‘As a person of colour, I’m political whether I want to be or not’

Fresh out of drama school, Marchánt Davis found his breakout role in Chris Morris’s latest film, The Day Shall Come

Marchánt Davis: the young actor plays a charismatic self-styled preacher in The Day Shall Come

Marchánt Davis: the young actor plays a charismatic self-styled preacher in The Day Shall Come

 

In 2006, the United States Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales made a sensational announcement concerning an army, based in Miami, known as the Universal Divine Saviours. The group were terrorists, he claimed, preparing for a “full ground war against the United States.” Thanks to an FBI sting, this full ground war had been narrowly averted.

Two years later, the British satirist Chris Morris travelled to Washington DC to interview a witness from the trial. He discovered that this alleged insurrection would have been pulled off by seven construction workers riding into Chicago on horses. Crucially, they had no horses or guns. The entire plot was cooked up because an FBI informant had offered them $50,000 to plan an attack on America. The Liberty City Seven, as they became known, were broke so they offered to carry out an impossible plan to blow up the Sears Tower into a lake and swamp the city with the resulting tidal wave. The FBI ran with it. The Attorney General said it was a bigger Al Qaeda plot than 9/11. It took three trials to find the seven guilty. They were all jailed as terrorists.

“I discovered this was not a freakish one off,” says Morris. “Since 9/11 it has become standard operating procedure. Informants encourage a person of interest to break the law and when they do, the FBI arrest them. Each plan is put together with the federal attorney. Arrest is delayed until the case will play in court. So the conviction rate is 98%. The typical sentence is 25 years. Investigating AG Gonzales’ international lie took me all over America. I met families of people who’d been jailed, their lawyers, FBI informants, prosecutors, police, sheriffs and FBI agents.”

This story is real, It’s present. It’s scary. It’s wild. It’s necessary. It needs to be told

Morris’s investigations form the spine of The Day Shall Come, a scathing new comedy in which a half-arsed commune are goaded into a fake uranium transaction by Anna Kendrick’s FBI agent.

Marchánt Davis was just six months out of New York University Tisch School of Arts when he was cast as the lead in Morris’s new satire. The young actor has subsequently been nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play and has wrapped the Vietnam protest drama, Tuscaloosa.

“My family: they get it but they don’t quite get it,” laughs the Philadelphia-born Davis. “They keep telling me it will happen someday and I’m like: it’s happening. I’m making movies and working on Broadway right now. I might not be Will Smith but it is happening.”

In The Day Shall Come, Davis plays Moses, a charismatic if not entirely coherent self-styled preacher in Miami’s projects with a four-strong congregation (including his young daughter and wife). Moses keeps chickens and evokes Black Santa and Black Jesus in sermons inciting non-violent revolution and psychic interventions against gentrification.

“It took a lot of changing of my own thinking in order to play that character,” says Davis. “I couldn’t think about what Marchánt Davis would do in those situations. He’s an honourable guy, he’s a family, and he’s fighting to survive. Most of all, he doesn’t know failure. He doesn’t know how to fail.”

Going in to The Day Shall Come, Davis had not heard about the Liberty City Seven, but he knew of similar scenarios.

“I was aware of the MOVE organisation and John Africa in West Philadelphia,” says Davis. “As soon as Chris talked with me about the Liberty City Seven, I said: oh, that sounds like something that happened with MOVE. And he was like: wait; what’s that? So when we first met it was a bit like dating. You share scary FBI or police story; I share scary story. And we realised that we were aligned in this beautiful way. This story is real, It’s present. It’s scary. It’s wild. It’s necessary. It needs to be told.”

The Day Shall Come: Andrel McPherson and Marchánt Davis in the latest film from British satirist Chris Morris
The Day Shall Come: Andrel McPherson and Curtiss Cook jnr in the latest film from the British satirist Chris Morris

Morris is well-known on this side of the Atlantic as – “the most loathed man on British TV” by the Daily Mail’s reckoning – on the back of his hysterical (and discombobulatingly prescient) takedowns of current affairs programming on The Day Today and Brass Eye, as well as his black-hearted suicide bomber comedy, Four Lions. For Davis, however, Morris’s output represented a Brave New World.

“When I first met him I was like: you know a lot about black people; who are you?” says Davis. “You’re very smart and you’re very intuitive and you clearly done an enormous amount of research. So I felt an obligation to also do a phenomenal amount of research on who he was. So I watched Four Lions and I watch some of the more commercial stuff like Veep. And then I watch Brass Eye and I was like: holy shit.”

The film itself, which didn’t have a script, was another surprise. Certain aspects were incorporated from ongoing conversations. What would Moses like to shoot a sucker dart at? Why Ronald Reagan , of course.

“The scene where you see the family painting Santa decorations comes from my mom,” says Davis. “When I was younger mom would go to the store and Santa Claus and angel decorations and then we will paint them black before she put them up on the Christmas tree. I told Chris about it during the audition process.”

Today, Davis is in London for a quick two-day publicity blitz before he returns to Broadway for The Great Society, Robert Schenkkan’s political drama concerning President Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Brian Cox) and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The play also stars Grantham Coleman as Martin Luther King Jr, Bryce Pinkham as Robert F. Kennedy, and Davis as socialist organiser and civil rights activist, Stokely Carmichael.

“It takes place right after LBJ’s landslide election victory,” says Davis. “And brings us up to his decision not to run for a second term. So it’s an interesting time for Stokely Carmichael because of the whole Hoover cointelpro is happening. Stokely ended up leaving the States and going to Africa. I watched a lot of videos in preparation. I like to watch videos more than reading, especially when I’m learning about a person of colour because a lot of the things that are written about people of colour in history are written from the perspective of people who are not of colour. So there’s a bias and a language around them. Sometimes you’re not hearing what they said; you’re hearing what other people thought they said and it’s skewed. There’s a misconception that Stokely Carmichael was in favour of violence - by any means necessary - and he wasn’t. He thought Martin Luther King was smart but he felt that King’s assumption – that your opponent would see you’re suffering and feel for you – was based on the idea that America has a conscience. At that time, that was not so.”

There is, notes Davis, something of a pattern emerging in his career. Earlier this year, he was lauded for essaying multiple characters in Jordan E. Cooper’s surreal off-Broadway play, Ain’t No Mo, which imagined black Americans being forced to move to Africa or stay in America to endure “extreme racial transmogrification.”

Progress is unfortunately inch by inch and not mile by mile. But it’s still progress

“Somebody asked me: is your family political? Do I come from a political family?” says Davis. “And I said to them: that’s a loaded question. I feel that as a person of colour, I’m political whether I want to be or not. I’m from a very big family. My mom has 12 siblings so I have a lot of cousins. And because my family is so huge, a lot of things have happened to us. One of my cousins was shot in 2005 by the Philadelphia police department. This was before Facebook and Instagram hit the levels they are at now. So it was before Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile and Mike Brown. It was before those high profile cases and before Black Lives Matter. That’s just inevitable as a person of colour in America. You find yourself in situations in which you have to be political.”

He remains hopeful, nonetheless, that progress is possible. His profession, at least, is moving forward, albeit slowly.

“Give Constance Wu the Oscar for Hustlers!” he says. “I wasn’t expecting it to be that kind of film at all. And the fact that we are telling stories like that now is great. The fact that Spike Lee won an Oscar is great. I mean it should have happened for Do the Right Thing but it happened and that was beautiful. We may not live in a perfect society but I loved what Spike said after losing to Green Book: ‘I always lose to somebody when somebody is driving somebody else but at least this time they were in a different seat’. Progress is unfortunately inch by inch and not mile by mile. But it’s still progress.”

The Day Shall Come is in cinemas now

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