Racial profiling has gone from municipal scourge to Justice Department imperative in the last couple months, and the events behind Otomo are a reminder of its lethal risks. On the morning of August 9, 1989, in Stuttgart, Germany, a Liberian refugee named Frederic Otomo scuffled with a ticket taker on a public train and ran from the scene; three hours later, stopped for questioning on the Gaisburger Bridge by several policemen, he brandished a bayonet knife, murdering two officers and injuring three others before he was shot to death by one of the felled men.
Director Frieder Schlaich has crafted a speculative semi-fiction around the incident?parallel stories that collide and combust. The film begins in the daybreak hours, when Otomo (Isaach de Bankolé) leaves his Spartan apartment to gather with an otherwise all-white motley crew of drunks and vagrants hoping to be chosen for day labor, only to leave empty-handed for lack of proper ID. Otomo then proceeds inexorably to the streetcar struggle, the deadly encounter on the bridge, and the three hours in between, during which two young officers (played by Barnaby Metschurat and Hanno Friedrich) search for their conspicuously black suspect. Otomo’s actual whereabouts and activities during that time remain a mystery; Schlaich and co-screenwriter Klaus Pohl fill in the blanks with real-time swaths of Otomo’s impotent wandering, the cops’ close pursuit, and a wholly invented episode in which Otomo forges a brief, uneasy bond with a white woman, Gisela (frequent Fassbinder star Eva Mattes), who abets his flight.
As with Native Son, Otomo‘s free-fall trajectory implicitly grapples with the competing forces of environmental determinism and free will, presenting a central figure tyrannized by fear. The film allots far too much time to the cultural exchange program between the fugitive and his aide, in which Otomo can recap his sorrowful biography to a sympathetic audience surrogate. But the early scenes?aided by Volker Tittel’s dusky, blue-tinged cinematography?tersely establish Otomo’s everyday life as a chilly labyrinth of gaping stares, snide condescension, and no-exit desperation. Otomo documents the institutionalized racism and xenophobia that painted one man into a corner, while never excusing the terrible means by which he took his final escape.