As noted in my "quickie" review of "The Road" yesterday, I watch lots of movies (old and new) weekly, mostly at home, on cable TV, Netflix and Amazon primarily, usually as I’m working on S&A, but I rarely write about what I screen, if only because I don’t have the time. But I’ll make a concerted effort to do so from now on, and publish here. Consider them quickies, continuing with "SUS."
It takes place in London in 1979, but it very well could be Anywhere, USA, 2014. "Sus" couldn’t be more topical, in light of recent racially-charged fatalities, and the institutional racism that’s still very much the fulcrum of human relations today. Thus, it’s maddening that little appears to have changed over a 30+ year period, despite rhetoric that suggests otherwise. No "post-racial" world here.
There likely isn’t a more recognizable representation of this dynamic than the well-documented incendiary relationship between men of the law and men of the African Diaspora, which goes back ions. And it is a brand of that particular power struggle that plays out in "Sus;" and as is often the case, I’m not so sure that there are ever really any winners or losers. Just more damaged men; and if they’re lucky, men who live to hopefully learn something from the experience – an education that either inspires further self-destructive habits, or a socio-political call to action to reverse negative trends.
There’s a scene towards the end of "Sus" in which our black protagonist, after several hours of physical and psychological torture, is asked by his racist white tormentors – protected by their police officer badges – whether he’s at all political. His response, in a tight close-up of his bruised and battered face: "well, if you’d asked me yesterday, I would have said no."
Those words make a second appearance, within the ending frames of the film, although no words are spoken, again in a close-up of our protag’s face, in slow-motion, as he raises his head and looks straight into the camera – with an obvious new awareness and conviction, his world changed forever.
He is accused of a crime; and for a claustrophobic 90 minutes, his guilt or innocence is uncertain. Undoubtedly he tries to convince his accusers of his innocence; but they convicted him long before he even entered the interrogation room. Although, whether he did it, or didn’t do it, isn’t really the point. And those who sit through this film invested mostly in figuring out whodunit, will be somewhat disappointed by the end, because I think you get your answer fairly early on. At least I was convinced, and maybe that’s one of the film’s few flaws. But, as I stated above, given how it does end, you might walk out of the theater angry – but hopefully a healthy kind of anger; one that encourages constructive action in you.
Otherwise, your expectations should be met if you’re attentive to the long, captivating dance between the 3 characters, which occupies much of the film’s running time.
The success of a film like this hinges greatly on its performances. 1 sparsely furnished room, 3 men, lots of ego. And the performances are strong – particularly that of Clint Dyer, our star protag, who oozes a combined strength and vulnerability, a complexity we don’t get to experience much in black male characters on screen. Dyer disappears into the role, and you have almost no choice but to believe him. You might even recognize him; Because a lot of us have been there; not specifically sitting in a darkened room being interrogated by police officers (although a lot of us have), but rather, we’ve all been to that place where your masculinity is tested, and the way you choose to react could result in a resonant, life-altering experience. Dyer understands that place.
The coppers themselves, thankfully, aren’t the 2-dimensional cut-outs one might expect. Yes, they are "evil" but they’re still very much human beings, committed to a cause that they, in their ill-informed minds, deem worthy. So, in a way, pitying them won’t seem like an odd emotion. Their overzealousness gets the best of them; humorous, but, from the beginning, you sense their capability to be just as menacing. They’re like fishermen – rods, hooks, nets and bait in tow, hoping to catch them a Nigger of their own.
The word "Sus," by the way, is in reference to the British “Sus laws” which were used prolifically in the UK, in the 1970s, and allowed policemen to stop and search, and even arrest, people they suspected were about to commit a crime, with black men most often on the brunt end. Think of the stop-and-frisk practices here in the USA. One’s immediate reaction to hearing or reading the word is probably to wonder if it’s short-form for some longer term. Take your pick – suspect, susceptible, suspicion, suspend, sustain, suss, and more. They’re all very relevant and visible in the drama that transpires in "Sus!"
Comparisons to other 1-room thrillers are likely. Alfred Hitchcock’s "Rope" immediately comes to mind, and oddly enough, both have 3 men in starring roles. There’s an elaborate dance that happens between them for much of "Rope," until the ending, which doesn’t really reveal much that we don’t already know, because, again, the thrill is in watching the psychological drama that plays out between all 3 men – much like it does in "Sus;" although the stories are vastly different. But there is an identical theme – specifically, that of the ubermensch vs the untermensch. In both films, the interplay between the two is at the center of each story. And you’re immediately put in a position in which you almost have to choose sides, with your choice influenced by your own experiences, or in which of the 2 groups you think yourself to be in. It was an easy decision for me. This one is for the Oscar Grants of the world.
Look for it on home video platforms.
Here’s a trailer: