Docu-drama exploring one former police officer's experience of being both victim and perpetrator of racism in the police force.
Listening to Gamal Turawa’s story is a uniquely unsettling experience. Britain’s post-Windrush history is well documented but seeing it presented on a micro level and its effect on a young and vulnerable black boy at an incredibly intolerant time is as heartbreaking as it is horrifying.
Director Cherish Oteka applies a vintage visualisation to Gamal’s aural history. A combination of archival footage, sequences of Gamal watching projected film reels and meticulously constructed recreations of his often-painful memories place us firmly on a journey that is both deeply personal and incredibly significant to Britain’s culture and history. In as much as this is an accounting of how deep the roots of racism run in Britain’s policing, particularly in London’s Metropolitan Police Force, this is also a painful examination of the effect of cultural isolation on a young black mind.
Gamal’s description of growing up in a predominantly white environment where the police were your friends followed by his introduction to his black identity at the hands of a policeman telling him to “fuck off you little black bastard” comes to define his identity as a black man. This is the first in a one-two punch, which ends in another seminal moment, in which Gamal decides he wants to become a police officer after watching a black policeman direct traffic. The confluence of Gamal’s testimony, the grainy recreation footage and the almost ethereal lighting and music create a powerful character moment. Given where we are told in advance this journey goes, this powerful moment of decision carries a substantial amount of foreboding.
When the inevitable horror stories begin, they are sadly more psychologically distressing than feared (for both narrator and audience). This is due mainly to the fact that Gamal is often a willing participant in his own degradation. The lengths to which he feels he must go to be accepted by his white peers leads to some truly haunting accounts and imagery. Cherish Oteka makes the wise decision to punctuate these moments with silence, letting us sit in each revelation and feel every painful second.
As the story progresses from Gamal’s attempts to be accepted socially, the proverbial plot thickens as he begins to describe how his quest for acceptance intersected with official police practice and policy. An unholy twisting of the often-used adage among ethnic minorities that they have to work twice as hard to get half as far as their white peers occurs when Gamal applies this logic to stops and searches.
The film also takes time to examine Gamal’s sexuality, once again framing it in the social order of the day. As the story leans into Gamal belittling his sexual identity as a gay man in the same way that he belittles his racial identity as a black man, we begin to understand how thoroughly and completely he has been damaged. We are once again given glimpses into how openly hostile British society was toward homosexuality and some insight is provided into the kind of damage done to those who felt forced to hide this fundamental part of themselves.
This particular chapter of Gamal’s life is introduced relatively late on, but its presence reinforces the key theme of identity. Not racial or sexual identity, but the very essence of who we are and how we define ourselves on our own terms. Gamal is forced to reckon with this as he faces a changing world and these two marginalised groups to which he belongs push back against the structures that have othered them. This divergence of Gamal’s survival strategies and society’s norms reveals the genius in Oteka’s directorial and visual style. Oteka knows when to apply the flair of a vintage visual style and when to simply let Gamal tell his story straight to camera. Both methods are powerful, but Oteka is able to discern the most effective balance of the two, often to jaw-dropping effect.
A big part of the genius of this film is its ability to help us feel (in as much as is possible) the same pain and shame that Gamal feels. The film goes out of its way to highlight that becoming a police officer was a calling for Gamal. Of all the decisions he makes in his early life, his decision to become a police officer is the only one that seems to stem from his own intrinsic values and spirit of aspiration. Almost every other action seems in some way driven by what he feels is a necessity for, as he puts it, ‘survival’. The film is also devastatingly efficient in establishing the cost of diminishing yourself in order to follow that calling. It pulls no punches in showing that no matter how determined or stoic a person may be, everyone has a breaking point for constant abuse, especially when they are one of the perpetrators of it.
The Black Cop is an uncomfortable examination into contemporary British social history through the eyes of one of its truly tragic victims. That one of those victims felt it necessary to become a part of the monstrous toxicity of the time simply makes it all the more tragic. Interestingly, the film also reminds us of the inevitability of change and society’s propensity to steer ultimately towards justice. While this is a good thing in and of itself, it is also a reminder that we will have to answer for our adherence to that which is morally wrong and ultimately damaging, even if it was a necessary part of survival at the time.
Boasting an impactful visual style and a hard-hitting narrative journey, this BAFTA-winning short documentary is a must-watch.
Studio: Guardian Films/Empress Films | Year: 2021 | Genre: Documentary | Duration: 24 Mins | Suitability: Mature
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