Everything about the United States of America is huge and overwhelming.
So much so, that it can even eclipse domestic concerns which affect us much more directly than our African American cousins ever could! So with all due respect to our new St. George’s Day, beginning 25h May 2020 (may Mr. George Floyd Rest in Power), since 1969, there have been over 2000 deaths in police custody in cities around the United Kingdom, making a rough average of around forty per year!
Multi-award-winning, Maltese-British activist, educator, and documentary maker Ken Fero has spent a lifetime immersed in the more unsavoury and heartbreaking aspects of our society compelled, it seems, to use the medium of film to shine its backlight on to our flaws and hope that those who could, would find a way to improve them. Fifteen years, or an average of 600 deaths, ago, his ground-breaking, universally critically acclaimed, and lauded documentary Injustice (2001) was released. Examining deaths in police custody, screening at more than 70 film festivals around the world, and at the European Parliament, where Fero also spoke, it earned multiple awards and led to the reform of investigative and legal processes relating to custodial deaths in Britain. The non-departmental public body, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) was one such reform, succeeding the Police Complaints Authority in 2004, and being succeeded by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) in 2018.
It wasn’t supposed to be a prequel.
Ultraviolence (2019) is the compelling follow up that feels like it never wanted to be made. From his opening mournfully monotonous narrative, you realise that this will be anything but an ordinary documentary experience. It is a letter to a son, passing a heavy burden through uncomfortable viewing in the extreme. Beginning with two photographs – one of a trio of white children, including Fero himself; one of a quintet of Caribbean-British children, including a classmate of his whom he never knew well, but who would one day help inspire this film – Brian Douglas. Because, the particularly public deaths of the Y2020 African Americans Mr. George Floyd, Miss Breonna Taylor, Mr. Jacob Blake, Mr. Philando Castle, and Mr. Daniel Prude, and the necessity of social media in enforcing them into almost larger-than-life beings can obscure the deaths we do not see, blind and deafen us to the absence of our loved ones who die behind closed doors… in police custody. Mr. Prude’s death is particularly twisted in its tragedy – his brother called the police to please find him and take him to a place of safety, for his own good. They took him to a lonely and undignified death, closely mirroring what Fero and writer Tariq Mehmood present to us here.
Fero directs, produces, and narrates, having gained unprecedented access to deeply shocking real-time footage, archival film, and interviews with relatives, campaigners, and representatives, to give an account of a selection of lives absorbed into the 2000 deaths which occurred in the decade between 1995 and 2005: Brian Douglas 1995, Christopher Adler 1998, Roger Sylvester 1999, Paul Coker 2005, and Jean-Charles de Menezes 2005, with additional narratives involving Nuur Saeed 2006 and Henry Foley 1985. Intimate access was granted to a variety of sources, such as encounters with families left decimated by the killings, meetings with agencies such as the IPCC who, on the surface seem set up to resolve, but then appear to have an agenda perhaps to deflect, distract and subsequently, to frustrate, the struggle for justice.
This is uncomfortable viewing in the extreme; the inhumanity and humiliation in the last, lonely earthly moments of these young men’s lives and those imagined of so many others will stay with you long after the film itself has flickered past. The cold indifference and even ignorance in the faces of the officials dealing with those seeking answers and justice may dumbfound some and perhaps not surprise others; And the deliberate ommission of almost anything from the police – perhaps symbolic of their standard wall-of-silence reaction or guilt, save for the prepared statements Fero includes towards the end.
The apologetic tone he adopts in his letter, quoting James Baldwin, Malcolm X, film makers Pier Paolo Pasolini and Wim Wenders, American writer Susan Sontag, and Mao Tse Tung, feels as though he is passing a heavy burden on to his son and his peers, not unlike the fight for the ecological survival of the planet. And it feels just as urgent. Because, Ultraviolence shows a broken system blatantly and unapologetically failing the citizens of this country, quite often the children and grandchildren of the Windrush Generation, but inclusive of more recent and hopeful immigrants, as the de Menezes killing sadly illustrates.
Fero utilises animation and an editing technique which some may lose patience with, choosing not to follow a straight timeline or any easily identifiable thread to explain why that decade, why those young men – Douglas is self-evident, but why does he jump back and forth between them? But, for me, the particular power of the piece is in his use of the women left behind. Not mothers or WAGS, but sisters! Women with another type of unique bond to these men, not too often explored on film. Women so deeply wounded and enraged whom we have, nevertheless, so often seen in mourning throughout the diaspora in relation to death in police custody. Women who take thedir rage and become activists.
These women give their accounts of receiving the news and their reactions on first seeing their brothers die on film. It is deeply, deeply moving. However, in just 75 minutes, some of the stories still feel incomplete, such as how the police become involved in the first place. Some of the young men did very little to end up in police custody. But with others, it almost seemed as if any sketchy character traits were being played down. However, if anything, Fero should have emphasised them, along with the principles of our chosen democratic system! Because, regardless of the crime or criminal, the British penal system simply does not include the death penalty. And certainly not without a duly appointed court, judge and jury of one’s peers.
If we must have a Black History Month, films like Ultraviolence and Injustice should be shown as an essential starting point in understanding the urgency felt amongst many British social movements today, and to highlight why the Civil Service does need reform (just not the Johnson-Cummings way).
Other Fero documentaries campaigning on issues of policing and human rights abuses and the resistance to them in Europe include:
- Justice Denied/Justice for Joy (1995/50minutes) – Examining the events that led to the death of illegal immigrant Joy Gardner, the public campaign that followed, and the trial of the three police officers involved in her death.
- Britain’s Black Legacy (1991/45minutes) – how black communities have been fighting in the streets and in the courts for the basic human right to live without fear of racial attack.
- Po Po (2013/25minutes) – about the death of Jason McPherson whilst in Notting Hill Police Station and the subsequent ‘investigation’ by the Independent Police Complaints Commission
- Who Polices the Police? (2012/52minutes) – examines the complicity of the IPCC in deaths in custody and the struggle of Sean Rigg’s family for justice.
- Tasting Freedom (1994/50minutes) – Follows the struggles of asylum seekers in Britain for recognition of their basic human rights and investigates abuses on, and deaths of, asylum seekers in detention centres and prisons, such as Joy Gardner.
- Germany: The Other Story (1991/30minutes) – Germany’s black and migrant communities speak out about the increasing racism in the ‘new’ unified Germany, about how the anti-immigrant policies of the state threaten them, and about how they are organising to defend their communities.
- After the Storm (1992/25minutes).
- Sweet France (1992/50minutes) about the plight of Arab communities.
Ultraviolence screened on 12th and 15th October 2020. Injustice is available on Vimeo, and there is an active petition for Channel 4 to screen it: “Channel 4 should screen ‘Injustice‘ – a film about black deaths in UK police custody“