It’s election night in 1979 and in an east London police station DS Karn and DC Wilby are eagerly awaiting the “new dawn” that will accompany Margaret Thatcher’s victory.
In a sparse interview room sits Delroy, a young black man. He believes that, not for the first time, the police have pulled him on Sus – “suspicion of committing, or intending to commit a crime”.
Delroy expects some routine ritual racist humiliation, then to be sent home to his wife and kids – after all, he’s no criminal.
What follows is a gut-churning dramatisation of a real story.
During the “interview” Karn and Wilby reveal that Delroy’s pregnant wife has been found dead, and that they believe him to be the killer.
The officers beat, abuse and psychologically torture him in the hope of extracting a confession before the election result is announced.
Barrie Keeffe, who wrote the film, told Socialist Worker, “When Sus was first performed on stage 31 years ago, one critic described it as a bit of ‘instant political theatre’.
“The implication was that its moment would soon pass and it would become irrelevant.
“Yet black people today are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched under the anti-terror laws than they were under the Sus laws of the 1970s and 1980s.
“So here we are 30 years later, and its resonance is stronger than ever. That makes me both sad and angry.”
Barrie says that while there has been little change in policing, the way audiences respond to Sus has changed.
“I remember when we put the play on at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, east London, in the early 1980s. Around half the audience was black, and sometimes it was like bear-pit night.
“People were so angry with the police characters in the play that the actor who played Delroy had to intervene to stop the audience attacking them. He had to remind them that the actors were on ‘our side’ and were against racism.
“Back then, there was still a sense of anger and shock at the way the cops were behaving. Today there seems to be a sense of resignation and police racism seems to have lost its shock value.”
Sus uses intercut footage from the 1979 general election to good effect, but is essentially set in a single interrogation room for the whole 100 minutes.
The effect is claustrophobic and intense, and the quality of the acting is superb. But the greatest of the film’s many strengths is the way its characters are developed through dialogue.
Karn and Wilby, though psychotically racist, are depicted as remarkably human.
“Part of my job as a writer is to win an audience’s trust,” says Barrie. “You can only do that if you create something that feels real.
“I’m not really into agitprop theatre where the baddies are just cardboard cutouts. I didn’t want stereotype cops. I wanted them to come across as believable.
“So when I created Karn I wanted someone who, as a torturer, would reveal a lot about himself by the questions he asks. He sees himself, pompously, as a ‘man of culture’ and makes a lot of his foreign travels, his speaking of pidgin French to his wife on the phone, and his membership of a history book club.”
In fact, the very “normality” of the Karn character makes Sus even more chilling, and leaves us asking how someone who seems so average can be capable of such barbarity?
While the police officers are well-drawn figures that audiences will hate, perhaps the play’s greatest triumph is Delroy.
Before he is told of his wife’s death, he is cast as streetwise, and easily prepared to engage in verbal shadow boxing with Karn and Wilby.
At first his jokey style made me a little uncomfortable and had me wondering if he resembled something of a caricature.
But by the end of the film Delroy is a man transformed. He is bloodied but unbroken – and defiant.
Having tortured Delroy for hours on end, Karn joyously recounts the scale of Margaret Thatcher’s election victory. He then turns to Delroy and asks, “Are you a political man?”
Delroy looks him straight in the eye, and replies, “Yesterday, I would have said no. Today it begins.”
Barrie says, “That line got a massive response from the audience at the East End film festival in London last month.
“People got up and cheered. And, out of everything I’ve written, I think that’s the line I’m most proud of.”
Barrie is especially pleased that the film is going to be on release after the election.
“Thatcher gave the police almost unlimited powers to stop and search people, and the police completely abused them,” he says.
“Sus is not really about the past. It’s a warning about the future.”
Sus is out on Friday 7 May