Both Sides Alone Cannot Tell the Truth
Author’s Note: my title is not to be confused with the popular maxim that the truth is always found in the middle of both sides. In this context, that maxim is part of the problem.
So my wife and I watched The Day Shall Come last night on Hulu, and I gotta say, while my expectations weren’t super high, once we saw a bit of the trailer, we were in. I loved the premise, and often enjoy political satire. Fifteen minutes into the movie, I was enjoying myself.
Which is why I was so surprised by the end of the film. I wasn’t as much surprised by the ending as I was surprised by my own reaction to it.
It made me angry. Like, I haven’t been this mad at a movie in a while. Once the music started playing as the final credits started to roll, I literally said out loud, “wait… it can’t be over, right? Because that would be… uhhh… bullshit.”
It was, and yeah… it was.
The Day Shall Come is the brainchild of British satirist Chris Morris, who made his name poking fun at Middle Eastern jihadists in the United Kingdom. Here, Morris turns his eye to counterterrorism in the United States. It tells the story of a young nonviolent radical Black farmer revolutionary named Moses Al Shabazz (Marchánt Davis) who is targeted by FBI agents (Anna Kendrick, Denis O’Hare) looking to entrap a brown face to prevent the next 9/11.
It’s not much of a spoiler to suggest that plans go awry and hijinks ensue. Neither would it be surprising to suggest that in a realistic tale of such a standoff (as it purports to be with the disclaimer “based on hundreds of true stories”) a delusional Black revolutionary would not stand a chance against ambitious federal agents looking to advance their careers on the backs of young Black and brown men.
So the fact that the movie ends in the way one might expect — [SPOILER ALERT, I GUESS] — with said agents getting their arrests and the Black people serving exorbitant prison sentences as collateral damage … wouldn’t normally disturb me so much. I mean, if you’re just reviewing the facts of the case, it’s all pretty routine. The American criminal justice system routinely targets young Black and brown men; as an excuse for surveillance, entrapment, harassment and/or police violence, terrorism is just one pretext of many.
And yet, disturb me it did. It’s been almost 24 hours, and I’m still stewing about it. So the question I’m stuck on is… why? Why did I find this movie so frustrating and objectionable?
I think the answer lies first in the genre conventions of satire… and then in something even deeper.
Humorist Finley Peter Dunne once described effective journalism as something that “afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.”
The same is true of satire — even more so, actually. Whereas journalists have a responsibility to adhere to the basic facts of a story, satirists are supposed to go further. It’s the job of the satirist to use her artistic liberty to exaggerate — to humorous effect — the essential truths of a situation, in order to more thoroughly and completely afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. If you’re a satirist, and everyone is happy with your work, you’re not doing your job right.
According to most of its reviews, The Day Shall Come is to be viewed as a work of satire. And in the way it captures the ridiculous inanity in the way that American counterterrorism agencies agencies, it’s spot-on. There’s a hilarious moment where Kendrick’s Agent Glack is trying to sympathize with Davis’ preacher/farmer Moses, and in a startled attempt to find the right words to convey the proper patronizing tone, she just shrugs and says, “communities,” as if stringing together enough inoffensive buzzwords will convince him that she’s really on his side and truly wants to help:
In this moment, Anna Kendrick perfectly captures the moral dilemma of her character. She wants to help him, but not at the cost of letting go of her professional goals, which, because she’s an FBI agent, involve placing him in her crosshairs, both figuratively and literally.
And this is one of the problems with the film. In her NYTimes review, Jeannette Catsoulis described The Day Shall Come as “a slapstick circus that can’t decide who is slapping whom.” There’s an indecision at the heart of the film regarding who is the true protagonist. Is it Moses, the dimwitted-but-innocent farmer? Or is it Kendra, the FBI middle manager who’s using Moses to please her boss, and trying not to feel bad about it?
Director Chris Morris seems to want to have it both ways, but the story suffers from his indecision. I’m not sure if it’s to assuage his white guilt, or to simply create a sense of moral complexity, but either way, it uses the humor of the situation to obscure its abject horror.
Which is problem, because in this story, it’s very clear who is afflicted, and who is comfortable. As a surrogate for the audience, Kendrick’s Agent Glack is the only one who seems even a little bit disturbed at what’s happening, but she’s clearly not enough disturbed enough to stop it. So that would make Moses the protagonist, right? He’s the one we’re rooting for, to somehow elude the ravenous maw of this grotesque system of exploitation that we have the nerve to refer to as “justice.”
But that’s not what happens.
And I suppose it’s possible that, with his directional choices, Morris was trying to highlight the idiotic failures on both sides. That he was attempting to create a moral equivalence between Moses’ delusional moral certainty as a leader and the FBI’s immoral pursuit of terror suspects in the name of national security.
But that equivalence simply does not exist. And this failure illustrates the problem of what critics call “bothsidesism.” It’s most often aimed at news pundits or reporters, but it can happen in satire, too — especially to those satirists who claim to be “equal opportunity offenders” (which is, quite often, a cop out).
To tell the truth, it’s not enough to simply tell both sides of the story. It becomes necessary to adjudicate which sides are right and wrong.
Not only that, but remember — the satirist’s job is to bring down the high and mighty, to give them their rightful comeuppance. And this, ultimately, is what made me so upset. By the end, The Day Shall Come does the opposite. It comforts the comfortable, and afflicts the afflicted. Not only does Moses go to prison, but his friends and family are prosecuted as accomplices, despite the fact that none of them really did anything wrong. And what do the FBI agents get? They get promoted. One of them eventually launches a successful campaign for governor.
It’s a brutal, heartbreaking denouement.
This instinct to afflict the comfortable and comfortable is not unique to satirists, of course. It’s also a consistent theme in Biblical justice literature. It’s part of the concept of the Hebrew word shalom, which is too-often insufficiently translated as “peace.” Shalom is not merely the absence of conflict, but complete and total justice and restoration. It’s everything broken being fixed, and everything wrong being made right. It’s why the prophet Isaiah wrote in the Old Testament that “every valley shall be be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.”
And it’s why, in the New Testament, part of Mary’s song of praise to God includes this tidbit:
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
So as a Christian, it offends my sensibilities that someone could take such an unsparing view of the world’s crooked justice system and respond with a Seinfeldian shoulder shrug and a “hey, it’s f — ed up, whatareyagonna do??”
We can do better, and we must do better.
Which leads me to a really important question — in the context of this movie, what would it mean to do better?
To be fair, from the interviews he’s done on the subject, I believe that director Chris Morris intended The Day Shall Come to be a shock to the system. And so perhaps the frustration that I’m feeling is not really his fault. Maybe I’m assigning more moral heft and responsibility than I should to a movie director. After all, Morris isn’t dictating policy. He’s simply using his creative tools to tell what he feels is an important story.
Actually, this film makes more sense if you view it as a white filmmaker making films for other white people, because there are probably plenty of white folks who experienced the film as revelatory. Part of the reason why the Black Lives Matter movement so thoroughly dominated our American cultural consciousness in 2020 is because for so many white people the death of George Floyd was a major shock to the system. It was the kind of thing that white people thought no longer happens anymore, which is only understandable if it never happens to you or anybody in your circle.
This is all my way of saying that I’m sure Chris Morris had nothing but the best of intentions in making this film, primarily to tell the truth of what’s really happening. And as a Black person who has felt the fear of being targeted by police, I agree — these stories are important.
But I still felt angry at Morris, because the stark nature of the ending belied its comical build up. Not only did I feel like a fool for rooting for Moses — even though the movie was designed to make me feel that way — but I was traumatized by watching his wife and children be accosted by federal troops rolling up with lights, sirens and automatic rifles.
As a viewer, I don’t need to be informed of the cruel depravity inherent in our institutions of law enforcement and criminal justice. I’m Black, and I see that every day. What I wanted was a way for Moses and his clan to find a way back to health and safety, even if it meant giving up some of their “revolutionary” goals and objectives. And frankly, I wanted Moses to get the mental health resources he so desperately needed (which I’m sure his wife would help with, since she seemed to have her head on straight).
But Jelani, that ending wouldn’t be realistic!
We’re talking about movies here.
We creatives have the responsibility not only to tell the stories of our current horror, but to tell the stories of the preferred future we want to create.
And we can’t do that if we’re stuck in a nihilistic loop of shock-sigh-repeat.
So I say, if you’re a creative type, do your best to find the balance between reporting the truth as you see it and holding fast to the values you hold most dear. You might not make your commercial breakthrough at first, but if you stay at it…
The day shall come.