April 10, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Anders Ølholm and Frederik Louis Hviid
Danish, Arabic and English with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Copenhagen, Denmark, the dramatic film “Enforcement” features a cast of white people and Arabic people representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: During racial riots over police brutality, two white police officers are stuck in a predominantly Arabic/Muslim neighborhood after arresting an Arabic teenager for vandalism.
Culture Audience: “Enforcement” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in gritty dramas that explore issues of race and police brutality, even if some of the movie’s situations are too contrived to be entirely realistic.
“Enforcement” turns up the suspense and melodramatic moments in a tale of how prejudice and police brutality affect people in Copenhagen, Denmark. The movie mostly succeeds because of realistic portrayals of racism’s damage and because of the actors’ impressive performances. What isn’t so realistic is the movie’s plot: Two white cops in Copenhagen are stuck in a racial riot for hours without any backup.
Written and directed by Anders Ølholm and Frederik Louis Hviid, “Enforcement” was formerly titled “Shorta,” which is the Arabic word for “police.” The movie is told from the cops’ perspectives, since viewers will find out more about their personal lives and feelings than the personal lives and feelings of the Arabic/Muslim people who are the targets of racial profiling and police brutality in this story. “Enforcement” shows what happens when two white Danish cops find themselves way outside of their comfort zone, in a situation where they’re in the racial minority and aren’t in the type of control that they’re used to having.
The movie takes some simplistic shortcuts in trying to find some healing among the racial/ethnic hatred that’s portrayed in this story. And that’s why “Enforcement” isn’t completely convincing in how it depicts law enforcement’s response to an uprising from people pushing back against police racism. “Enforcement” is essentially a chase movie about a “worst case scenario” for cops when they lose their power and authority in their jurisdiction because they’re being hunted and are outnumbered by angry rioters. It’s a situation that could happen in real life, but not to the extreme where two cops in a big city are completely abandoned by their colleagues during a riot.
It’s not spoiler information for this movie, because it’s the basis of what happens for most the story. In reality, the nation’s military and other federal law enforcement would get involved if the local police were overwhelmed during a riot. And so, viewers will have to suspend some disbelief that the two cops in this story have to fend for themselves for hours while they’re trapped in a neighborhood that’s under siege.
The two cops who are at the center of the story are Jens Høyer (played by Simon Sears) and Mike Andersen (played by Jacob Lohmann), two police partners who have opposite personalities. You know where this is going, of course: One is a “good cop,” and the other is a “bad cop.” Jens is the quiet and sensitive “good cop,” who is happily married and respectful of women. Mike is the loudmouthed and aggressive “bad cop” who is a bigot and cheats on his wife. Mike is about 10 to 15 years older than Jens.
In the beginning of the movie, Copenhagen is in upheaval over a police brutality case: An unarmed 19-year-old black Muslim named Talib Ben Hassi was strangled by two cops named Kofoed and Poulsen, who put the teenager in a chokehold while trying to detain him. During this assault, which was caught on video, the teenager shouted, “I can’t breathe!”
Ben Hassi is now in a coma in a hospital’s intensive care unit. The cops involved in the incident have been placed on a leave of absence while the Copenhagen police’s internal affairs department investigates. The controversy has caused riots and arrests in the city.
The center of the civil unrest is in Copenhagen’s low-income Svalegården neighborhood, which is where the Ben Hassi family lives. Svalegården has a large population of Muslim people of color. The cops in the movie repeatedly refer to Svalegården as a “ghetto.”
It’s established early in the movie that Mike is going to cause problems. A female colleague named Rønning (played by Josephine Park) has a conversation with Jens before they head into a staff meeting. Jens will be partnered for the first time with Mike, who has a reputation for being a racist and sexist bully. Rønning doesn’t hold back in telling Jens what she thinks of Mike, by saying that she’d rather “blow my brains out” than work with Mike as a cop partner.
During the staff meeting, their boss Captain Hedegaard (played by Michael Brostrup) tells the assembled cops to stay clear of Svalegården because an increased police presence will just agitate the people there even more. But of course, there would be no “Enforcement” movie if Mike and Jens followed those orders. Jens and Mike find out the hard way how much their captain meant when he said that he didn’t want send any more police into Svalegården.
During Jens and Mike’s first day together as cop partners, Mike doesn’t waste time trying to dig into Jens’ personal life to try to get a read on him. While they’re driving in their squad car (with “alpha male” Mike as the driver), Mike asks Jens if he’s married and has children. Jens says he’s married but doesn’t have children. Mike says he’s married with kids and then makes a derogatory comment about their female colleague Rønning by asking Jens if Jens has had sex with Rønning yet. (Mike uses cruder terms than what’s described here.)
Jens replies that Rønning is a former trainee of his and that it would be inappropriate to have sex with her. Mike replies: “That makes it even hotter: a bit of student/teacher action.” Mike also makes it clear that he has no qualms about cheating on his wife. As Mike and Jens patrol the streets in their squad car, Mike lets it be known that he thinks the cops in the Ben Hassi case should be completely exonerated. Mike also spews some bigoted comments about gypsies to make it obvious that he’s prejudiced against people who aren’t white.
Jens feels pressure to impress Mike, knowing that he’s stuck with Mike, and Mike has seniority over Jens. Jens tells Mike a story about how he accidentally set off a box of grenades at a police department where he previously worked. The building was evacuated, but people forgot for a few hours that there were two gypsies left behind in the lockup area. When they found the gypsies, they were terrified out of their minds. Mike and Jens laugh about this story, with Mike commenting about how funny it must have been to see that the gypsies had soiled themselves from fear.
It’s in this scene that viewers get the first indication that although Jens is the “good cop,” he’s willing to go along with what he thinks Mike wants, even if it means pretending that he might be as prone to corruption as Mike is. (This relationship might remind people of the cop characters that Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke portrayed in the 2001 movie “Training Day.”) A great deal of “Enforcement” is about answering this question: Is it possible for Jens to do the right thing when he’s faced with an ethical dilemma?
While on patrol duty, Jens and Mike follow a Mercedes-Benz E-Class that’s registered to a suspected criminal named Hamza Alfarsi. They follow the car into Svalegården, despite being given orders to steer clear of the neighborhood. Jens is a little hesitant about being in Svalegården, but since Mike is in the driver’s seat, Jens has no choice but to go along.
To no one’s surprise, Mike’s motivation for following the car is so he can see if there’s a way to harass the Arabic people who are in the car. Mike tries these intimidation tactics when he follows the car to a house and orders the people in the car to get out. However, Mike is soon surrounded by some Arabic men, and he backs off when he sees that someone is filming him with a phone.
Mike doesn’t say it loud, but viewers of this movie can tell that he’s infuriated about being embarrassed in front of Jens for this failed harassment attempt. And so, it’s easy to predict that Mike doesn’t want to leave Svalegården until he’s taken his anger out on other Arabs whom he wants to arrest. But before that happens, the two cops stop by a local boxing gym, where Mike does some more ego posturing, to show Jens that Mike is well-known in the neighborhood.
The gym is run by a man named Sami (played by Dulfi Al-Jabouri), who seems to tolerate Mike because he doesn’t want to get on Mike’s vengeful side. The movie makes a point of showing that someone has graffitied “Die Pigs” on one of the gym walls. In the gym are two teenagers named Iza (played by Issa Khattab) and Daniel (played by Abdelmalik Dhaflaoui), who are about 16 or 17 years old. Iza tells Sami that he wants to be a Big Brother (as in the Big Brothers mentor program), but Sami tells Iza that he isn’t old enough yet. It won’t be the last time that Iza and Daniel are seen in this movie.
Jens and Mike then go outside, where Mike spots his next Arab target. He detains a teenager named Amos Al-Shami (played by Tarek Zayat) to harass him, even though the teenager isn’t doing anything wrong. Amos is about 18 or 19 years old. Mike wants to provoke the teen into doing something that would be grounds for arrest.
After demanding to see Amos’ photo ID, Mike asks for the last four digits of the Amos’ Social Security number. Amos refuses. Knowing his rights, Amos takes out his phone and starts filming this harassment. This act of self-protection seems to anger Mike even more. Meanwhile, Jens is standing by in case things turn violent. Some other teenagers, who are not too far away, are witnessing the harassment. Although the other teens can’t hear the conversation, they can see what’s going on.
Mike humiliates Amos with an illegal strip search, by ordering Amos to take off his trousers. Amos complies out of fear of being arrested, During the strip search. Amos remains stoic and calm, with a demeanor that seems to silently say, “You can’t break me.” Amos certainly has more dignity than the racist cop who abuses his power to bully people. The teens watching this harassment begin shouting at and jeering at the cops. Mike eventually backs off because the entire incident is being recorded on video and he feels that he has sufficiently embarrassed Amos.
As Jens and Mike drive off in their squad car, someone throws a cup of milkshake on the windshield of the car. (The movie never shows who was the culprit.) The teenagers scatter as the cops give chase, and Amos is the one who’s caught. Mike and Jens quickly arrest Amos for vandalism, but Amos protests and says he wasn’t the one who threw the milkshake.
The word soon rapidly spreads in Svalegården that another Muslim of color has been harassed by white cops. And that brings out an angry mob of mostly young Muslim men. The mob doesn’t come out all at once, but Jens and Mike quickly figure out that they’re not safe in this neighborhood.
And something happens to Jens and Mike’s squad car so that they can’t escape in the car. Eventually, Jens and Mike have to replace their police clothing items with civilian clothes, so that they aren’t recognizable as police officers. And to the dismay of these two cops, they call for backup and are told that their police department won’t send anyone to help them because it’s too dangerous.
There are some twists and turns to the story (some that are more predictable than others), which keeps the film moving with a tension-filled pace. Jens, Mike and Amos (who’s still in police custody) spend a lot of the movie just trying to stay alive. Although Jens appears to be the main protagonist at the beginning of the movie, there’s an entire section in the last third of the movie where Mike is the focal point after he and Jens get separated in the chaos.
Amos lives with his single mother Abia (played by Özlem Saglanmak) and his 5-year-old sister Amira (played by Lara Aksoy) in an apartment building. As day turns into night and Amos still hasn’t come home, there are scenes of a worried Abia wondering where Amos is, when she knows that there are riots going on and she’s fearing the worst. Amos hasn’t been answering his cell phone. It’s shown in the movie what happened to his phone. And for obvious reasons, Abia doesn’t call the police to report her son missing.
Aside from the expected shootouts and chase scenes, the real intrigue of “Enforcement” is in how Mike, Jens and Amos navigate the changing dynamics of their relationship as the story goes on and how race plays a role. Although it might be easy to assume that Mike and Jens should have let Amos go so that the cops could focus on defending themselves, Mike and Jens actually need Amos for protection. The cops know that the rioters are less likely to attack the cops if they have a person of color with them.
The cops begin to understand that, under these circumstances, their “white privilege” is actually a detriment that could cost them their lives. “Enforcement” isn’t subtle at all with this message. The movie shows in various ways how a racist cop like Mike, who’s become accustomed to getting away with inflicting terror on people because of their race, is now getting a taste of his own medicine. Jens, who represents white people who enable white racists, also learns some very hard lessons on what it’s like to be targeted for race-based violence.
The performances of Sears, Lohmann and Zayat get the majority of screen time. All three actors carry the movie quite well, even when some scenarios look over-dramatic. As filmmakers, Ølholm and Hviid show a knack for telling this story in a compelling way that doesn’t tie up all loose ends with a pleasant and pretty bow. “Enforcement” takes place in a 24-hour period, but the movie is clear with its message that systemic racism doesn’t go away after a night of rioting.
Magnolia Pictures’ Magnet Releasing released “Enforcement” in select U.S. cinemas and on demand on March 19, 2021.