Directed by Ken Fero.
A very timely and powerful look at cases of deaths in police custody in the UK.
In 2001, documentary filmmaker Ken Fero unveiled his ground-breaking, controversial movie Injustice, which told numerous stories of deaths in police custody in Britain. Almost two decades later, he’s returning to the subject with spiritual sequel Ultraviolence, which goes over some of those stories a second time, adding plenty of new ones in the process. Arriving on the festival circuit in a world still reeling from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others in the USA, the movie is as timely as it has ever been. It serves as a reminder that this is not just an American issue.
Fero structures the documentary around half a dozen chapters, referred to as “memories”, focusing on telling the story of a particular tragedy. Some are more well-known than others, with the high-profile shooting of Brazilian man Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005 featuring alongside the truly horrifying passing of Christopher Alder in 1998. The deaths of Alder and Paul Coker in 2005 are particularly gruelling as the men’s final breaths were captured on CCTV as they lay, abandoned, in police stations.
The story is told from multiple perspectives, with Fero using almost Godard-esque on-screen titles throughout the movie as well as a framing device in which the story is being passed on to a younger generation. There are also talking head interviews with campaigning family members. It’s a cine-literate film in a lot of ways, with references to Pasolini also tossed in to the voice-over. This trickery rather distracts from the narrative, which is best when it’s kept simple – the voices of those affected by police violence are far more compelling than any of the more stylistic flourishes.
Ultraviolence has a habit of getting in its own way. It frequently focuses on political figures like Jeremy Corbyn and George Galloway – the launch of the Respect Party in 2004 features – without reckoning with the controversies surrounding these people. The lengthy time period the movie covers also leaves it feeling a little strange – a mix of urgency and contemporary relevance, combined with a curiously dated aspect to some of the storytelling, and certainly to the visual look of the piece.
With that said, there’s no doubting the fire in this movie’s belly and the importance of the stories it foregrounds. These families have been battling for decades and it’s inspiring to see the passion with which they still fight back against an establishment that seems determined to refuse justice. There’s a minor punch-the-air moment towards the end of the movie in which one of the officers responsible for the violent death of Brian Douglas in 1995 is convicted for a different, and much less severe, racially aggravated offence. It’s a small victory, but an important one.
Fero’s final note is that the movie is “dedicated to those who have died and those who fight”, making it clear that this is a war families will have to continue to wage over years to come. There will be more tragedies and more names which become indivisible from the horrifying ways in which they spent their final few minutes on earth. Fero will be pushing 80 in another 20 years’ time, but only a fool would bet against him continuing his dogged efforts in shining a light on this shameful aspect of the British justice system. America’s gun-toting cops often grab the headlines, but the sickness of racism is just as deadly on this side of the Atlantic.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.