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Review – “Sus” (Racial Drama Is Familiar Yet Still Relevant & Enthralling)

SUS-Sales brochure1

It takes place in London in 1979, but it very well could be San Francisco, 2010. 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 macro 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. But 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 of it, 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, as MsWOO noted in her profile of the film earlier this year, “were used prolifically 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. 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 film setups 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 the film, 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, there is representation of both, and 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 being representative of 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.

Clint Dyer was present for the screening of the film I attended last night, with the plan being to hopefully secure an American distributor for the film. He promises to let me know if he’s successful, and I’ll of course share the info here.

Here’s its trailer as a refresher:

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