THE HARD STOP: A Triumph Of Humanity (& Interview With Director Amponsah)
I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview The Hard Stop's director, George Amponsah, producer, Dionne Walker and co-star Marcus Knox-Hooke, recently, before watching a screening of the film followed by an audience Q&A with Amponsah, Walker, Knox-Hooke and co-star Kurtis Henville. It was one of the most moving and insightful experiences I've had for a long time, and I'm
I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview The Hard Stop’s director, George Amponsah, producer, Dionne Walker and co-star Marcus Knox-Hooke, recently, before watching a screening of the film followed by an audience Q&A with Amponsah, Walker, Knox-Hooke and co-star Kurtis Henville. It was one of the most moving and insightful experiences I’ve had for a long time, and I’m still unravelling the many thoughts and feelings both the film and our conversation inspired.
The IMDB description of the film The Hard Stop explains: ‘the police killing of Mark Duggan in London, 2011, ignited the worst civil unrest in recent British history and made headlines around the globe’. The incident also encapsulates the way the British media often dehumanises the human beings at the centre of such events, in this case to dehumanise Mark Duggan, those around him and even the wider community he was a part of as a way of justifying the actions of the perpetrators, who in this case were the police.
Dehumanising the people at the heart of such events is also a way of manipulating the general public into believing that such an action wasn’t only justified, but may even have been deserved on some level. If we don’t see people as human beings ‘just like us’, how can we fully emphasise with them, or react to their treatment with sadness, anger or regret?
The man behind the myth
What The Hard Stop does so brilliantly is to give Mark Duggan back his humanity. By doing so, it shines a light on many of the issues raised by Duggan’s killing and the subsequent riots; from systemic racism in British society and the growing inequality raging in our communities, to what happens when whole sections of society are dehumanised and demonised by the media and wider establishment, not just to those on the receiving end of such treatment but to the rest of society. What effect does it have on our collective humanity, when we’re prepared to see some as more human than others, the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’?
The film achieves this on many levels, by talking to Mark Duggan’s family and friends, showing him as a partner, father, friend, son, nephew, etc. It reveals the day-to-day details of his life, as ordinary and yet precious as our own, and exploring some of the stories and myths surrounding his death and the events that followed.
Ultimately, though, it’s the journey on screen of his two childhood friends, Marcus Knox-Hooke and Kurtis Henville, filmed by Amponsah over four years, that most powerfully gives Mark Duggan back his humanity.
Through their journey, from the initial raw grief and anger of Duggan’s killing, to the many ways they cope with the fallout, both practically and emotionally, the audience lives through the events of 2011 and beyond from a much more human perspective. It’s an antidote to merely ‘witnessing’ events via 24/7 news and social media, where we’ve already been ‘steered’ to think certain things, both about the perpetrators and the victims.
Nothing illustrates this like the way some tabloid newspapers in the UK, including the Daily Mail, cropped a photo of Duggan to look like ‘a hard-faced gangster‘, as the campaign organisation Sum of Us described it, when in fact the photo actually shows Duggan mourning his dead daughter.
In The Hard Stop, Amponsah literally pulls back the camera on that cropped photo, to reveal not just the bigger picture, but the effect on society when we systemically ‘crop’ how people are portrayed and represented to suit our own agenda, rather than aiming for a more objective truth.
The language of the unheard
I asked Amponsah what inspired him to make The Hard Stop, and he explained that he wanted to make a film about his own experience of being Black British, after making previous films about “Africa and the Diaspora“.
Amponsah’s previous films include The Fighting Spirit (2007), set in Ghana, and The Importance of Being Elegant (2004), about an African cult. Fortuitously, he shared this thought with someone at a party, who mentioned that Knox-Hooke and Henville may be interested in talking to him; as it turned out, they were.
For Marcus Knox-Hooke, the decision to make the film was even more personal, of course. He explained he got involved because he wanted to do something to defend his friend-since-childhood Mark Duggan, from the accusations and myths that were flying around after his killing.
I wished I could have spent more time with Knox-Hooke, because in real life, just as on screen, he comes across as quiet, understated, brooding at times, yet with so many insightful things to share, deep with emotion and sensibility, whether anger at injustice or compassion for Duggan’s family, especially his eldest son who he ended up mentoring.
The film opens with a Martin Luther King quote: ‘a riot is the language of the unheard‘, referring to the riots sparked by Mark Duggan’s death, which raged throughout parts of London for several days and spread to other UK cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham.
Knox-Hooke was accused of starting the riots, by instigating the first act of violence outside a Tottenham police station, where Duggan’s family and friends were gathered waiting for answers following his shooting. The charge was eventually dropped, but Knox-Hooke was sentenced to 23 months in prison for other charges including burglary and robbery.
For him, the riots were all about ‘fighting the police‘, after Duggan’s family and friends had waited for answers that never came, so I asked him how he felt about those who had joined in for reasons other than protesting Duggan’s killing. It was clear he didn’t have a lot of time for those who had ‘jumped on the bandwagon’ and joined in as an excuse to “steal trainers they could have afforded to walk into the shop and buy.”
Amponsah’s take on the unfolding riots is somewhat different, exploring the idea that different people had different reasons to riot, in response to the inequality around them and events like the MPs’ expenses scandal, which implied there was one rule for those at the top of society, and another rule for the rest of us.
For Knox-Hooke though, it’s all about defending his friend in the aftermath of a deeply personal tragedy.
Finding a voice
In the same way, The Hard Stop is ultimately about a deeply personal portrayal of two friends, and because of that, I think it carries more weight than if it had simply been a piece of investigative journalism.
There’s an element of that, because the film’s narrative is loosely woven around the court case following Duggan’s shooting, which resulted in his killing being declared lawful despite conflicting evidence. But for me, the film’s power lies in giving its voice to Knox-Hooke and Henville, rather than those involved in the event itself.
Obviously, there’s an element of Knox-Hooke and Henville reacting to events and the aftermath of Duggan’s death, but it’s also about them and their lives, and that speaks volumes.
For instance, for a large part of the film, Kurtis Henville is job hunting. He makes no bones about the fact that he’s tempted to go ‘back to the streets‘ but as a father, he says in the film: ‘it’s not about me, it’s about them‘, and is doing everything he can to find legal employment.
In one scene, we see Henville upbeat about the prospect of a job at Tesco, only to be knocked back when he doesn’t get it. Eventually, he ends up taking a job in telesales in Norwich, commuting back and forth from London every week. At one point, it costs him his wife and children, when his wife decides to move away from London.
It struck me that this fight to survive, in a world with limited, low paid employment, especially if the temptations of the streets have left you with a criminal record like Henville, is as brutal as more overt forms of oppression, including aggressive policing tactics like The Hard Stop itself – an interception technique used when police believe a suspect is armed.
Watching the film, it becomes clear that the fight for justice isn’t just about the Mark Duggan case itself, it’s about a wider fight, illustrated by Henville’s right to have the chance to have a decent job and be happy with his family.
These are the voices we hear throughout the film…sometimes angry, bitter and resigned, sometimes sad and hurting, sometimes playful, loving and hopeful. Above all: human.
I asked Amponsah about the inevitable parallels with recent police violence and retaliation in the US, and if UK policing tactics can be compared to America’s ‘War on Drugs’, often described as a way to ‘control’ black communities following the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Amponsah explains what happened in the US before saying he thinks the UK is different: “a racist police force is a reflection of a racist society“.
We went on to talking about Hillsborough, and how, in the end the truth comes out, but Amponsah is troubled by how long it took for this to happen.
He also alludes to the possible consequences when people feel let down by formal structures of representation, such as the criminal justice system, saying “in the same way as a riot is the language of the unheard, you could say a sniper on a roof is the language of the unheard“, referring to the recent shootings of police officers in the US.
It underlines the importance of doing something to tackle the potentially never-ending cycle of violence.
How do we change things?
In Knox-Hooke’s and Henville’s case, the power of having a voice has been transformative and redemptive. Through The Hard Stop, they’ve been able to tell their story, in their own words, and never led by a script.
I asked Knox-Hooke if he felt he’d achieved his aim and defended Duggan by taking part in the film. “Yeah, definitely.” He goes on to tell me how his own experience has inspired him to launch a project for young people in Tottenham called ‘Remarkable Start‘, to give them the kind of opportunities he didn’t have when he was growing up. The project also stems from his experience of mentoring Duggan’s son when he gets into trouble at school, something we see in the film.
Knox-Hooke doesn’t think provision for young people is ‘good enough‘ and his determination to better it is inspiring. It also underlines the ‘brutality’ of underfunding the kind of community projects that could have supported people like Knox-Hooke, Henville and Duggan growing up.
They’re not headline-grabbing like a police killing, but cuts, unemployment and inequality feel at the heart of The Hard Stop, as much as the man unfairly vilified by a media (and a society) that feels more comfortable with stereotypes than with uncomfortable truths, whether that’s the fallibility of the police or our failure as a society to openly debate and address racism.
This point was brilliantly underlined at the post-screening Q&A, when Knox-Hooke responded to a question asked by a young, white woman. “What’s the one thing you think we can do to change things?” she asked. Knox-Hooke replied “People like you asking that question.”
It reminded me that it’s not enough to blame a handful of individual police officers, or even, systemic racism in the police force, somehow feeling like it doesn’t apply to me because ‘I’m not racist’. It’s about all of us, whatever the colour of our skin, asking that question: what can we do to change things?
The whole picture
Amponsah couldn’t have known when he started filming how Knox-Hooke and Henville would ask themselves the same question ‘how do I change things’ throughout the four years they were being filmed.
Whether it’s Henville fighting against the temptations of earning ‘£500 a day on the streets’ in favour of ‘doing the right thing’ and a telesales job miles away in another part of the country, or Knox-Hooke fighting against a life of hating the police to talk to a former police officer now running a community project for young people, to get advice on launching ‘Remarkable Start’.
For both of them, ‘it’s not about them’, so they can overcome their own demons if it means fighting for what they care about. For Knox-Hooke, meeting the former police officer is a way of humanising the police, and realising that while some may ‘exploit the power of their uniform’, some may be OK.
Fittingly, Amponsah ends The Hard Stop with a quote from Leo Tolstoy: ‘everyone thinks of changing the world but no one thinks of changing himself‘, followed by a statistic showing the number of people who have died in police custody and the subsequent lack of convictions.
Henville and Knox-Hooke have changed themselves, despite the enormous pressures they’ve faced, and now they’re determined to change things for the young people in their care. So why not that depressing statistic and the ‘cropped’ picture that often goes along with it, the one that says a young black man shot by the police must be an ‘undeserving gangster’?
What did you think of The Hard Stop?
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