In times of conflict and uncertainty, genre filmmakers often act by creating bold, bloody, brilliant, and provocative art. If it wasn’t for the Vietnam War then the careers of Martin Scorsese, Wes Craven, George Romero, and Tobe Hooper could have turned out much differently. If it wasn’t for the Watergate scandal instilling political paranoia, we might not have experienced the The Parallax View (1974), The Conversation (1974), or All the President’s Men (1976). Right-wing politics in France during the ‘90s and 2000s inspired some of the most extreme and thought provoking films to emerge from Europe during the peak years of the New Wave of Extremity. Recently, films like The Purge series and Get Out have channeled the fierce dissatisfaction felt towards classism and racism respectively. Genre cinema has always addressed societal fears and concerns in a way that’s sometimes disturbing but through its ability to reflect issues rooted in reality in a manner that’s unrestrained is what makes it so cathartic. Bushwick might not go down in history as the defining voice of how terrible the world was in 2017 – nor will people be talking about for years to come – but the fact that it taps into the current divided American zeitgeist makes it more than your average entertaining action romp.
Directed by Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott from a script by Nick Damici and Graham Reznick, Bushwick imagines modern day New York as a war zone. The South has decided to rise again in an effort to secede from the federal union, and to blackmail the government into granting their separation, an army of mercenaries holds the titular Brooklyn borough hostage under the impression guns will be limited. But the neighbourhood is packing heat, and they’re not prepared to let the southern invaders take over.
When we’re first introduced to Lucy (Brittany Snow) she’s with her boyfriend and about to leave the subway station to go see her grandma. That is until a burning man comes tumbling down the station stairs, followed by the sounds of gunshots and explosions above ground. When her boyfriend heads up to see what’s happening, he’s met with the business end of an explosion and returns a deformed mess. The streets are a war zone and when Lucy is left to her own devices she turns to Stupe (Dave Bautista) – a janitor and former soldier – for help. Together, they navigate their way through the chaotic blocks to try and escape from New York.
When George A. Romero cast Duane Jones as the lead in his 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, he did so because he needed an actor to play the part. It was that simple. However, when Martin Luther King was assassinated just prior to the film’s release, Night of the Living Dead suddenly inherited significant meaning as a metaphor for the turbulent racial tensions boiling within the country at the time. When Nick Damici and Graham Reznick were developing the script for their urban warfare action-thriller Bushwick, Donald J. Trump had still to be elected president, news of Russian bombers hovering near Alaska was still a few months away, and the impending threat of America being on the receiving end of an attack from North Korea as well as the violent “Unite the Right’’ rally in Virginia on the week of its VOD release was unforeseen. That said, make no mistake about it: Bushwick is an overtly political movie, and one which taps into the divisions present within American society long before the Trump’s appointment as Commander-in-Chief was a reality. Right now is the best time to watch Bushwick, because at this moment in time, the film’s themes are topical and relevant. The potential outbreak of conflict with North Korea plays into the movie’s invasion concept to an extent, while its imagining of a modern day Civil War reflects the nation’s polarised socio-political climate.
Bushwick is a cautionary tale for the United States; one which serves as a warning not to invade other countries, while on the other hand, highlighting how political and nationalistic tensions instigate larger troubles. You only need to look at the situation in Ukraine right now to see how unpopular political decisions can result in shit hitting the fan. What initially started out as a trade disagreement after President Viktor Yanukovych suspended negotiations with the European Union at the behest of Russia in 2013 eventually morphed into the bloodiest conflict within a European country since the Yugoslavian situation in 1990. The ‘pro-EU versus pro-Russia’ ideologies fuelling the Ukrainian civil war reflect opposing political movements abandoning discourse in favour of violence, and we’ve seen that in America often lately.
In June of this year, four Republican politicians were wounded following a gun attack in Virginia. Following the incident, pundits on the right declared that the country was experiencing a “cold Civil War.’’ Writing for The Federalist, Clifford Humphrey stated, “So many on all sides have withdrawn consent from one another, as well as from Republicanism as defined by the Constitution and as it was practiced until the mid-20th century, that it is difficult to imagine how the trust and sympathy necessary for good government might ever return. Instead, we have a cold civil war.’’
Elsewhere, tensions escalated between far left and far right activists back in April when mob clashes broke out at Berkeley when Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial conservative media personality, was scheduled to give a speech at the university. There have been countless stories since Trump’s appointment to suggest that people are willing to turn to violence in pursuit of an agenda or because they disagree with opposing ideologies. To some extreme contingents on both the left and right sides of the spectrum, the idea marketplace has become a battlefield. And as history has shown, full-scale widespread combat has often risen from such circumstances.
The decision to set the film in Bushwick is interesting as the borough is a cultural melting pot which boasts residents of white, African American, Hispanic, and other ethnic persuasions. Seeing warfare break out in such a community recalls some of the racially-motivated attacks in recent years to make the news. For example, the 2015 shooting of African American teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson which incited civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and saw cops take to the blazing streets in tanks kitted out in combat gear to restore law and order. The scenes were more reminiscent of a war zone than a heated protest.
Unfortunately, the Brown shooting marked one of several involving white cops shooting unarmed black men only to be acquitted of any wrongdoing, the most recent being the case of Betty Shelby, who shot Terence Crutcher last September because he wouldn’t lie down only to walk free of any charges. Incidents like these have created further distrust between angry citizens and the institutions in place which are supposed to protect and serve. In a study carried out by the FBI earlier this year, results showed that 28% of assailants convicted of murdering police officers did so for social or political reasons, as a means of getting justice for those murdered by cops: “These assailants expressed that they were distrustful of the police due to previous personal interactions with law enforcement and what they heard and read in the media about other incidents involving law enforcement shootings.” (Law Officer).
Race problems have been rife in recent memory, along with hate crimes motivated by anti-Islam beliefs. Earlier this month a bomb exploded in a Minnesota mosque, marking the latest atrocity against Islam carried out by right wing fanatics since Trump won the election. A report published by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) showed that Islamophobic incidents rose by 91% in the first half of 2017, making this year the worst for abuse-related incidents since the organisation started documenting data in 2013.
Historian Steve Ross has compared the president’s rise to power to the Civil War between the North and Confederate states in 1861, and believes that Trump’s victory is the manifestation of white American’s acting out of fear of losing their political leverage. “What you have is the kind of pre-emptive anger of a certain part of the white population that understands within the next decade or two, Anglo-WASP America — white Anglo-Saxon America — is going to be a minority in this country,” Ross told the Huffington Post. “And they’re angry about that. And so Trump is the leader, he’s the Jefferson Davis of his own time.”
Bushwick doesn’t side with any political system; it merely shines a light on the contemporary divide that’s been created by them. Yet with its boots on the ground approach to the action and editing so well done that the film feels like one continuous shot, it does a wonderful job at making its far-fetched story seem grounded in reality. The NYC setting coupled with helicopters falling from the sky and smoking skyscrapers in the background also serves as an unsettling reminder of 9/11, which further enforces the film’s warnings that America could be headed to war; civil or global.
But could another civil war break out, or is America a nation far too advanced and diplomatic to allow an event that extreme to occur? According to an expert, the seeds are there should someone be able to sew them together. David Kilcullen, former Chief Strategist in the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator of Counterterrorism, told Cracked: “I think what we’re seeing now is, what I would describe as a proto-insurgency situation … the ingredients are out there, if somebody knew what they were doing, [they could] pull together an effective movement.” Bushwick should be taken as entertainment first and foremost; if it wasn’t for current anxieties making its message resonate more powerfully, it’d be nothing more than a bleak genre flick. The film’s visceral thrills are aplenty and its ability to thrust you into the heat of the action makes it exciting, but its subtext is only partly intentional. The rest is just good timing because right now everything seems like it’s going to hell in a handbasket.
The performances also lend a sense of realism to proceedings, and while Snow more than holds her own, it’s Bautista who steals the show. If you told me after the dismal WWE Studio’s production Wrong Side of Town (2010) that Dave ‘The Animal’ Bautista would deliver captivating performances in 2017, I’d have laughed to myself and thought you were crazy. Needless to say, the former pro wrestler has come a long way since his feature film debut and proved his doubters wrong by evolving into a perfectly fine actor. With Bushwick and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 under his belt already this year, and Denis Villeneuve’s highly-anticipated Blade Runner 2049 looming, his stock continues to rise. He’s brilliant here, making use of his physicality and bravado to enhance action scenes, while showcasing enough dramatic range to service the film’s more sombre moments.
Overall, Bushwick is a film well worth seeing. Similarly to previous urban warfare thrillers like Escape from New York (1981) and The Purge: Anarchy (2014), it enforces its message in a manner that’s far from subtle, but all the more entertaining as a result. The film holds a magnifying glass up against the current socio-political disarray in America and presents an alternate reality which might seem outlandish and extreme to some, but is it really so far removed from the real life events which could trigger this type of orchestrated breakdown in future? That’s what Bushwick wants us to think about, and it’s desire to instill fear in our mind’s coupled with the thrill of dystopian cinema is what makes it such a treat.
Rating – 4/5
“The Assailant Study – Mindsets and Behaviors.’’ Law Enforcer. May 5 2017. http://lawofficer.com/special-topics/the-assailant-study-mindsets-and-behaviors/. Accessed 11 Aug. 2017
“CAIR Report Shows 2017 on Track to Becoming One of Worst Years Ever for Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes.’’ CAIR. July 17, 2017. https://www.cair.com/press-center/press-releases/14476-cair-report-shows-2017-on-track-to-becoming-one-of-worst-years-ever-for-anti-muslim-hate-crimes.html. Accessed 11 Aug. 2017
Delaney, Arthur. “Donald Trump and America’s ‘Second Civil War.’” The Huffington Post. Mar. 26, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-fascist_us_56f4476de4b0143a9b47bd2e. Accessed 11 Aug. 2017.
Evans, Robert. “6 Reasons Why a New Civil War is Possible and Terrifying.’’ Cracked. Nov. 1, 2016.
Humphrey, Clifford. “It’s Time to Stop Our Civil War from Heating Up.” The Federalist. 5 Jun. 2017, http://thefederalist.com/2017/06/05/time-stop-cold-civil-war-heating/. Accessed 11 Aug. 2017.