Chiwetel Ejiofor on Police, the ‘Corrupt System,’ and Hollywood’s Diversity Crisis

The Oscar-nominated star of ‘12 Years a Slave’ opens up about his new film ‘Triple 9,’ a motley crew of corrupt cops, and the #OscarsSoWhite debate.

Laura Cavanaugh/FilmMagic/Getty

John Hillcoat’s crime thriller Triple 9 spins a sensational tale of corrupt cops and ruthless mobsters double-crossing one another across urban Atlanta, but something in the fictional moral anarchy, says star Chiwetel Ejiofor, rings sadly true to today’s America.

“You can appreciate it on one level as a largely-writ, front-footed, energized narrative,” Ejiofor told The Daily Beast. Oscar-nominated two years ago for 12 Years A Slave, Ejiofor here plays an increasingly desperate criminal who plots a “triple nine”—police code for “officer down.” “It’s hyper and it’s fantastically realized, but it’s a reflection of the world we live in and the conflicts of our time.

The British actor leads Triple 9’s ensemble cast as Michael Belmont, an ex-special forces soldier turned criminal who leads a gang of dirty cops and military vets on tactical missions for the Russian mob. Like his crew, Belmont’s driven by a code of fluid ethics, using skills learned to protect his country to break the law—all for the young son who lives under the protection of his even more ruthless sister-in-law, a Russian-Israeli queenpin named Irina (Kate Winslet).

Ejiofor had been such a fan of helmer Hillcoat’s Aussie Western The Proposition, he still remembers the theater in which he first saw it. (Islington, North London.) He’d read the Black Listed script for Triple 9 more than five years ago before casting fluctuations saw everyone from Cate Blanchett to Shia LaBeouf come and go from the project. Filming officially began a year and a half ago with Winslet, Casey Affleck, Norman Reedus, Woody Harrelson, Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr., Gal Gadot, and Aaron Paul joining Ejiofor on location.

Hillcoat and his crew went to great lengths to stage shoot-outs and car chases in and around the streets and projects of Atlanta, carving out a stark urban landscape for Ejiofor and Co. to stalk. The effect of shooting on location adds an eerie sense of realism knowing that the city’s homicide rate would subsequently skyrocket 32 percent the following year.

It’s not difficult to translate the film’s “broken” universe to the real America in which distrust of law enforcement has reached a blistering crescendo. The film wrapped in August of 2014 just as the Black Lives Matter movement peaked during the summer of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the protests in Ferguson. The compromised cops in Belmont’s crew (played by Mackie and Collins) go from committing felonies to patrolling streets terrorized by gang warfare, as good at their jobs as they are at violating them.

Ejiofor considered the complexities of a cast of characters who exist in the gray area between cops and criminals, doting parents and tyrants, heroes and villains.

“They’re very ethically corrupt, obviously as police officers and also as ex-military—the system is upside down and they’re just trying to survive it, in a way,” he said, mulling Triple 9’s motley crew of morally compromised characters. “They’re trying to negotiate a broken universe.”

“It’s a comment on where America’s at at the moment... in terms of the criminal landscape, the stakes are much higher out there,” Hillcoat remarked.

Just last fall, Quentin Tarantino drew the wrath of cops everywhere after speaking out against police brutality at RiseUpOctober in the face of the fatal police-related deaths that continue to rock the country. “I have to call a murder a murder, and I have to call the murderers the murderers,” he said, prompting several law enforcement organizations to call for a boycott of The Hateful Eight. Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents over 330,000 officers, went so far as to issue a veiled threat to the filmmaker over the controversy, sparking even more controversy.

If the police unions went after Quentin Tarantino for speaking out against police brutality, what might they think of Triple 9’s mostly bleak portrayal of cops gone bad?

“Well, it truly is one of the more bizarre things that any sort of government official has done,” Ejiofor said of the Tarantino vs. cops rumpus. “But it speaks to a corruption. When you start to try and censor people because they march, or whatever. ‘Well, we’re going to hurt you…’ So we shouldn’t do that because the police are going to come out? It’s the language of a very corrupt system.”

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The real villain of Triple 9 isn’t an officer of the law, he points out. It’s Kate Winslet.

Dripping in mafia-chic with a coolly superior, thick-accented purr, Winslet’s Irina is Belmont’s only true nemesis. In a world in which crooked white, black, and Latino criminals share at least some small if tenuous code of diverse honor among thieves, the most loaded moment comes in one tense exchange between Winslet and Ejiofor in which she hurls a racial epithet at his character as he lays beaten on the ground.

“We all kind of like that scene,” Ejiofor laughed. “It felt like one wanted to have a clear representation of which side of the fence this character came down on and why they were such a total antagonist. That just seemed very real. I think I had a discussion with Kate and she was like, ‘Ooof. This is out there!’

“But it felt very truthful to that character,” he continued. “There’s a certain frivolity to Irina, a lightness, that is terrifying. What she’s doing, saying, feeling—there’s a kind of gentle way, a Leopold and Loeb idea of other people, like it’s just swatting a fly. And that is what makes her such an interesting villain of the piece.”

With Triple 9 hitting theaters amid awards season, Ejiofor has found himself contemplating the #OscarsSoWhite issue quite a bit of late. His landmark slave drama 12 Years A Slave landed three Academy Awards two years ago, when Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress and Ejiofor himself scored a Best Actor nomination. Not coincidentally, that year was the last time the Oscars recognized any black actors. So how important is it to expect the Oscars to recognize greater diversity?

“The real value is that the Oscars is obviously this internationally recognized standard of filmmaking, and it is therefore held to a certain criteria,” Ejiofor said. “I feel that that is part of why people gravitate towards it, and why people understand these issues. It was an amazing experience for the film and for all of our participation in it. We were all deeply proud of the film getting that kind of recognition.”

But the outcry over a lack of diversity at the Oscars isn’t merely about awards, he said.

“I feel like the conversation in terms of the Oscars is in a way dealing with the alter ego,” he said. “It’s not really about The Academy, necessarily. It’s about equality in our society. And that’s why it’s become such a hot issue. That’s really what people are talking about. And that has been the elephant in the room for a long time around arts and media. What kind of society are we looking to live in? I feel like we are negotiating that in real time now, whether it comes to race issues or gender issues or sexuality issues.”

The world is a much different place than it was half a century ago, he said. That in itself begs a collective self-reflection, and not just at the end of every awards season. “Things are moving in a different direction—in this country, England, Europe. It’s not going to get less diverse. What are we going to do about that? Do we want a society where people are equal, or don’t we?”

“If we don’t want that, well then let’s go out and state that!” Ejiofor declared. “Let’s not hide the issue. But if we do, I think there are a number of people on all sides of the equation who are going to be on board with that and encourage it and create a very beautiful society for our children that we can be proud to leave behind us. I, for one, am one hundred percent in favor of that concept. That’s what people are sort of struggling with and asking about.”

The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, of course, was a kick in the pants that prompted the Academy to enact new measures to increase minority membership in its ranks. Ejiofor cheered the fact that diversity in Hollywood has been propelled into the national conversation: “It’s right to ask questions of your society. It’s insane that people try and shoot down people who are.”

But as we’ve seen throughout this Oscar cycle, it’s easy to acknowledge that a problem exists, and that it’s one that’s so deeply entrenched in the very system that produces the movies that there are few clear remedies.

“The Academy Awards are not the problem; the problem is the gatekeepers at the exec levels, studios, networks, and cable TV who decide what movies we’re going to make and not make,” Spike Lee said this week at the Berlin Film Festival. “And the majority of these men are white males—there’s no diversity there, and that’s reflected in the movies that get voted on at the Academy Awards.”

Even if that kind of deciding power lies primarily in the hands of studio execs who hold the purse strings rather than actors like him or directors like the Coen brothers, making the decision to put white, black, brown, or yellow faces on screen is an act that merits scrutiny.

“I like the idea that these things become a choice,” Ejiofor said. “Casting or green-lighting a film that is essentially an all-white film was, at a certain point, just considered normal. But now, it’s a choice. You are doing something very directly. You are making a choice to cast this thing entirely white, or green-light an entirely white movie. That is a choice.”

When he brought Andy Weir’s The Martian to the big screen, director Ridley Scott caught heat for changing the ethnicity of two Asian-American characters in Weir’s book—including NASA scientist Dr. Venkat Kapoor, whom Ejiofor plays. Ejiofor’s next big role in Marvel’s Doctor Strange is a high-profile example of how major studios can buck the easy tradition by casting even iconic roles against type. In it he’ll play Baron Mordo, a supervillain who appeared in the comic books as a white character. Tilda Swinton will play The Ancient One, a male character, in a gender switch that also caught comics’ fans off guard.

“I’m really excited about that,” Ejiofor enthused. “I was so excited about the casting—myself, Tilda Swinton, and Benedict as well. I made a film like this film, Triple 9, which has a very diverse cast. I made The Martian, and that again had a very diverse cast. I would like to believe that that is the way of the future—that a number of different stories can be represented and can do very well at the box office. It’s the quality of the story you’re telling, and not the skin color or gender of the people that are telling it.”