REEL Review – Ultraviolence (2020)

Director: Ken Fero | 1h 15mins | Documentary

In 2001 director Ken Fero released Injustice covering the subject of death in police custody. Nearly 20 years later comes his follow up, showing the lack of change and anger towards a broken system.

The time it has taken Fero to complete his follow-up to the exposure of police brutality towards those in their custody may seem long, but Injustice was shocking enough that no outlet picked it up, never being shown on TV, threaten with legal action to the point in which the production company – Migrant Media – struggled for work for sometime. Tariq Mehmood co-directed Injustice with Fero, who wrote the narration for their latest outing.

Fero narrates it as a letter to his son, stating his intent to document the brutality for his generation. It becomes clear that he doesn’t believe his own generation will sort it, and it is up to the next to continue on The Endless Campaign – a recurring motif. Opening on a list of deaths since 1969 in UK Police Custody, Fero clearly states how long this has been a fight to resolve. 1000 deaths between 1969-1999 with a single conviction of any officers involved. He talks of the brutal killings of many innocent people, many specifics that would seem like an obvious abuse of their power, but shows how the system is bent to protect the officers involved rather than those they are supposed to help.

Though discussing multiple cases, Fero focuses on two in particular, following their families as they try to seek justice and the toll this takes on them. It grounds the film, not just being flooded by names and statistics, but the real effect losing someone to such avoidable circumstances and the heartbreak of their death being in vain as their murderers walk free.

They check on him – 15 minutes later – and he’s pronounced dead on the scene, one of them is heard saying “You have to get one death in custody under your belt”.

Of all the arresting and difficult issues they touch upon in Ultraviolence, potentially the most effecting is the lack of change since Injustice. Though much of the film is shot in 2005-2007, the issues have had little resolution to this day – one officer was removed from the force as a result of being caught for saying racists remarks to a person, nothing to do with his involvement in the death of someone in his custody years before.

There are a number of harrowing sequences – the death of one of the main families relative is the most difficult. Paul Coker was put in a cell after his girlfriend called the police, she heard from downstairs him shouting “You’re hurting me, I can’t breathe, you are killing me”. She saw them carry him downstairs by his hands and feet, not moving. The CCTV footage as the station see’s the officers lay him down in a cell, stripped to his underwear, where we watch as he loses consciousness and stops breathing. As he does so, the officers are caught on camera saying “he’s high on crack” and that “he was an evil fucker”. After they check on him – 15 minutes later – and he’s pronounced dead on the scene, one of them is heard saying “You have to get one death in custody under your belt”. In court it’s decided he died of his cocaine intake, but that improper police training and communication contributed – but no one was charged.

Constantly throughout Fero uses bold, striking titles to mark important moments. The aforementioned The Endless Campaign fills the screen emphasising different moments throughout, confirming the idea put forward earlier that this will be a movement continued by the next generation. It feels like a 90’s BBC Documentary – a time Fero was most prolific, but because the style feels older and the content is more contemporary, it oddly makes it more timeless, like its been happening for sometime and still going on now, the films from back then are still relevant now,

As the film progresses it becomes more like a personal essay for Fero as he discusses other violences around the world; the Vietnam war, use of napalm on children and the horrors it caused, but then years later the allegations of the use of white phosphorus on Iraqi children. It becomes a statement about the brutality that unfolds without consequence, and the constant repetition of outrage against it without change.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Author: Phil Wilson

I watch and make films.

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