British comedian and filmmaker Chris Morris has made a career of combining scathing comedy with news-worthy topicality. His 2010 film, the dark satire “Four Lions,” told the story of bumbling wanna-be jihadis in Britain. His newest film turns an eye toward government tracking of domestic terror in the U.S.
“The Day Shall Come,” which premiered Monday at the South by Southwest Film Festival, is stingingly funny but also grounded in an emotional reality, both an absurdist satire of institutional power and a disturbing portrait of what happens to those unwittingly caught in its wake, overwhelmed by the machinery of government.
In the movie, newcomer Marchánt Davis plays Moses al Shabaz, self-styled sultan of the Star of Six Farm, a small mission in Miami that he runs with his wife Venus (Danielle Brooks) and their daughter Rosa (Calah Lane). Desperate for money to save the farm, Moses becomes involved in an increasingly complicated scheme that finds him going from low-level gun-running to potentially trading in nuclear materials. All of this is actually being orchestrated without his knowledge by the local office of the FBI, including agents played by Denis O’Hare and Anna Kendrick.
Morris, who co-wrote the screenplay with “Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong, based his storytelling on extensive research into real-life FBI counter-terrorism sting operations, most notably the “Liberty City Seven” case of seven men in Miami indicted for a plot to attack Chicago. A title card at the beginning of the film declares it is “based on a hundred true stories.”
The movie is extremely dense with information and with language, at times challenging the audience to keep up. As Kendrick said in a Q&A after the premiere, “To be honest, I think sometimes Chris is too smart for himself, even.”
On the morning after the screening, Morris sat down in Austin to talk about his process in creating the film, as well as his larger project and views on comedy in an age of absurdity.
Do you feel like your work exists at some intersection of comedy and the news? What drives your interest in comedy that is so grounded in reality?
It's hard to be objective about that because obviously from my point of view it exists in the most obvious place. But I think reality strikes you and then you respond to it. I mean, most reality is ridiculous in some way. Therefore, I think the only apparent contradiction is if you think that comedy might trivialize it. But then it depends whether the comedy is escaping the reality or driving into it.
Like the examples about those FBI stings where they catch your attention because they're so pushed. The people planning to launch a full-scale land war in the United States turns out to be seven construction workers riding into Chicago on horses. And the disparity between that, if you pull that apart, I thought it was funny on its face.
And then there is the mechanism of how those guys ever came to be accused of that. And the fact that you can make people look guilty if you work hard enough and if they are fool enough to step through the hoops that you set up for them.
And that becomes a bit surreal and therefore interesting because it's kind of slightly boggling. You sort of think, right, there's something here. It feels like a comedy, but it lands. And so I guess that's a long-winded description of an intersection between two things. I like to feel there's a purpose to something because that's the only thing that can keep you getting out of bed in the morning for a long time.
What would you feel is the purpose behind the story of “The Day Shall Come”?
Well, there are a number. I think one nutshell, and I think there's a big bowl of nutshells. But one nutshell would be that it's a comedy about injustice. So one's response is to do with the injustice of the way these things work, but also a fascination in the way these things work. So you're kind of dealing with a complicated granola of known and unknown ingredients.
All of the different ways something can be interesting are part of the process, I suppose, to cross between studying something in the library and gross acts of attention-seeking. Somewhere on that line, I think comedy. So long as you're not throwing it away, it almost inevitably commits you to head into something serious or real because a joke won't work unless it seems to come from a real place. It has to touch some level of truth.
So it’s quite a good way of revealing if something seems ridiculous in real life, like these FBI sting cases, that's a magnet that draws you into discovery. I suppose there's a discovery of a truth that perhaps drives it as well. But I think you're now asking to decode my own sort of sensory inputs, which could be a disaster.
The film feels very volatile. Were you concerned with the racial politics of the movie, with the FBI targeting a minority group, and were you conscious of not wanting the movie to feel like it was punching down at the expense of Moses and his community?
I think there are two separate things, so I'll deal with the one I understand better first and then come to the punching down thing.
You see the Liberty City Seven news story — you see how it really played out and what it really was. And then you follow all the other cases. You end up with a predominantly white, privileged institution picking on black and ethnic minorities. That's just where you end up. You can't then distort the reality in a different direction. That's where you have to be.
And I feel that in terms of punching down, I don't feel the FBI are an easy target. But I think because of the power differential between the two groups of people in the film, because the government holds all the cards, you have to be punching up that way. That's the direction in which the punch goes, isn't it?
It's pretty unstinting in that regard. Because of course a government is a responsible institution for everybody in the country. So what the … is it doing this for? It's not a responsible institution for some people in the country.
And I did feel the difference between watching this film in Britain and here, because here there was a firing-line element, and it's a firing line aimed at a kind of privilege, isn't it?
How do you feel about the current political moment in regard to satire? Both in the United States and the United Kingdom, where reality often seems absurd, do you have to make the ridiculous even more ridiculous to make comedy out of it?
I don't think it's the problem in pushing ridiculousness one notch further. I think what has disorientated the landscape a bit is the destabilization of a consensus.
But I think that's just a boat rocking. It doesn't change the innate follies that are manifest in human nature.
So as long as that doesn't run out, which should be pretty weird if it did, then there's always a revealingly comic angle.
And I think a certain class of people who were involved in producing a certain angle of satirical work, actually we're relying on very stable ground that wouldn't change. Of course, things do change and we're living through a period of change. So you suddenly have to start thinking. And I think someone who was 25 hearing that question would just laugh contemptuously at the confused old folk stuck in the mud. So I think that what's happened is that a generation of people in middle age have found that the precepts have changed, therefore no comedy is ever possible anymore. But I kind of think the sky isn't falling on comedy yet.