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Chris Morris on his new terrorism satire The Day Shall Come

The man behind Brass Eye and Four Lions tells Helen Lewis about the confected terrorism plots that inspired his new film.

Many films are based on a true story. The Day Shall Come is based on hundreds. Chris Morris’s first film since 2010’s Four Lions also follows a terrorist plot – only this time, the plot isn’t real. Moses Al Bey Al Shabazz (Marchánt Davis)is a black American who hates the gentrification of Miami, runs a commune of misfits, and worships a pantheon of gods including “Allah, Melchizedek, Jesus, Black Santa, Muhammad, and General Toussaint”. (It’s a homespun religion: in the background of one scene, a fellow cultist quietly repaints the skin-tone of a department store Father Christmas.) Moses talks about “black jihad” and ending “the accidental dominance of the white race” but really, he’s just trying to pay his rent.

Enter the FBI. In the wake of 9/11, arresting potential terrorists guarantees the bureau funding for projects and promotions for individuals. It doesn’t matter that Moses is delusional, not dangerous. He has said the word “jihad” out loud. Close enough.

After I saw a screening of The Day Shall Come, Morris sent me links to his research materials. As you’d expect from nearly a decade’s work, it was exhaustive: as the fifth email arrived, he joked that I must feel like I’d put a pickaxe through a gas main. The film’s most obvious reference point is the “Liberty City Seven”, a group of black Catholics who were arrested in 2006 for planning to “blow up” the Sears Tower in Chicago, and to wage what the then attorney general Alberto Gonzalez called “a full ground war on the United States”. That planned “ground war” in full: the men intended to ride into Chicago on horses and somehow collapse the tower into the river, drowning the city in the ensuing tidal wave. Except they didn’t have any explosives. They didn’t even have any horses.

What they did have was money, offered to them by two “al-Qaeda operatives” who turned out to be FBI informants. The ringleader Narseal Batiste – “Brother Naz” – told investigators he played along with the informants to get $50,000 for the group, described by the academic Juan Cole as “just a local African-American cult which mixed Judaism, Christianity and (a little bit of) Islam” and then vice president Dick Cheney as a “very real threat”. After two mistrials caused by deadlocked juries, the FBI got lucky: at the third trial in 2009, Batiste was sentenced to 13 and a half years in prison, followed by 35 years of supervised release. Four of his comrades – Brother Pat, Brother Sunni, Brother Rot and Brother B – received sentences of between seven and ten years. It was hailed as a victory for George W Bush’s “war on terror”.

Once Morris had found out about the Liberty City Seven, he told me, “It seemed everyone I met knew this was a repeat pattern… It felt like a pressurised capsule of readily available information that America had no interest whatsoever in even examining, let alone questioning.”

Details from the Liberty City Seven trial make it into The Day Shall Come: the mish-mash of religions, the lack of real terrorist intent, the shameless entrapment tactics of law enforcement. Of the two informants in the real-life story, one had been convicted for assaulting his girlfriend, the other arrested for choking his pregnant wife.

In the film, one of the FBI’s informants is a child sex offender, and so has what you might call a lively interest in keeping the case alive – and keeping himself out of prison.

The informants Morris met were similarly exotic: “One was a massive meat refrigerator of a man who dressed as a sheikh in a mosque where everyone else wore suits and smart casuals,” he tells me. “He muttered random ‘attack’ words in a sinister low voice at barbecues.” That approach did not prompt the mosque’s attendees to confess their plans for jihad. Instead, they reported him to the authorities as a potential threat. Morris says another informant showed him “how to pretend you’re snorting a line of cocaine – a useful trick if you’re undercover, except in his case he spilled the powder all over his trousers and acted so ludicrously ‘high’ he actually went cross-eyed”. Behold the front line of America’s war on terror.

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The Day Shall Come will inevitably be compared with Four Lions, another satire about terrorism. Morris told the Guardian that the pair “relate only in terms of the Wikipedia heading you might lazily use”. They certainly look different: Four Lions has a grainy palette appropriate to Britain, whose oddities always look parochial by contrast to the steroidal weirdness of America. The Day Shall Come mixes it up: Moses is surrounded by a woozy, humid palette of yellows and blues, while the FBI’s headquarters are a portrait of drab cubicle bleakness.

But both films are about manipulation, and how labels like “terrorism” deceive us. The aspirant suicide bombers of Four Lions are mostly idiots, whether of the sociopathic variety (Nigel Lindsay’s Barry) or the slow reader type (Kayvan Novak’s Waj). The guileless Waj – assured that martyrdom is a fast-track to heaven, like queue-jumping for “rubber dinghy rapids” at a theme park – is a forerunner of Moses. In both cases, their naivety sharpens the satirical point. The world is full of wolves, and there is no shortage of sheep. For Waj, the manipulation is personal: his own friend coaxes him into wrongdoing. In the case of Moses, a whole system has been built to take advantage of him. The fact that he is clearly mentally ill makes the FBI’s actions feel even crueller: who takes someone with a poor grip on reality and leads them into a hall of mirrors?

The Day Shall Come walks a typically Morrisian knife-edge of tastelessness. At a Holiday Inn, Moses receives the informants while sitting on a chair placed on the table, draped in a shower curtain. He does not need guns, he solemnly informs the go-between, because he can summon dinosaurs: “The CIA has some left over from when the Europeans wiped them out.” His delusions are comic and pathetic; their repercussions will be devastating. You laugh, pity him and fear for him all at once. For Morris, that was the point of using fiction. “It allows you to tell the story from the point of view of the person who is being set up,” he said. “That’s the centre of the storm. That’s where your empathy is engaged. That puts the audience into the story – forces them to lose their objectivity and feel it from the inside.” It also forces viewers to imagine how much worse the story might have been. “Several [field] agents told me: you’re in the business of winding people up to attack America and providing them with what they think are weapons – what could possibly go wrong?”

Morris, who directed the film as well as co-writing it with Succession’s Jesse Armstrong, is usually described as a “satirist”. His humour is midnight-black, and it demands subjects big enough to stop it feeling cruel. The attack on the inhumanity of institutions in The Day Shall Come echoes the 57-year-old’s Channel 4 programme Brass Eye, which mocked the “war on drugs” by inviting worthies to condemn a fake hallucinogen called Cake (“it stimulates the part of the brain called Shatner’s Bassoon,” intoned Noel Edmonds). Other targets included tabloid panics over paedophiles and the religious fundamentalists who saw Aids as God’s punishment for homosexuality. (In one sketch, a TV presenter played by Morris is horrified to discover that his guest has “bad Aids”, caught through gay sex, rather than “good Aids”, caught from a blood transfusion.) This is satire on a higher difficulty setting than, say, mocking politicians – Boris Johnson looks like the Honey Monster, hur hur hur – and it reflects the depressing truth that most injustices are not caused by individuals, but vast, amoral systems. Moses has his life ruined by departmental targets. It is no one’s fault, and everyone’s fault. A wicked, cackling supervillain would be less upsetting, somehow.

The Day Shall Come also expands on a point made in passing in Four Lions. In that film, as Riz Ahmed’s Omar is finishing off his nail bombs at home, we see police marksmen surround a suburban house. They storm it, only to discover Omar’s devout, pacifist brother Ahmed, praying with his friends. The point is clear: “Islamic” terrorism is usually committed by men who are, objectively, terrible Muslims. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind 9/11, loved visiting pole-dancing bars and once flew past his girlfriend’s hotel room in a helicopter. (“I think he really was in it for the fun,” al-Qaeda expert Peter Bergen told the Telegraph. “To use a horrible metaphor in this context, he was having a blast.”)

Morris’s research makes a similar point. While the FBI was busy entrapping mentally ill black Catholics post-9/11, it was failing to take seriously the threat posed by white supremacists. Only 20 per cent of the FBI’s field agents are currently focused on domestic investigations. Yet right-wing extremism is a greater threat to America than radical Islam. A study by the Anti-Defamation League earlier this year found that between 2009 and 2018, almost three-quarters of US deaths caused by domestic extremism were attributable to the far right. This year, white supremacist killers include a man who shot dead three people at a garlic festival in California; and a 21-year-old obsessed with the “replacement” of whites who gunned down 22 people in El Paso, Texas. A 57-year-old Florida man was also jailed for sending 16 pipe bombs to politicians and media outlets that had criticised Donald Trump. While “international” terrorists (read: Islamists and black identity extremists) can be pursued under Bush-era statutes with little regard for constitutional safeguards, “domestic” (read: white) terrorists are harder to track and investigate. Morris tells me that the word “terrorism” is “very useful if you want to stop people thinking straight”.

During his research, the director met the former FBI agent and whistle-blower Mike German. In a recent interview with Mother Jones magazine, German argued that, post-9/11, the bureau had drifted from being a law enforcement agency into the nebulous realms of “national security”. “When we’re looking at this abstract concept of national security, whose security are we talking about?” said German. The FBI was 80 per cent white, he said, and some field offices were 80 per cent male. “If you go across the United States and ask what white men are concerned about, very few of them say the spread of white supremacy, right? Because that’s not necessarily threatening to them.”

Morris also talked to intelligence analyst Daryl Johnson, who headed a team at the Department of Homeland Security that sent a report warning of the threat of white supremacism in 2009. His team was accused by Fox News pundits and Republicans of demonising conservative views. “Americans are not the enemy,” huffed the head of veterans’ group the American Legion. “The terrorists are.” The backlash was so intense that Johnson’s team was disbanded and he left the department. When asked recently why the Republican Party was so angry over his report, he replied simply: “Partly because they’re the ones who are arming Americans. No matter how many times you can try to blame the person for carrying out the act, they still have access to weapons that are meant for war.” Johnson also believed that their campaign strategies – such as suggesting that Barack Obama, the first mixed-race president, was not really American – had left the Republicans with “blood on their hands. They’re definitely fanning the flame and providing the fuel, and it’s all to win elections.”

The Day Shall Come ends with the inevitable showdown between Moses and law enforcement. Primed by Four Lions, I waited for the bang. The confrontation is a heart-stopping moment, but so too is the realisation that the assault rifles and sniper scopes are pointed in the wrong direction. Poor, naive Moses was never a major threat to America – just like Brother Naz couldn’t bring down the Sears Tower with a horse and $50,000 hustled from a wife-beating informant. But while the FBI targets drifters and fantasists, somewhere out there, a white man is loading a rifle or packing a pipe bomb. Once again, Chris Morris has demonstrated that “terrorism” is a label to tell us who we are allowed to find terrifying. 

Helen Lewis is a staff writer for the Atlantic.

 “The Day Shall Come” is in cinemas from 11 October

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 09 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain