There are any number of ways to bring attention to a hot-button issue, and among the trickiest methods to pull off gracefully is satire. When the subject you're looking at is the current state of race relations in our country, the stumbling blocks are innumerable. But that didn't dissuade filmmaker and Rochester native Mike Gerbino from tackling the issue head-on with his timely six-episode web series "Dark Justice."
Without preaching and without villainizing those on either side of the issue, the series is a reaction to the breakout of the Black Lives Matter movement (not to mention the redundant All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter offshoots).
"I found myself overwhelmed by the protests that had erupted from the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown," Gerbino says. "I'm from Rochester, but I'm currently living in New York City and the tension was obvious here. I have close friends and family on all sides of the police violence issue, and while I was working to formulate my own thoughts on it, I came up with the idea for 'Dark Justice.' I think it was a way of laughing a bit and being able to ease the tension I was feeling."
With a deadpan sense of humor and the provocative, in-your-face politics of a Spike Lee joint, "Dark Justice" manages to find the humor in a sensitive topic. Filmed in 2015, the series stars local actor Che Holloway as policeman Amir Johnson, the first black officer in a small, unnamed town's all-white police department. When Amir's partner (Tim O'Connor) shoots him after being unable to distinguish between his uniformed fellow officer and a robbery suspect, the incident kicks off a bitter legal battle that embroils the entire force.
Gerbino took inspiration for the story from real-life incidents. "I remember seeing a story of a black lieutenant in some city who had been arrested by his subordinate officers. He had been driving his SUV at night, and was pulled over. Not only was he profiled for driving, but they didn't even believe him when he said he was their boss. I thought that was pretty horrible, and a little funny." Gerbino took the idea to the extreme for satire.
Though the situation is played for laughs, the issues "Dark Justice" raises are taken completely serious. At one point, Amir's partner attempts to justify his behavior by explaining how racism has carried and nurtured him through his darkest times — in a distorted reflection of the "footprints in the sand" religious allegory. On one hand, it's a silly, ridiculous assertion, but on the other, it's as good a way as any to describe how racism is systemic and ingrained in every aspect of society. It's honest, and the truth hurts.
The series has obviously struck a chord, receiving positive attention both locally and nationally. Just last week, the series was awarded Best Web Series at the ROC Awards, where Holloway was also nominated for Best Actor.
As writer and director of the series, Gerbino (who is white) creates a unique tone in which sharp social satire can exist comfortably alongside crude fart jokes. Aside from Spike Lee, Gerbino namechecks the animated series "The Boondocks," Mel Brooks, and Christopher Morris' black comedy "Four Lions" as sources of inspiration, which should give you an idea of the general tone.
"Dark Justice is a very light, absurd treatment of an issue from my perspective," Gerbino says. "And, because of that, I worked really hard to respect the main character's plight so that people don't feel like the joke is on him the whole time."
"Dark Justice" rises above any budget limitations with a smart script and a game cast, including the funny Jon Cesar, playing an Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson-inspired reverend who takes on Amir's case. But much of the success is due to Holloway, who makes for a likeable and sympathetic conduit through which the audience views the exaggerated world Gerbino has created.
"Dark Justice" is the kind of daring comedy we need at a time when the public loses their damn minds when Beyoncé embraces her black heritage, and the Academy Awards have become ground zero for debating the lack of racial representation in Hollywood. "It isn't really a 'message' show, but in my opinion, it is telling the objective reality of the situation: we have a problem with police and race that, despite how obvious it is, we simply cannot talk about," Gerbino says.