The Day Shall Come and the myth of the black nationalist terrorist
Whatever your race, culture, creed, or calling, it makes no odds to Christopher Morris: To him, all mankind is equally absurd.
Almost equally absurd, anyway. Morris, a veteran director, writer, actor, and comedian, parlayed his black satirical sensibilities into filmmaking in 2009 with his feature debut, Four Lions, a movie that orbits a quartet of wannabe jihadis cooking up terror plots in Sheffield; Morris presents them as either constitutionally dimwitted or morally torn, but beneath the derision lies an acknowledgement that they're just pawns of fundamentalist casuistry. He doesn't excuse their violence, but he does understand its source.
Ten years later, Morris' sophomore follow-up, The Day Shall Come, similarly focuses on a radicalized man with wavering faith in his mission. The man is Moses (Marchánt Davis), pastor of the Star of Six, a labyrinthine belief system comprising cherrypicked pieces of Black Islamist, Jewish, and Christian ideology; Jesus and Muhammad are worshipped alongside François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture and Black Santa. Moses dreams of deposing America's white-European ruling class; he's hardly a danger, but he pops up on the FBI's radar nonetheless. They try gamely to entrap Moses, but in Morris' world, the feds are unburdened by competence, and so the movie becomes a universal comedy of errors.
The egalitarian farce lasts until the end, when Moses, his wife Venus (Danielle Brooks), their daughter Rosa (Calah Lane), and his followers are pinned down in a donut shop by a SWAT team overseen by agents Kendra (Anna Kendrick) and Andy (Denis O'Hare); Moses has nothing but phony baloney bazookas and nukes while the SWAT squad has more guns than combined limbs. After spending an hour skewering every character to appear on screen, whether they're FBI or an amateur terrorist, Morris shifts gears, leaving the comedy behind and instead showing viewers a scene of genuine horror: the existential black American terror of confrontation with over-armed and over-eager white American policemen. In a flash, The Day Shall Come's wicked glee dries up.
Laughter lingers at the periphery; Andy and Kendra wring their hands as the situation unfolds, fretting over the fate of their jobs while Settmonk (James Adomian), the officer who has dogged their operation from the start, spews racist invective from the sidelines. ("Unarmed black man, unarmed white man, which one's more likely to have a gun?" he snarls. Kendra can only stare askance at him.) It's a fiasco. Comic intentions aside, The Day Shall Come's climax reflects the same police zealotry that has claimed the lives of innocent black Americans like Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Botham Jean, Terence Crutcher, and countless others; badges and ballistics mix like gasoline and torches. Morris understands how deep runs the fear of a trigger-happy cop in all black Americans.
But he also understands that an overdetermined presentation of that fear would hamstring The Day Shall Come's message. Once the sequence ends, so does the film; all that's left is an epilogue to confirm that no one in charge learns anything from the debacle and the American justice system plugs ahead unhindered, favoring its custodians while screwing over everyone else caught in its path.
The great tragedy of The Day Shall Come is Moses' disposition. Moses isn't a bad man; he craves the removal of whiteness from seats of power, he has plans to manufacture ray guns, and he takes credit for toppling a construction crane when the culprit is a stray lightning strike. But Moses' revolutionary ideals belie a peaceable nature. He rejects conventional weapons, preferring crossbows and staves (and yes, ray guns, but as ray guns aren't real, this particular crime isn't worth holding against him). When Kendra's informant, Reza (Kayvan Novak), persuades Moses to stockpile AK-47s as part of the FBI's entrapment scheme, Davis wears his character's misgivings over the purchase on his face; he talks a good insurgent talk, but he'd rather run his family's farm with Venus than usurp whitey.
Moses is a disenfranchised American minority in need of care, and instead he stares down gun barrels when SWAT crashes the party. That moment drives home the point Morris makes through the rest of The Day Shall Come: Moses is one of America's most vulnerable citizens, and all the FBI can do is hoodwink him into self-incrimination. Morris shoots his scenes with handheld immediacy; his "man in the room" aesthetic maximizes the sensation of being there. Viewers become active participants as Moses tries bargaining with the police by turning over Reza, who he has yet to deduce is working with the FBI. Atmospheric panic sets in, and of course it would, because what can anyone expect to happen when cops with guns bust in on black Americans minding their own business?
The Day Shall Come spares no one. FBI agents bicker and squabble like children while Moses spouts nonsense. ("He was a figment of European paranoia, which is why he still lives," he says to Reza's uncle, also an FBI informant, in tribute to Osama bin Laden.) Morris gives Venus the fairest shake as the one person in the movie with little interest in the Star of Six's grand designs; she wants to put food on the table and keep her husband out of trouble. But in the donut shop, Morris reveals where his bedrock sympathies lie: not with American law enforcement, a hammer for which every problem is a nail, but with people of color vilified by American law enforcement, treated as a means to an end, that end being career advancement.
Andy and Kendra fail, but they fail upward. Moses, his family, and his flock commit no wrongdoing without surreptitious federal cajoling, but they end up in prison. When The Day Shall Come concludes, there's no question who Morris sees as the more bumbling threat to national security, and his vision fully metastasizes through the reenactment of an all-too-common American injustice. It's the parody the country deserves in the All Lives Matter era.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.