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FBI Screw-Ups and Drugs: Chris Morris Tells Us About His New Film

'The Day Shall Come' director and cast explain why the movie satirising the intelligence agency is a rare example of punching up in comedy.

by Nathalie Olah
11 October 2019, 11:05am

Chris Morris (right) on the set of The Day Shall Come. All photos courtesy of PR

There’s a scene at the end of new Chris Morris film, The Day Shall Come, which made me gasp. “See when I speak to black people about that scene,” he says, “they tell me they saw it coming a mile off.”

Twenty-five years after his spoof news show The Day Today first aired on BBC2, Morris is still confronting audiences with the disquieting spectacle of their own complacency and ignorance. The Day Shall Come builds on a tradition started by Four Lions, exploring the weird, near-mythical world of anti-terror operations and the security services. This time, Morris turns his lens on the US and one of the more bizarre, and horrific, aspects of the war on terror – the FBI practice of grooming and then aiding potential terrorists. Morris claims that the film is based on 100 true stories, and credits journalists such as Trevor Aaronson for bringing them to light.

“Apparently the biggest plot since 9/11, as announced by the US attorney general, was seven builders riding into Chicago on horses.” He says. “I found stories about this sort of thing happening once every three or four weeks. Perhaps most famously, in Boston, the FBI spent a year winding up a schizophrenic to come up with a plan to fly a model plane into the capital – they helped him get switches, they gave him what he thought was semtex – and he set off to DC with his backpack full of what he thought was explosives only for them to arrest him when he arrived. Meanwhile they were giving a free pass to the guys who were actually about to blow up the marathon, because they were blinded by their own false analysis.”

The Day Shall Come centres on the FBI’s efforts to incriminate a young man on terrorism charges, baiting him with guns, fake nukes and money. In a story that reaches farcical proportions, the agency and their victim fall into a game of cat and mouse, though all the while unbeknownst to the victim. If Morris’ target had once been the self-aggrandizing tendencies of the mainstream media, then more recently it has shifted to the gross incompetency of institutions. Internal politics at the FBI account for some of the film’s funniest – and most depressing – scenes. “An FBI agent described their operations to me as a ‘rolling fuck-up,’” he says.

Marchant Davis in The Day Shall Come
Marchánt Davis in The Day Shall Come. Photo courtesy of PR

In his film debut, actor Marchánt Davis delivers a sensitive and memorable performance as the story’s protagonist, Moses. As he puts it to VICE: “It’s important for more people to understand that institutional paranoia corrupts our thinking. Black men can be harmless, black men are human, they are vulnerable and they can love their families.”

“My performance was based on my lived experience, based on my family, based on my friends, based on growing up in Philadelphia. It’s based on my cousin, Raheem Hakeem Muhammad who was killed by police in 2005. If I don’t portray what they have gone through on screen, I don’t know who will.”

“At the heart of this film is a family. It might not be a family like yours, or mine, but it’s a family and every family is different. And just because they’re different doesn’t mean they should be targeted. Imagine living on eggshells every damn day.”

Morris tells me of another story about a man who went to the FBI with concerns about his son, to which the FBI responded by goading the young man into detonating a bomb at a Christmas lights celebration. It seems all too farcical to be true, and yet in the age of Trump and Boris Johnson, we hear this being used as a justification for why there is so little effective satire being commissioned. In a recent Channel 4 interview, Jon Snow wagered that satire is almost impossible when things move so fast, or when the subjects themselves are self-parodying. Morris disagrees.

“When you look at the broader landscape, the problem isn’t that people aren’t giving you the material to satirise, it’s that we have grown up with the comfortable idea that satire points out what’s ridiculous about the people on the other side of the fence, while leaving you untroubled, and I’ve always hated that. When we did The Day Today, I ran into [ITN and BBC presenter] Peter Snow and he said, 'Great stuff, when are you going to do us another one?' That’s why I did Brass Eye, because I never wanted the people on the end of the critique to think, Brilliant! Thanks very much! I’m sorry, but Jonathan Swift did not write A Modest Proposal to make people feel comfortable.”

Anna Kendrick in The Day Shall Come
Anna Kendrick and Denis O'Hare in The Day Shall Come.

By confronting us with gross injustices that many people, certainly white people, remain blissfully unaware of 99.99 percent of the time, as well as our own complicity as members of a society that allows institutional logic to reign above common sense, The Day Shall Come is guaranteed to make audiences nervous. It’s satire as it should be: shocking, extreme and completely unapologetic in disturbing the foundations of all that we accept to be true and right.

“Once you meet family members of people who are being put away, you suddenly see the fundamental impact on people at the sharp end of this extremely powerful, governmental… nutcracker,” Morris says. “And then you go, well, that’s where we’ve got to be. That’s our vehicle through the story.”

I’m curious to know how Morris is able to create funny characters even in his victims, without ever being considered to ‘punch down’. “I think it’s very obvious that the film is punching up. All black and brown people are under a greater level of scrutiny than you or I. When you add to that the existence of outliers, people who live on the fringes, then the rationale in the current system becomes not, can we prove that they are terrorists, but can we prove that they’re not?”

“Now in a comedy, no person is beyond the remit of what is funny, because we’re all flawed. But how you avoid punching down is you ask, ‘Who is culpably flawed?’ And that’s where the punchline is. You can’t blame somebody for being unusual. You can’t blame somebody for having an idea that you think is nutty. You can’t send someone to jail for 35 years because they think that horses can talk.”

The appetite and commitment for justice within the space of the cinema screen is not only admirable, but also strangely anomalous. In content and delivery, The Day Shall Come is a far more sellable concept than Brass Eye, for example, and yet its emergence against a bland cultural backdrop that rarely speaks out for fear of upsetting market forces renders it radical. It smacks of someone who still, fundamentally, couldn’t care less about pleasing people.

“Yeah, I’m afraid I really don’t care,” Morris says. “I mean I understand what’s happening in terms of people subjecting themselves to market ideas, but I recoil from what I see when it comes back at me, through whatever cultural form is thrown in my face. You can just count the metric calculations and, honestly, it’s dead.”

When blandness reigns and evil is given a free pass at every single turn, it’s never been more necessary to protect Chris Morris at all costs.

@nrolah

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