Satire is a tricky thing. It’s a complicated balancing act to take a serious subject — in the case of writer/director Chris Morris’s The Day Shall Come, we’re talking about the politics and policies of Homeland Security and US anti-terrorism tactics — and manipulate humor in a way that exposes ugly truths. It can easily miss its mark, or worse, stumble over the line altogether. The Day Shall Come doesn’t miss the mark, nor does it stumble over the line. It takes off with a rocket strapped to its back like a drunken Wile E. Coyote and crashes to earth in a screaming, flaming heap.
It is a disaster of a film that frankly should never have been made.
The Day Shall Come tells two intertwined stories. Story A is about Moses Al Shabaz (Marchant Davis), the broke and misguided leader of a farm/commune/revolutionary movement in Miami. He has four members of his flock, not counting his patient wife Venus (Danielle Brookes) and their adorable daughter. Moses is running out of time and money when it comes to renting the ramshackle building they use as their home and church, and without giving it nearly enough thought, turns to a small time Middle Eastern crook (who is actually an FBI informant and pedophile, because HA! PEDOPHILES!) to try to scam money out of him. Story B is centered around the FBI agent Kendra (Anna Kendrick), who is competing with a fellow agent Stevie (Adam David Thompson) to try to set up a sting that will earn them brownie points with their boss, Mudd (Denis O’Hare). They’re essentially creating entrapment scams, pushing Shabaz into taking guns he doesn’t want or need because it’ll also come with enough cash to save his flock and their homes.
Morris tries very hard for a madcap, Dr. Strangelove-esque vibe here, making his actors more caricatures than characters. The FBI is spectacularly inept, not to mention hilariously racist and sexist … or rather, Morris wants their nonstop barrage of racism and misogyny to be hilarious, but it comes off as forced and ultimately just unpleasant. Worse yet is his treatment of Shabaz and his crew, portrayed as little more than shiftless, cultish halfwits who pray to a combination of Malcolm X, “Black Santa” and a flurry of other stupid, punch-down black stereotypes. They’re unwitting participants, too stupid to see the trouble they’re getting into, despite the fact that the government agents conning them are dumb as a stepped-on donuts.
The film is a nonstop flurry of misguided jokes and a sort of racism ouroboros that starts off as satire about racism but then just spins itself around back to being actual racism. It’s satire that fails utterly, with jokes that are occasionally funny, but not in a way that makes you feel good about yourself once you give them more than a second of analysis. It’s lowest-common-denominator humor because yes, it paints a deservingly negative picture of the government’s anti-terrorism efforts, but also does this at the expense of the minorities in the film. To make matters even worse, Shabaz is clearly mentally unwell — he hears and sees things, and not in a prophetic sense, but in a schizophrenic, needs-medication sense. He imagines his horse is talking to him and wears a shower curtain for a cape. These things could potentially work if they were going for generically crazy, but the script specifically calls out his mental illness and uses it as a constant punchline throughout the film. It’s a lazy, cheap excuse for his continued ineptitude and a means to make fun of him instead of building sympathy for him.
Here’s the thing: I don’t need a movie to tell me that the FBI is f—ked up and crooked and that people of color get shit on by them. I don’t need to a movie to tell me that black men get arrested on trumped up charges simply for being black. But if a movie is going to tell me those things, I sure as hell don’t need a movie to try to make a joke out of it. Based on hearing Morris speak before this film was screened at SXSW, I know that he was trying to cast light on the government’s shadiness and racism. But he couldn’t have missed his target more if he’d shot himself in the head. Is it possible to make a satire about a mentally unwell African-American man with unconventional beliefs being persecuted by the US government? I suppose it’s possible, but you don’t do that by making light of all of those aspects of that man. Literally, every part of Shabaz’s character is a punchline used to elicit laughs from the audience. What was the point of the exercise? You need to have more than “real life, but with mean jokes.” That’s not comedy. It’s cruelty. The hell with The Day Shall Come.