Twenty years in the making, Ken Fero’s Ultraviolence is the follow-up to Injustice from 2001, a documentary that is the most important British nonfiction film of my professional lifetime: a radical, passionate work about the ongoing scandal and tragedy of deaths in UK police custody, largely of black men. That film challenged the consensus and earned Fero and his co-director Tariq Mehmood nothing but obstruction from the authorities. The police federation threatened him with writs and the terrestrial broadcasters nervously shied away.
Nowadays, it is precisely these establishment figures who have learned to make blandly respectful noises at the mention of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd. But for decades, Fero has been telling them that it’s been happening right here, in the UK, under their noses. Between 1969 and 1999, a thousand people died in police custody without prosecution, and the situation has carried on in the 21st century. Injustice talked about the heartwrenching cases of Paul Coker, Christopher Alder and many more: black men whose initial arrest on some minor matter of disorder spiralled into ugly violence, brutal subjection techniques, death and cover-up within the walls of the police station. Fero has here given us an update: grimly, it is a case of more of the same: more deaths, more protests, more waffle from the Independent Office for Police Conduct, more press conferences, more stonewalling that leads the angry grieving families up endless flights of the Escher staircase.
Now, the film itself is undoubtedly a bit raw and rough round the edges: it does not have the smooth gloss of a bigger budget film on a safer subject. In its way, Ultraviolence is protest cinema, underground cinema, with big rhetorical gestures and Godardian intertitles that come straight from the 1960s. And on a personal level, I can’t sign up to George Galloway as an expert witness in the way this film does. But the new video footage Fero now has, taken from police station CCTV, is horrifying. This makes every other documentary look obtuse and irrelevant.
• Ultraviolence is released on 25 June in cinemas, and on 5 July on BFI Player.
• Join a Guardian Live discussion looking at the global impact one year on from the murder of George Floyd. With Oliver Laughland and a panel of global activists including Rokhaya Diallo, Gacheke Gachihi and Rina Odula. On Wednesday 30 June, 7pm BST | 8pm CEST | 11am PDT | 2pm EDT. Book tickets here