The starting point for The Hard Stop is the shooting by police of the 29-year-old Mark Duggan in August 2011 and the riots in London and across England that followed in protest. The officer who shot Duggan claims the suspect was brandishing a gun. But the only non-police weapon recovered at the scene was a pistol that bore no traces of Duggan’s fingerprints or DNA, and which was found in a location far enough from where the shooting occurred for the pathologist to rule out the possibility that Duggan had flung it.
The film spirals out from that incident, though, as it explores the aftermath, as well as the wider issue of what it means to be young and black in Britain today and to have to deal with a police force that Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan police commissioner, admits is still guilty of “institutional racism” more than 20 years after that charge was first made in the McPherson report following the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
With patience and insight, this film follows two of Duggan’s friends in the months and years after his death. We first meet Marcus Knox-Hooke at the Essex bail hostel where he is living while awaiting sentencing for his part in instigating the riots in Tottenham. He is pensive and brooding, and the first half of the film has those same qualities. He walks us around the concrete labyrinth of Broadwater Farm, the blighted north London housing estate where he and Duggan grew up. They weren’t even born when the place was the scene of riots in 1985 but all young black people living there, argues Duggan’s mother, paid the price for the murder of PC Keith Blakelock.
In such a bleak setting it’s comforting to find touches of humanity and humour, such as the moment when Knox-Hook introduces us to the place where he first learned to ride a BMX. It would be a standard misty-eyed reminiscence, perhaps, were he not standing at the time in the mottled corridor of one of the upper floors of the estate, lit by a sickly striplight. He kept one hand on the wall, he says, to stop himself falling off.
For all Knox-Hooke’s gentleness, there is palpable anger simmering within him; he is able to manage it, though the camera catches him at one point with a rueful tear on his cheek. He is even controlled enough to put his personal feelings aside in a meeting with an ex-police officer.
No amount of explanation about the tensions between police and young black men in Tottenham could be as persuasive as the sight of Knox-Hooke trembling in the car park after the meeting ends. It’s telling also that he finishes almost every sentence with the phrase “You get me?” The experience of being misunderstood and misconstrued has permeated his life to such an extent that he has to seek immediate reassurance at every available moment.
Once he begins his sentence, the focus of the film switches to Kurtis Henville, who is altogether more jittery. The contradictions in his life seem close to tearing him apart. He gives himself rapid-fire pep talks about making improvements, then nearly decks a police officer in a dispute over a dangerous dog. (It’s left to the director, George Amponsah, to suggest delicately from behind the camera that it might be wiser not to play into the police’s hands).
Henville, who has served time for smuggling cocaine, talks wistfully of a time when he could easily make £500 a day dealing drugs. As he says this, he is sitting in his car trying to piggyback on the wi-fi signal at Carphone Warehouse because he’s used up all his data. Desperate after job-hunting in London, he accepts a telesales job over 100 miles away in Norwich, which takes him away from his partner and children.
Amponsah proves himself to be a watchful filmmaker with an ability to keep his eye on the details within the main drama. But I could have done without the atmospheric slow-motion driving shots, which seem to feed exactly the sort of bogus gangland mythologising that the film has shown to be so pernicious. One can too easily imagine his directions to Knox-Hooke and Henville: OK, look straight ahead. Keep it moody. Don’t smile. Now turn slightly to the camera.
The story of the Duggan family’s quest for justice – leading up to an inquest into the shooting – runs through the picture, but the smaller wounds of the lives affected by it receive just as much attention.
During one of Henville’s more upbeat moments, he declares himself to be hard-working and motivated, only for his partner to laugh from off-screen. “What?” Henville asks her, clearly wounded, and the camera turns to catch the woman swallowing her chuckles. From Duggan’s death all the way down to these casual domestic betrayals, the film has an acute sense of pain and injustice.