The Hard Stop: a painful cry from a community desperate to be heard

The film centres around two of Mark Duggan's closest friends, Kurtis (left) and Marcus (right)

Director: George Amponsah

Producer: Dionne Walker

Running time: 1h 25m

Opening with a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. – that “a riot is the language of the unheard” – The Hard Stop intellectually challenges viewers from the very beginning and forces them to review their preconceived, or rather preconditioned, ideas about a lot of things – from “gangsters” to the influence of Islam, the injustices of our justce system, to what exactly constitutes a “gang” and whether gangs are necessarily an undesirable phenomena.

Embracing the notion that “You can tell a man by the company he keeps,” the film reveals Mark Duggan’s life and world by delving into the lives of two of his closest friends – Marcus and Kurtis. Through these two, and to a lesser extent other friends and family of Mark, slowly the film deconstructs the story of a hard gangster shot dead by a policeman who feared for his life to reveal a far more complicated narrative and person.

In many ways the film is a response – a counter defence – to the carefully calculated character assassination of Mark Duggan and, by extension, incredibly one-sided, narrow interpretation of the nationwide riots that followed his murder. From repeatedly throwing out the word “gangster” when referring to Mark, to using a cropped photo of him looking angry (the full photo shows him at his dead daughter’s grave holding a heart-shaped plaque), the mainstream media successfully painted Mark as a villain in the eyes of the general public. Mark’s death was made to see justifiable; even necessary. The ensuing riots were, apparently, the product of a group of mindless youths just looking for a reason to rob stores and damage property.

Therefore, in making the The Hard Stop director George Amponsah and all those involved had a very great onus; not only to give a voice to Mark Duggan and his family and friends and to restore his truer image to the public eye, but to give a voice to an entire swathe of the British community whose voices are rarely heard – the underprivileged, in particular the black working class. Just having these people’s voices aired to the public through platforms such as the BFI Film Festival – to majority white middle class audiences – is an achievement, allowing for a more completely informed dialogue in place of the largely one-sided interpretations given by the mainstream media.

The reason the film works so well is largely because both Marcus and Kurtis give themselves entirely to the film – remarkably candid, the men do not turn the cameras away when they make mistakes or are at their lowest lows. George Amponsah earns the trust of audiences and the authenticity by avoiding the temptation to try and depict Mark and his peers as saint-like people who are without flaws. Instead we are shown a group of young men who have all been involved in criminal activity in the past but are working to better themselves and others but still facing bumps along the way. Kurtis in particular is shown to be slightly erratic and caught between the lifestyle he was very familiar with and the new life he is trying to lead. This unpredictably and double-sidedness is however what makes Kurtis so endearing; a hilarious joker (even in the face of extreme adversity) and determined hard worker on the one hand, he also, like anyone, has moments when he loses it and where he shuns the “right way.”

Marcus’s journey is also that of a man with a past he is not particularly proud of trying to achieve greater things. Having immersed himself in Islam, Marcus’s religion visibly informs his selfless desire to not only better himself but others, to spread peace and to guide others – including Mark’s eldest son – away from a lifestyle that did him no favours in the long run. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when Marcus is being driven to court for sentencing and a silent tear rolls down the side of his face. Juxtaposed with CCTV images of a hooded Marcus during the riots, of which he was the alleged instigator and criminal mastermind, Amponsah’s film succeeds because he removes the hood and focuses on the personal, human story; the story of a man who was, understandably, enraged and all but broken on the day the rioting began after his brother was murdered, his peaceful demands for justice and answers were denied, and then had to witness his murdered friend being cast as a villainous character who ‘had it coming’ by the media.

Where the mainstream media took snapshots of Mark and the riots, The Hard Stop provides context and the background without which those snapshots can be misinterpreted. The death of PC Blackelock, the history of the Broadwater Farm estate – including archaic footage of when it was newly built – and its black residents’ ongoing tensions with police form part of the contextualisation of Mark’s death and the riots. With residents of the estate recalling heavy-handed, racist policing of their community and an old video showing a large group of policeman patrolling the estate as a tight unit, viewers are made to rethink the simplistic villain and hero narrative perpetuated through media coverage of both Mark’s death and the riots which followed.

At one point Marcus is asked about the gang which he and Mark supposedly belonged to and he explains that the term “gang” was only given to them by the police; they never saw themselves as a gang only a group that considered themselves to be a family unit through their close upbringing. Thus viewers are once again challenged to relearn and question what they have been taught and ask: What exactly constitutes a gang? Is a gang a negative thing to be feared? And finally, can the police – given their shared values, belonging to a unit that looks after its own, sometimes intimidating behaviour and, according to the residents’ of Broadwater Farm’s narratives, attempts to avenge the death of one of their members, be considered a gang?

At times the film is not an easy watch and will likely move you to tears, but then what else can be expected from a film with such an unpleasant subject matter: the death of a young man – a popular father, son and friend – the shameful attempt to legitimise his murder, and the devastating consequences of his death for so many. Even though we do not really know Mark Duggan by the end of the film – only his family and friends ever will – we have a much deeper understanding of the life he led and how it came to be that his life was taken by a police officer.

Mark Duggan, 29, was shot dead by a police officer on 4th August 2011

If Mark Duggan was like the company he kept then he was someone who loved his family and friends, was a strong member of his local community and knew how to have a good time. He may not have always stuck strictly to “the right path” but he certainly did not deserve to have his life taken so prematurely, nor to then be depicted as a cold-hearted gangster who had to be killed.

The Hard Stop is a painful cry from a community who have been suffering for a long time and are desperate to be heard. Their story is compelling, moving and will play on your mind after the film has finished.