparked on by the current state of race relations in North America, Bowles took to the streets of Halifax to tell the story of an unnamed, immoral, righteously angry, and black police officer, played chillingly by Ronnie Rowe Jr. This black cop was never a great person to begin with, prone to corruption and profiling techniques in line with his lighter skinned colleagues. But after an off duty incident where he’s stopped outside of a convenience store simply because he was black and wearing a hooded sweatshirt, something snaps inside of his already conflicted brain. Suddenly sick of how the police treat black people, the black cop sets about his “retirement day,” profiling, pulling over, and in some cases outright assaulting white people in the same ways that black people are treated.

It’s a politically, racially, and morally loaded tale for the modern era, and while Bowles admits he was initially nervous to get so topical with his first feature screenplay, he also clearly relished that chance to talk about all the issues raised within Black Cop without compromise. Based on his own 2016 short of the same name, Black Cop is not only a massive departure from the character actor appearances people might recognize Bowles from, but it’s also one of the most confident, assured, and effectively confrontational Canadian films in quite some time.

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Bowles last week on a swing through Toronto to talk about how his film subverts audience expectations, his use of familiar technology that’s seen almost nightly on the news, his personal connection to the material, how his film can function as a metaphor for social media, and much more.

There’s usually this disconnect between creating something timely and actually getting the money to get something like Black Cop made. I know that you made it as a short first and that you had the idea for this for quite some time, but how hard was it to find people who generally shared your vision of what this movie needed to be?

Cory Bowles: Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard, because I basically only shared it with people that I really trusted. It was funded, of course, through the [Telefilm] Microbudget Program, which is now the Talent to Watch Program, and I had pitched it before, but it was often swept past, and it was sort of one of those things that I kept kind of close to me otherwise.

A film like this takes a lot of confidence in the material and the cast. In terms of sharing it only with the people closest to you, did it help to boost the confidence you needed to make a film that doesn’t hold back in any respects?

Cory Bowles

Cory Bowles: Yeah, especially because I know that my stories could go in any number of directions depending on how I tell them. Originally it was going in so many different places that I feel like the close team around me and the few outside eyes that saw it were able to help immensely in terms of making sure the points the film needs to make come across. I’ve always trusted that form of storytelling.

Sometimes when you write a script, you’ll have readers that will give you feedback, and sometimes they’ll hold up their own set of stencils to it and hope that it conforms to what they think a film like this should be, and that isn’t always the most constructive way of handling a story like the one we’re trying to tell here. One of the first and best people who gave me the best and most constructive comments was actually Nelson MacDonald, who produced Werewolf, and he always seemed to know where I was going in the first place. His feedback was always very minimal, but so detailed that it was really invaluable to me that early in the process.

And it’s funny that you say that it’s a confidence thing, because I would say that I just trusted the material more than I was confident that I could do it. (laughs) I was pretty scared, actually, but I knew this was how I had to write it and make it. I wrote it really fast, and I think mostly everyone who saw the script wanted to see where it was going to go. I started showing the script to people after the first draft was done, and I only did a handful of changes from there, which is weird if you think about it. (laughs)

Visually, the film makes use of a lot of technology that many people will immediately recognize from how people have seen police brutality incidents on the evening news and recontextualzes them. Many of the rogue cop’s dirty deeds are captured on either a body camera, a dashboard camera in his cruiser, or from the cell phone of a passerby. How did you plot these sequences out, and when did you know to utilize these formats throughout every scene?

Cory Bowles: I wrote it all in the script. I wrote the perspective and the cuts into the script, whether we were shifting from body-cam to dashboard, or whatever. The main time something like that would change would depend on where that footage was, because when it came to the dashboard and the body camera, Ronnie was basically the lead and the director of photography. At first, a lot of these scenes I only wanted to be told from one of these perspectives, and I didn’t want to cut between them. But then my cinematographer told me that we really should get all the coverage we can, and ultimately he was absolutely right.

A lot of times we say that a film would re-write itself in the editing room, but here we really had to stay the course. I was getting swept up completely with the narrative and performative aspects of the shoot, so the visual aspect was always the hardest challenge for me. It wasn’t too hard, but I wanted to do all these things, and eventually I realized that there was a specific reason for everything and that I had to reign it in.

There was a lot more planning than we expected. We had to make sure everything was on at all times. There were times when things were so real and visceral for us while we were shooting in all these styles, and sometimes I would get shaken, and ask if the cast was okay, and then as soon as we were clear everyone could be all smiles again. (laughs) That was always a relief because it allows you to decompress for a moment over what you just saw.

But it was also challenging because if we weren’t shooting with a regular camera, and it was just the body camera or a cell phone, there was no other crew there, and we were basically all off somewhere else and hidden watching that footage. But cars and the public are seeing it, and you’ll often find people slowing down or speeding away from what we were doing. The whole technical aspect of it was so fascinating.

When we shot the short in the same way, we did have the cops called on us a few times because they thought something very real was going down. For this one, we were smart enough to let the cops know well ahead of time that we were making a movie. (laughs) Everyone in town knew this time.

You’re making this film while the Black Lives Matter movement is not only growing, but also evolving into something greater and becoming impossible to ignore. When you’re making something that’s so closely tied to what’s going on in the world around you, how many times during the writing and shooting process did you feel the need to enhance and update the material as you went along? Was there ever a moment where something happened in the outside world that impacted the film in ways you didn’t expect?

Cory Bowles: We pretty much stuck to what we had. It felt like everything that was going on was something we were touching on already. It was almost frustrating that in the year we were making it – I had written it in March and gotten the green light in June – there were two other major incidents that happened where we didn’t have to do any tweaks to include talking about them.

There was only one real section where I think we changed something. There’s an interview section with Ronnie where it was initially written as being really theatrical and over-the-top, and I forget what happened, but it was a really tough day emotionally for all of us, so instead of doing this elaborate performance piece, we just put him under a light and just had a chat. That felt more important in that moment because on that day we were all wondering what it was we were trying to say. We knew what we wanted to say, but the conversations we were going to put into the film were ones we ended up having all on set, and we made a scene from it. It was tough, but in moments like that you just have to trust your emotions and the emotions of the people around you. When shit is going on where you just throw up your hands in horror and think, “Yeah, sadly we’re already talking about this, and we’re still going to have to keep talking about this,” that can be tough.

I wrote a scene where someone gets stopped for jaywalking, and it turns violent, and then in actually happened in the real world. Sometimes you want to say that you can’t write this shit, but you look out there and see that it just happened.

No one can make a film like this without having a personal connection to the material in some way. I read that your father was black, and the main character of the film always talks about how his father helped influence his decision to become a cop. For you, outside of being black, how far back can you trace your connection to the material?

Cory Bowles: Actually, both of my parents are black. We’re just super light skinned on one side. My father was just a lot blacker. But I’ve always faced this kind of duality. In my community, sometimes I would feel like I wasn’t black enough, and other times I would feel like I was being treated as if I were too black. It kinda drives you mad. Growing up I would always see these things that I realize are absurd now, but at the time I just thought they were normal. We’d always be taunted and harassed in the community for different reasons.

I always like telling this story of how I became this really cantankerous dude at one point. I was living across the street from Dalhousie University, and it was around the time that they banned students from smoking in front of the residences, so they would come across the street and they’d be smoking in front of my house. So one night, they were on the sidewalk in front of my house, and for some reason they were freaking out, and I called the cops. My brother was there with me, and he’s a much darker and bigger man than I am. The second I went out to see the cops, the first thing they did was scream at me and told me to take my hands out of my pockets. They told me to keep my mouth shut and turn around. I was the first person they came up to, but I was the person who called them in the first place. It wasn’t the first time something like that happened to myself or my family, though. That’s just an example of a Tuesday.

In my community, I went after everyone: teachers, guidance counselors, you name it. There’s one story in the film that the cop tells about being in school that’s 100% my story. I got suspended for fighting in school, but I was only fighting because I was being racially taunted, and people didn’t know how to deal with that back then. If I were in the movie, I’d be one of the protestors yelling at the cop. But I thought about what I would say if I were in the opposite position. What would I want them to know about me? Then you start thinking about how everything is just so gray. Living in that gray area is just such a huge part of my life. Even my career path has been involved with that gray area. When some people out there first heard that I was going to make a movie like this, they thought it was peculiar and that it didn’t represent who they thought I was.

Within our community of filmmakers, you’re often expected to always tell certain kinds of stories. Where I was growing up in Halifax, there’s this thing called the “gospel genre.” People always wanted “the black experience” and it always had to be in a church, there had to be a choir, it had to be uplifting, and there had to be a huge family element to it. It was always about persevering, and I always felt that there was so much more to “the black experience” than that. It’s not that those kinds of movies are a cop-out, but there are so many more serious things that films directed at a black audience could be talking about.

Then on the other hand, you get plenty of people who roll their eyes when someone says something like that, and they’re thinking, “Oh, no, not another racial story.” It’s not like everyone gets up in arms and starts saying, “Oh, no, not another cowboy story” or “not another police story.” Race is part of our lives. And it was nice to break out of that cycle, but it comes with a lot of frustrations.

I remember pitching certain stories to certain companies in this country, and I remember many of them saying at the time that they weren’t into the quote-unquote racial kinds of movies, but the second that Ferguson happened they were suddenly interested again. And then you just think, “Well, you’re not getting my shit now.”

One of the things the film taps into brilliantly is not only this concept of misplaced white panic, but how you flip that. You take very recognizable moments from recent history that we know black people have been involved with – like traffic stops, being profiled on the street for what they’re wearing – and place white people in the same shoes, which just goes to show that when someone is cornered, confused, and scared that we all react the same way regardless of our skin colour. How important was that for you to show?

Cory Bowles: The whole concept of the movie was basically built around that hook. You always hear people talking about how if roles were reversed in situations like that, things would have turned out differently, but there’s no better way to refute that kind of thinking than to just show what happens. That was really important to me.

But I also realized while watching the actors that were so good in these situations that the responses were just so natural. These actors were willing to take it so far, but they also took into account the skin colour of the officer they were talking to. They really helped me hit what I wanted to show the viewers in those scenes. I owe so much thanks to them.

And in a lot of ways, showing white people in these same situations is all about understanding and fostering empathy. In a lot of ways, this is kind of a reaction to what you get on social media. Sometimes people claim to have all the answers without having a handle on what the bigger issues are. In some cases, when these people see themselves reflected in what’s happening on screen, maybe it will make them think twice and think, “Shit, this makes me feel terrible.”

I remember someone saying to me that they were really into the movie until one specific scene in the film where the cop does something so hideous that they lost all empathy for him. And I said, “Good. You shouldn’t be empathizing with him at all.” I hope you lost that empathy for him well before that. Even before all of this happens on the day when he snaps, we’ve established that this guy was never a good person. He’s just suddenly a bad person with power and a righteous streak. Another person with that same scene didn’t think it would have happened like that and that they couldn’t believe it, but in reality it’s based directly on something that has happened four times before – to black people – and it has been documented. I’m just recreating something that has happened four times.

All this kind of boils down through these multiple layers to make a point about how that much unchecked power, that much fear, and that much anger really messes you up. This is another story that I tell to a lot of people, but it’s totally relevant:

On two separate days, we had actual police officers come to set to consult. For the day we shot the racial profiling scene, we had a black officer who was well known. He had worked for twenty or thirty years in the community, and he worked hard within it. He was the type of guy who would go door-to-door, even if it was someone he previously arrested, just to check in on them and see how they were doing. He knew what kind of flack we would probably get from making a film like this, but he knew where it was coming from and thought that we were on the right track. That felt great.

Then on the day when we shot the sequence where the cop stops a doctor out for his morning run, we had a young, white officer who wasn’t from the community at all. He was fresh out of the academy and new on the job. He was so new that he was still trying to impress all the women on set with how quickly he could twirl his baton and how he could show you how to take someone down with one hand. He was talking about how much he wanted to be a part of S.W.A.T. because they’re more weaponized, and he said he wanted to get moved into the North end because she said “that’s where all the action is.” And I was, like, “what action? I’m from the North end.” So the first thing I see in this person who’s fresh out of the academy is someone going out there every day with the intent to engage, not de-escalate, not converse. He wants to be weaponized and he wants the action. If he wants that, he should have joined the military.
And you compare him to this other cop who has spent thirty years on the job and probably changed what he thinks about his job ten or twenty times since he started. What will happen to this young kid if he gets jaded or has some kind of shift in his career? Where does that kid go from here? Looking at him was like looking at fresh power. This kid didn’t strike me as a bad person, but he always struck me as someone who wanted to go where he thought “the bad people” were. He’s there smiling and being nice on set, but I’m just wondering if he saw Ronnie just walking down the street with his hood up and his headphones on in my neighbourhood if he would suspect him of something.

And both of them are the people that we pay to protect our communities. It’s such a shitty layer to think about, but these are the people we pay to not be afraid. But looking at how different they both were, that’s when I knew we were making the right movie. It blew all of our minds.

You touched on something else that I think this film brings up that goes hand in hand with the racial aspect. I think it says something about the nature of entitlement. As soon as the white people in the film are cornered by Ronnie’s character, they’re quick to hide behind something else, like saying they’re a doctor or that they demand to know everything on their own terms. Similarly, the main character is someone who gets their entitlement in the form of a badge. When you talk about race, entitlement and privilege are often two of the biggest stumbling points, so is it difficult to create something to talk about these intertwined issues within a film that has very few characters that the viewer can empathize with?

Cory Bowles: All you gotta do is this: the entire time you’re writing, spend time on social media. Just dig right in and go as far into the world of semi-anonymous, arms-length hatred as you can. It’s a place where people can say the worst things and then hide behind the privilege of a computer screen. It can fuck you right up, but you can see how people will speak impulsively and without listening because they know they can get away with it. If you do that three times a day, that will give you all you need to make a film about the nature of empathy without having many empathetic characters.

There are a lot of people out there who will have stories and reasons for why certain things happen the way they do, and those people still go home and celebrate real world things, like a high test score, a promotion at work, a successful date, their birthdays, their favourite teams winning a big game, holding a door open for someone, it doesn’t matter. But the very next moment they could be telling an immigrant who becomes a victim of violence that they shouldn’t have been in the country in the first place. It’s that disconnect that happens with the privilege and entitlement to hide behind something. It’s not hard to imagine that side of people when you just dive into it. People will punch in like it’s a job for two minutes a day just to say something to a stranger that could ruin that person’s day, week, or life, and sometimes it could be completely baseless. Like the characters in this film, these people might have moments where you agree with them, but they’ll also do incredibly hideous things because they feel somehow immune from penalty. And you have to wrestle with that.

In that respect, do you think that social media’s influence is why so many people are quick to say that they “don’t see colour” or they “don’t see race?”

Cory Bowles: I think so. Social media has become such a great shield for people, this place of virtue and righteousness where people will readily lord their own tolerance as being better than someone else’s tolerance. That just creates an echo chamber, or a wind tunnel, or whatever you want to call it. But it’s also a place where loud, angry voices dominate all the time.

And I get accused of it, too. I’m on social media, and on my Instagram in February I did “28 Days of Black History,” and I’ve never had more comments on my Instagram than I did that month, and most of it was people saying that it was wrong; saying that I was creating a divide, but really all I was doing was recounting history. So, in a way, even if I posted this history a month later, I would have still been wrong to do it. There’s no winning an argument in that environment, and it’s with people who are just waiting to turn everything into an argument.

Even saying that I was making a movie called Black Cop got me shit. “Oh, but what if I made a movie called White Cop?” There’s a movie called Black Orpheus, too. Are you fucking mad at Black Orpheus?

It’s half rose coloured, and it’s half that people don’t want to talk about it. It’s not that most people won’t talk about race, but they always want to talk about it in their own way and on their own terms, especially on social media. There’s a line in the film that I used because I heard it before and I thought it was really gross, which is that if you talk about abuse, you’re only adding to the abuse. By that logic if you’re talking about racial inequality, you’re only making racial inequality worse. If I talk about murder, does that make me a murder? Gimme a break, man.

At first as a person with a little bit of notoriety on Twitter, I would get people saying terrible things about me. At first it really bothered me, but then I kind of learned to let a lot of it slide, especially racial stuff. But that’s also an example of how things have never really changed. When you’re younger, you get this abuse from people you know. When you get older and live in a world with social media, you get it from total strangers, and often you get it from people who supposedly respect you because they like your TV show. I would often get, “I liked you until you got all ‘black’.” Well, I’ve always been black, so I guess that means you never actually liked ME. (laughs) You liked the fictional version of me. The best you can do in those situations is to just keep plowing through.

Black Cop is now playing at select Cineplex theatres in Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax, Montreal, Calgary, and Winnipeg. It will be available exclusively on iTunes starting June 5 and available on other VOD platforms starting June 19.

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