Short Film Reviews: Black Lives Matter
As we continue to seek out justice, here's a collection of 9 short films speaking towards the racial equality we must continue to demand and fight for.
As you've all likely heard by this point, a grand jury has decided against bringing charges against the officers responsible for the shooting death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor. Of the officers involved (Brett Hankison, Jonathan Mattingly, and Myles Cosgrove), only Hankison will be facing charges--and those charges are limited to first-degree wanton endangerment for the bullets that went into the neighboring apartment. In other words, none of the officers involved in Taylor's death will be facing homicide charges. With this tragedy being only one of a number of police-related homicides against Black individuals (other victims include George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery), this unbelievably lenient decision has sparked plenty of outrage.
In addition to this heinous miscarriage of justice, it's heartbreaking to see so many social media posts from people bending over backwards to try and justify these officers' actions--or worse, claim that Breonna Taylor somehow "brought it on herself." So in honor of the continued efforts to give justice to Breonna Taylor and others who have had their lives senselessly ended by police brutality, I decided to take a look at some short films that center around themes of race, prejudice, and equality.
(IMPORTANT NOTE: While I do approach the following short films with the same critical eye I give to the other subjects of this blog, I want to make something clear. Despite how I may feel about these movies on an analytic level, I commend the people responsible for creating them for their noble intentions of speaking out in some way on what continues to be a horrifically destructive problem)
Wait, I'm a Racist!?:
To ease our way into this heavy list, let's start with a more lighthearted piece about racial issues. Wait, I'm a Racist!? is a comedic short revolving around Elsie (Elise Zell), who through a series of bizarre situations learns about her subconsciously racist attitudes. As one might be able to tell from the title, this short is practically built on cringe comedy, with Elsie's open-mouth-insert-foot moments becoming progressively worse as the film goes on. But thanks to Elise Zell's quirky and earnest performance, you still like Elsie as she begins to recognize her internalized racism and vows to change.
Zell effortlessly sells the film's comedic stretches, even when Wait, I'm a Racist!?'s comedy misses the mark (particularly during the wacky climax). The rest of the cast matches Zell in acting, with Kristin E. Ellis being a highlight of the side cast as Elsie's friend Frankie. The film also wisely wraps up on a heartfelt but realistic note, ending Elsie's character arc on a sweet note while acknowledging the difficulty that comes with shedding unconscious prejudice. Having as much heart as it does decent laughs, Wait, I'm a Racist!? is a strong comical take on a lesser-explored form of racism.
Score: 7.5 out of 10 iPhone 3GSs.
Ausstieg Rechts (Exit Right):
In this Austrian film, a quiet bus ride is interrupted by a man's (Cornelius Obonya) loud tirade against a Black passenger (David Wurawa)--until someone steps in. Ausstieg Rechts is a simple-premised film, with the build-up to the racial bashing not adding much other than an ironic-in-hindsight moment for our bigoted villain. If Ausstieg Rechts were ever to be adapted into a longer film, I would like to see this moment expanded upon to craft the film's bus bully into a more nuanced character. As is, he's just a standard (but still unfortunately true-to-life) racist jerk.
Despite that mild case of wasted plot potential, Ausstieg Rechts remains an appealing film thanks to its "short, sweet, and to the point" nature and its solid cast. Cornelius Obonya throws himself into his character's unapologetic nastiness, making you cheering to see his comeuppance. David Wurawa brings silent power to his harassed passenger's exasperation, while Thomas Maurer is effortlessly composed as his no-nonsense defender--barring some overly snooty dialogue. As a simple but nonetheless enjoyable film about how to deal with racist bullies, I'd say Ausstieg Rechts is just right (thank you, I'll be here all week...)
Score: 6.5 out of 10 annual tickets.
Proving to be even more lightweight than Wait, I'm a Racist!?, Traction follows Andy and Jake (Rory Uphold and Ahmed Bharoocha) enjoying a fun dinner date--until Andy takes offense with Jake's *ahem* off-color sense of humor. After a fairly cool tracking shot brings us into the action of Andy and Jake's date, the viewer is quickly sucked into the conversation between them. Rory Uphold (who also wrote and directed Traction) and Ahmed Bharoocha share natural chemistry, which in turn has you dreading the moment when Jake's jokes kill the mood.
At first, it appears Traction is going for the expected message against racially-themed humor. Given the relatively inoffensive nature of Jake's jokes, this would've rubbed me the wrong way as someone who's always been one to defend dark humor. But then, Traction throws a twist into the mix that not only came as a genuine surprise, but changes the theme of the whole movie into something much more thought-provoking and topical. Uphold and Bharoocha continue giving strong performances as Andy and Jake have their falling-out, and Baron Vaughn is quietly hilarious as a character who plays a role in that aforementioned twist. Traction succeeds at being a comedy centered around a polarizing issue, and can almost serve as an allegory for our current situation. In these times of violent racial persecution, harmless and non-maliciously-intented humor should be the very least of our concerns.
Score: 8 out of 10 ribs.
Switching gears to a more provocative feature, Civil follows door-to-door salesman Deshawn (Bryson L. Thomas) as he discovers his next potential buyer Marshall (Walt Sloan) comes with some disconcerting baggage. Like Traction, Civil appears to be going for an expected message when it first starts, with a great deal of build-up to the meeting between Deshawn and Marshall. The soundtrack used for this build-up adds to the suspense of the impending meeting, where the film cranks that intensity up to eleven. For much of Civil, you'll be at the edge of your seat, fearing something terrible is about to happen...
But then, like Traction, things take an unexpected turn that keeps Civil's message from becoming one-note. Dealing with more heavily controversial issues than Traction, Civil expertly navigates its minefield of a story. In the end, the film's biggest strength comes in its ambiguity: it gives you just enough to remain a coherent story, but leaves plenty in the dark to leave you wondering about all the central characters and their motivations. Given Civil's overarching theme about appearances being deceiving, the movie gives its audience plenty of food for thought.
Bryson L. Thomas and Walt Sloan both play well off each other as their complex characters deal with their differing views, while Michael Vizzi similarly shines as Deshawn's morally questionable supervisor Sam. While the slow pacing and ambiguity may not suit everyone and its message is almost guaranteed to upset some, Civil stands out as an excellently crafted film about racial issues that doesn't hold the viewer's hand to guide them to the message. Instead, it paints both sides of the issue in a nuanced light, leaving the audience to take from the film's events what they may.
Score: 8.5 out of 10 paring knives.
While released last year, Stop definitely hits harder now with the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor still fresh to memory. This incredibly taut short film follows Glen (Camron Jones) as he's pulled over by Officer Stone (Paul Hickert), whose attitude makes it clear to Glen and his friend Junior (Chris Boykin) that this won't be a simple traffic stop. While it is a much more straightforward look at racism than Traction or Civil, Stop still thoroughly succeeds at being a tension-brimmed watch. The suspense hangs heavy throughout Stop, with the entire cast working together to keep that suspense going.
Paul Hickert makes the most impact as Officer Stone, bringing an icy menace that has you dreading every long pause and grimacing as his attitude becomes progressively more unsettling. Camron Jones is a poignantly sympathetic lead as Glen, while Chris Boykin's more upbeat performance as Junior brings a much-needed splash of light to an otherwise dark film. Junior's moments of subtly calling Officer Stone out on his thinly veiled racism allow for a few moments to breath before Stop's heart-wrenching conclusion. Jessica Perrin does the same to a lesser degree as Glen and Junior's friend Rebecca, with her character's inclusion also adding a layer of depth to Stop's message. With its excellently constructed suspense and an ending that will hit you like a ton of bricks, Stop perfectly throws the viewer into a horror scenario that's become all too real for far too many people.
Score: 10 out of 10 dropped licenses.
Interview With a Racist:
After the trio of Omeleto offerings that offered a surprisingly nuanced look at racial issues, Interview With a Racist's message is supremely simplistic by comparison. The film follows troubled teen Lisa (Aylin Sözen, in her first role according to IMDB) as she goes to interview local veteran Donald Sheppard (J.B. Edwards). Donald is a man Lisa and her mother Pamela (Kerry McCormick) have a tragic connection to--and a plan of revenge against. In a far cry from the compelling messages of Civil, Interview With a Racist goes for a clean-cut revenge anecdote.
But when the climactic titular "interview" between Lisa and Donald happens, Interview With a Racist's message begins to unravel. While the tense atmosphere does come close to matching that of Stop, the dialogue between Lisa and Donald leaves a lot to be desired. Rather than having an actual conversation go down between Lisa and Donald that allows for both characters to become fully developed, Interview With a Racist instead only allows them to bitterly snipe at each other right up to the climax. This leaves both Lisa and Donald (particularly the latter) with all the depth of tissue paper, with a lot of potential character development going unused. Interview With a Racist also comes with some wonky camerawork and audio, making parts of the movie hard to hear.
Casting-wise, Interview With a Racist fares much better, with lead star Aylin Sözen playing Lisa with striking emotion despite her character's lackluster writing. Kerry McCormick brings understated malice as Pamela's desire for vengeance drives her to inexcusable extremes, while J.B. Edwards does what he can with his one-note caricature of a role. Interview With a Racist was no doubt made with good intentions (the opening quote seems to point towards the film's intended message against trying to solve hate with more hate). But with the stagnant writing and character development, Interview With a Racist sadly falls short of what it could've been.
Score: 4 out of 10 university sweatshirts.
Discrepancies (An Extended Prelude For The Revolution):
After watching Interview With a Racist, I ended up stumbling across this second film directed by Chris Guinn, with Aylin Sözen serving as Discrepancies' main star and co-director. Unlike their previous film, Discrepancies has no finite storyline and can best be described as a slam poetry piece set to film. As we follow Sözen's nameless protagonist as she goes about her day and ponders the injustices of the world, Discrepancies makes for an engaging watch with a more developed message behind it.
While the music and Sözen's delivery makes some of her speech difficult to understand, it doesn't take away from the power of her words. Discrepancies stands out against the other films on this list for not just focusing on racial issues. As befitting its title, other societal discrepancies are talked about, ranging from sexism to classism to homophobia. Where Interview With a Racist felt like it was painting its subject in black-and-white colors, Discrepancies addresses the complexities of all the issues it touches on--and the way the world needs to handle them. While the aforementioned audio issues take away from its impact, Discrepancies is an improvement over Guinn and Aylin's previous work and has a message the world immensely needs to hear right now. The revolution is ours, and the only way we can achieve it is to stand together as one people.
Score: 6.5 out of 10 bodegas.
Opening in the predominantly African-American town of Pahokee, Skip Day follows a group of Florida high school seniors as they celebrate Senior Skip Day with a trip to the beach. But as these soon-to-be graduates have their fun in the sun and wonder about life after high school, you might notice some concerning behaviors on the part of other beachgoers. While promoted as a documentary that deals with "everyday racism in Florida", it takes about half of Skip Day's runtime to get to it. Until then, we follow the Pahokee teens as they prepare for their beach getaway and generally goof around together. The teens we're following have the sort of charm to make them fun to watch, with their conversations (from their playful jabs at each other to their more serious talks about what they want to do after graduation) striking an authentic chord for me.
But as charming as they are, they can only do so much to combat Skip Day's tedious pace. The opening minutes of Skip Day prep relentlessly drag on, with things only slightly picking up once the teens get to their destination. This portion of Skip Day is also marked by it bizarre structure. The focus keeps bouncing between unnamed characters so much that I couldn't keep track of what was going on or even if everything I was seeing was happening on the same day. Thankfully, the teens' beachside discussions (from what can be heard of them through the subpar audio) are engaging and at times heartfelt enough to help soften the blows.
But as a result of the frenetic focus, Skip Day is strapped for time when it comes to its intended message concerning racist microaggressions. The camerawork subtly cluing the viewer in to the White beachgoers' response to the Pahokee teens' arrival is a nice touch, aligning with Skip Day's overall appealing cinematography. The realistic performances and dialogue play into the message as well, casually showing that the Pahokee teens are just regular high school kids and silently breaking down the stigmas attached to Black youth.
In the end, though, it feels like Skip Day squanders its chance to make more of an impact by spending far too much time on buildup--and putting the racist microaggressions in such a diminished focus that I can't blame some commenting viewers on the above video for not seeing them. And with a pace that could put you to sleep before the film gets to its better moments, Skip Day's strong points can only do so much to make this beach party worth attending.
Score: 4 out of 10 Rihanna songs.
The Girl With Pinhead Parents:
To wrap up this list on a more unique approach to addressing racism, we have The Girl With Pinhead Parents. Based on a 2005 children's book written by Karen Bliss, Bliss also helped produce this music-star-studded retelling of her book. The story follows "pinhead girl" Pina (Nelly Furtado) as she's partnered up with "hockey stick handed boy" Wayne (Chris Bosh) for a school project--putting her at odds with the prejudice her parents have taught her. Fitting its children's book origins, The Girl With Pinhead Parents has colorful illustrations that are easy on the eyes and build up the story's anthropomorphic universe. It also adds to the quirky mood of the film's first half, making it hit harder when the extent of this wacky world's version of racism is revealed.
Interestingly, the film initially plays the bigotry of Pina's parents as almost comedically over-the-top, with her father's blatant racism being mixed with his standard "Dorky Sitcom Dad" persona. It makes it all the more shocking when the prejudice of our main heroine's parents is played for drama near the end, leading to the film's bittersweet conclusion. With a cast consisting primarily of singers, the voice acting isn't exactly high caliber. But overall, the cast does well in their roles with few distracting flubs. The only notably botched moment comes during Pina's climactic emotional moment with her mother, where Nelly Furtado's otherwise good performance falls flat. Presenting its message of choosing love over hate through eye-catching animation and a simple but engaging story, The Girl With Pinhead Parents is a solid film to end this list on.
Score: 7 out of 10 ingredient lists.
For the most part, this list has been an exceptional collection of movies that all share a common theme--though they each explore that theme from a different angle. While Interview With a Racist and Skip Day were underwhelming in their presentations, other short films like Stop and Civil stood out for their strong craftsmanship and how they managed to weave nuance and complexity into an issue so often looked at through monochrome lenses. With racial injustice continuing to destroy lives while our government looks the other way, standing up and speaking out against bigotry and hate (racial or otherwise) continues to be something we all have a responsibility to do in whatever way we can. For more information on what you can do to help in this fight, visit the official Black Lives Matter website. And to all my friends out there feeling the strain of these heartbreaking times: stay strong, keep fighting for what's right, and don't lose hope for a better tomorrow.