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▶ Your Honor (ten episodes) is available to watch on Sky Atlantic.
Your Honor, a Showtime miniseries developed by Peter Moffat, is set in New Orleans but this time the city appears without its familiar festive gaiety. The story begins in the semi-dark, and although clear daylight illuminates its gruesome and prolonged inciting incident, an accidental hit-and-run, we are soon plunged back into the murk, as one boy dies slowly in the gutter, and another flees the scene, captured briefly on a glitchy CCTV screen at the gas station.
The palette of the film is dominated by these grey tones: from the concrete and tarmac of the crime scene, to the mottled stonework of the cemetery, where so many of the characters return to reside or to mourn. With almost every scene shot under the shadow of an elevated highway, during a gathering dusk or in an ill-lit interior, the show’s look encapsulates its preconceptions with death, grief and dubious moral choices. When a passing parade pushes into the frame, squeezing star Bryan Cranston into the background, their crimson costumes hardly brighten the mood, recalling the colour of the victim’s blood seeping into the roadway in the first episode.
Suitably for such a desaturated drama, Your Honor offers an emotionally draining experience for viewers. It also provides the pleasures of complex performances and an ever-escalating plot, which may stretch credulity but scratches some persistent sores in contemporary US society.
Your Honor’s executive producers include Robert and Michelle King, who have form with riveting issue-based legal drama in The Good Wife and its spin-off The Good Fight. Cranston dials down the mania of his breakout role as a terminal meth-cook in Breaking Bad to give a nuanced portrayal in the lead role of Michael Desiato, an idealistic, compassionate judge, whose honour extends beyond the courtesy of his title, but who is driven to desperate acts to protect his son.
In an early scene we see him in the courtroom, using his own research to contradict a police officer’s false testimony. As he knocks down the case against his Black, female defendant he explains to the court the inevitable consequences for her family if she were to be incarcerated. It’s a bravura liberal set piece, but although Desiato clearly has Atticus Finch ideals, this will be his last opportunity to take the moral high ground. New Orleans is shown as a city of distinct but interlocking sectors, largely segregated along racial lines, and contaminated by political corruption, organised crime, racism and police brutality. In this milieu, Desiato is surrounded by a novelistic cast of characters who cross paths with often devastating consequences.
It’s in a Black neighbourhood that the hit-and-run goes down. Desiato’s son Adam (Hunter Doohan) is the teenager behind the wheel, distracted and intimidated by the locals, when he collides with a boy on a motorcycle, and eventually leaves him for dead. That same neighbourhood is where his mother was killed a full year ago, and Adam was there to leave a photograph in her memory. It’s a pattern of behaviour that continues – he is repeatedly drawn to retrace the steps of his crime and its consequences, often with his mother’s camera in hand.
Your Honor is adapted from an Israeli TV series, Kvodo, which was set in the city of Be’er Sheva and surrounding Bedouin villages in the south of the country – places that are rarely seen on screen. There has also been an Indian version, which goes almost shot-for-shot with Kvodo, set in Ludhiana, north of Delhi. Kvodo’s storyline revolves around tensions between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews and between rival Jewish and Bedouin crime gangs. In Your Honor, the faultlines are between white and Black residents, and two organised gangs, one white mob run by Scottish-born Jimmy Baxter (a glowering Michael Stuhlbarg) and the other a Black drug-dealing syndicate run by Big Mo (Andrene Ward-Hammond). Michael’s best friend is a Black politician with connections to the underworld, played with unmistakable affability by Isiah Whitlock Jr (familiar as another corrupt representative, Clay Davis in The Wire).
The first of many complicating factors for the Desiatos is that Jimmy Baxter is the father of the boy who died in the accident: Adam has more than the forces of law and order to fear in retribution for his crime. But as the Desiatos attempt to cover up Adam’s involvement, and the Baxters take matters into their own hands, it’s the lives of Black people that become collateral damage to the sins of two white families. As Baxter’s wife Gia (a compelling turn from Hope Davis) reminds him: “This is New Orleans, Jimmy. Everything connects. Everybody connects.”
Those connections and intersections are underlined by repeated shots of the roads that slice through the city, which also suggest a schematic of the storyline’s prominent social commentary. But the crepuscular look of the show offers a layer of visual interest, and an invitation to peer deeper into the darkness of sorrow and moral compromise. The picture is most interesting when it has only half-emerged, like the prints in Adam’s dark room who bloom into focus as he dances to Joy Division in the gloom.
Sight & Sound May 2021
In our current issue, Barry Jenkins talks truth, justice and his powerfully resonant series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Plus Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Aubrey Plaza on Black Bear, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, and a classic Satyajit Ray interview. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy