Based on a hundred true stories
Shining a spotlight on the FBI’s bizarre entrapment and incrimination processes, the latest film from director Chris Morris (The Day Today, Four Lions) and writer Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, Succession) is a comedic but uncomfortable look into the intersection between terrorism, race, mental health and vulnerability in modern America.
It’s easy to dismiss the title sequence assertion ‘based on a hundred true stories’ as a device – a flippant response to the plethora of true crime inspired programming that has exploded onto our screens in the last few years. This is particularly easy to assume with a film from the pen of the famously glib Morris. But The Day Shall Come is, in fact, based on a hundred true stories. Morris was inspired to research the film after stumbling upon BBC coverage of the ‘Liberty City Seven’ back in 2006. This was a group of black, mainly Haitian catholics, who planned to ride into Chicago on horseback and collapse the Sears Tower, drowning the city in its ensuing tidal wave. Then attorney general Alberto Gonzalez called the plot ‘a full ground war on the United States’, but the reality was these men didn’t have any explosives. Or even horses. They did, however, have money that was offered to them by FBI informants posing as ‘Al-Qaeda operatives.’
Speaking to Adam Buxton on his podcast, Morris described the film as an exploration of the ‘elaborate mechanism for incriminating people who are not terrorists’ – those living eccentric lives on the fringes of mainstream society who show enough of a dislike for the government to place them on the FBI’s radar. In the film, Moses (Marchánt Davis) runs the ‘Star of Six’ farm commune in Miami, speaking of ‘black jihad’ and worshipping, amongst others, ‘black Santa’ – who we see fully realised when Venus (Danielle Brooks) colours a statuette with acrylic paint. Moses is obviously struggling with his mental health and throughout the film we see both explicit references (his medication) and more surreal indications (several conversations with talking animals). His declining mental wellbeing makes him perhaps an obvious target for entrapment, but any factors which increase vulnerability and therefore gullibility are exploited by the FBI in real cases: mental health, substance abuse, youth, and being easily led are amongst the many characteristics that make individuals susceptible to these controversial operations.
The FBI’s confected terrorism agenda relies on informants, portrayed in the film as equally vulnerable, if not quite as likeable, characters who have in this case committed crimes and face extradition from the USA. These informants offer money and weapons to small-scale operations like Star of Six in order to further their agendas, often in directions they didn’t intend to take them. This increases their ‘threat’ level and enables the FBI to run elaborate sting operations and make victories in the ‘war on terror’ launched after the events of 9/11.
Morris and Armstrong’s skill here is that they enable the audience to really get on board with Moses and feel angry about what’s happening to him in the face of his obvious struggles with his mental health. His ‘army’ is made up of four people who have a crossbow and a dilapidated building they can’t make the rent for as HQ. Juxtaposed with the ‘personality disorder’ of an office block housing the FBI (this is the real FBI field office in Miami) with their Nerf gun warfare and outdated machismo, it’s difficult to see which of the two is supposed to be the professional operation. It’s all too apparent which holds the power.
The way the FBI is represented here might be over the top, but Morris spent time with the FBI to understand their team dynamics. Kendra (Anna Kendrick) is a representation of those who join the FBI and struggle with its contradictory stance on human rights but perhaps succumb to the numbing inevitability of working for a powerful institution of its size. Groupthink might now be a questionable theory but there’s something displayed here about the camaraderie induced by working in such a high stakes job that carries people along… values and morals trailing behind as a sticky afterthought.
One criticism Morris has faced at promotional Q&A’s across the UK is that all of the black characters are eccentric. Morris argues that this isn’t a film about representation in the way that Hamilton or Black Panther are; it is barely even a parody of the truth it seeks to expose. The characters are eccentric because that’s the reality of those who are targeted: those who are ‘othered within others’. Black audience members laugh ironically from the start as their lived experience is writ large on screen, something that their white counterparts try but fail to grasp until the sobering impact of the final showdown. The difference in the perception of threat is palpable throughout the film, until the tension in this masterful final section builds to a universal experience of the outcome all too apparent to everyone but Moses.
Parody? Pastiche? Perhaps the most difficult outcome of all is that Morris has so cleverly blindsided audiences with the truth.
- Reviewed by Beth McManus, a freelancer and one of our Voices In Psychology winners.
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