In August 2011 the taxi 29 year old Mark Duggan was travelling in was forced to stop by police on Ferry Lane, Tottenham, in north London. Four seconds later he lay dying on the pavement, shot in his arm and chest by a firearms officer.
This killing of a black man lit a tinderbox which saw mostly young people riot around the country. Fighting pitched battles with police, they were condemned by Tory prime minister David Cameron as “thugs”.
Director George Amponsah’s powerful documentary The Hard Stop opens with the famous Martin Luther King quote, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
“I was motivated by that King quote,” Amponsah told Socialist Review. “I thought for all the media reporting around the death of Mark Duggan, I’d heard enough from everyone else. I wanted to hear from those who had a reason to cause a disturbance over what had happened.”
The film begins one year on from that fatal hard stop in Tottenham and explores what it is like to be young, angry, black and fighting for justice — and not just justice in a legal sense, but also a social justice — for themselves and the people they know.
It follows two years in the lives of Marcus Knox-Hooke and Kurtis Henville, who were childhood friends of Mark Duggan.
George said, “Marcus and Kurtis gained my respect because they have put their heads above the parapet. It is an observational piece. There’s no opportunity for posturing.
“They are not trying to put their best foot forward. It isn’t sanitised. They are showing that they are no angels, and by proxy neither was Mark Duggan, but he did not deserve to die.”
Like all good observational documentaries, it is not intrusive, and allows the leads to tell their stories in their own words.
We first meet Marcus, a practising Muslim, in his bail hostel where he is awaiting sentencing for being an “instigator” in the riots.
Marcus was part of the crowd which gathered outside Tottenham Police Station in the hours following Mark’s shooting to demand answers over police inconsistencies, and who were ignored by the cops inside.
He recounts being “blown away” by his anger, and directed that rage at a police car. After that he said it was like a “domino effect”.
His journey to prison and his release are told alongside the struggles of Kurtis to look for meaningful work to support his family.
George said, “My intention in making this film was to show them warts and all, and as somewhat heroic in their willingness to try to change. The truth lies not in what you say, but in what you do.”
The strength of this documentary lies not just in its exploration of the grief and anger following Mark’s killing, but in showing that riots do not occur in isolation.
It declines to give a platform to the police or official bodies. It stretches beyond the present, looking at the past and to the future.
Marcus and Kurtis are both from the same Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham as Mark. Marcus was a child witness to the uprising that broke out on that estate in 1985 following the death of Cynthia Jarrett after police searched her home.
The film shows that rather than the riots of 2011 being an aberration they had their roots in the same social injustice and racist oppression that sparked the 1985 riots, and which still exist today.
The film begs the question, what has changed? We see Mark’s eldest son, Kamani, suspended from school and showing the same mixture of pride and fearlessness which his father’s generation had.
Marcus vows to make a change for the younger generation, and starts mentoring Kamani and other youths. And George is right: the struggles of Marcus and Kurtis do make them heroic.
But the film closes with the perverse inquest conclusion of 2014 which whitewashed police of any responsibility for Mark’s killing. This is set alongside the statistic that since 1990 some 1,500 people have died after coming into contact with police, with not one officer convicted of murder.
As George said, “When you see that statistic about deaths in custody, you know something has got to change. The Hard Stop is just one story; there are 1,499 other films to be made.
“I don’t see why another riot cannot happen again; only it would be worse the next time.
“The anger and disaffection are still there for the next time for it to explode.”
While the voices in The Hard Stop may be downbeat and grief stricken, they are not defeated. As Marcus said, “There is only so much you can bully people before they fight back”.