Forthright but dignified, British doc “The Hard Stop” grapples sincerely with the cultural context of a wave of riots that broke out across England in the summer of 2011, in the wake of the fatal police shooting of London resident Mark Duggan. In the interests of conveying and humanizing a narrative sidelined by more mainstream accounts, director George Amponsah explores his subject largely from the perspective of two of Duggan’s friends, men at the epicenter of protests that degenerated into violence. Though it premiered at Toronto, this humane account will be released locally in summer 2016, around the five-year anniversary of the original events, which should boost its audience. Enterprising U.S. distribs should also note the pic’s topicality in the post-Ferguson climate.
Like many a self-respecting sociology essay before it, “The Hard Stop” opens with a well-chosen quote from Martin Luther King Jr: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” But this maxim hasn’t been slapped on as an afterthought in the edit following a quick trawl through Wikiquotes. King’s sentiment intelligently informs and underpins the entire pic, as Amponsah proceeds to lend two particular representatives of the unheard a trustworthy ear for a period spanning around three years in their lives — dating from the approximate time of the riots up until the 2014 court hearing that cleared the officer who shot Duggan of any wrongdoing.
There is a melancholic irony to the way that the clinically macho argot of the police, CIA or military so often lends itself to the titling of films about disturbing events: “Redacted,” “Stop-Loss,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Rendition,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and now “The Hard Stop.” It’s almost as if such institutions are inexplicably keen for such terminology to grace a marquee somewhere, so cinematic are their instincts where arrestingly muscular lingo is concerned. “Hard stop” refers to a controversial practice whereby unmarked police cars box in and bring to an abrupt halt a suspicious vehicle, without any conventional warnings. This is the maneuver in which police were engaged when they shot Duggan, a 29-year old father of six whom they suspected of criminal activity. Though the incident was initially reported as a shootout, it later emerged that the only shots fired were by officers. The official account of events has changed multiple times, amid accusations of police misconduct.
Amponsah’s window into Duggan’s life up to that point, and what it could have been had he not been killed, is provided by two childhood contemporaries. As we first meet Marcus Knox-Hooke, he is facing a prison sentence for violent disorder, robbery and burglary committed during the riots that followed Duggan’s death. Kurtis Henville, meanwhile, is presented as a charismatic but impulsive reformed character, trying to sort out his life in the face of enormous indifference from prospective employers — a test of the will compounded by the easy lure of better-remunerated illegal work.
The pair are first introduced as they drive through the urban district of Tottenham, near the Broadwater Farm estate where Knox-Hooke, Henville and Duggan grew up together. It’s a neighborhood notorious for the death of a police officer during earlier riots in 1985, which were also sparked by highly controversial policing practices. Amponsah moves quickly to recap the area’s more recent troubles, using 2011 news-archive material that emphasizes the estimated $300 million property damage as violence spread across the country. To U.K. auds, the footage is familiar — and so are the assumptions and biases it contains, which tend to minimize the grievances of the disadvantaged and often demonized communities participating in the unrest.
The film maintains this mixture of local social history braided together with insightful character study, and is entirely partial while never quite straying into polemic. There is deliberately no attempt to air the police side of the story: This is a film about a particular perspective, not a court case seeking to hear all sides. Besides, the establishment narrative has already been given more than its share of cultural airtime — lest we doubt this, the film closes with a statistic stating that despite approximately 1,500 U.K. deaths following contact with the police since since 1990, not a single officer has been charged in any of these cases.
Statistics notwithstanding, Amponsah is more interested in humanizing the demographic routinely dismissed as a gangster underclass than he is in soapboxing about institutional racism or inserting himself into the picture. Call it the anti-Michael Moore approach. While the fact that criminal acts were committed during the riots is not disputed, what Amponsah and co-writer Dionne Walker (who also produces) manage with great skill is to provide a context that encourages understanding rather than a rush to judgement. They are less interested in examining the wider consequences of the violence across the country, preferring a microcosmic, personal approach with a focus on the specific culture of Tottenham (which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country), from which we are invited to draw our own more broadly applicable conclusions.
Some will wish for more female perspective, given that the issues faced here are not uniquely the problems of young men, but rather of whole communities; about 95% of what we hear is uttered by male lips. Duggan’s female relatives are particularly compelling during their brief screen time; perhaps they were unwilling to appear for longer, or the filmmakers maintained their sharp focus on Henville and Knox-Hooke for clarity of purpose across a well-judged 85-minute running time. It’s a length that allows plenty of room for lively post-screening Q&As of the sort that could drive sellout grassroots screenings in London, if U.K. distributor Metrodome is willing to carry out the extra legwork during theatrical. A brisk turnaround for the ancillary market would also be desirable to ensure every stage of the release benefits from the topicality of the riots’ fifth anniversary.
The pic is as technically accomplished as it needs to be. Lensing that draws overt attention to itself would have been inappropriate here; the primary task of the craft elements is to best capture Henville and Knox-Hooke’s stories and milieux, achieved with a commendable degree of unobtrusive proficiency.