A review of a short film about racism.
Martin Desmond Roe
Screenplay by Travon Free
Distributed by Netflix
Release date November 20, 2020
Running time 29 minutes
Country United States
Two Distant Strangers (2020) is a well-made, Oscar-winning short film. It follows a sequence of events in the life and deaths of Carter (Joey Bada$$), a young black man in today’s New York. Yes, ‘deaths’ in the plural. The structure of the movie is similar to the time loop of ‘Groundhog Day’ (1993). Carter repetitively leaves the apartment of Perri (Zaria Simone) a one-night stand, only to be shot soon after by a white cop (Andrew Howard). Despite multiple attempts to alter the outcome through changing his own actions, Carter’s fate is repeatedly confirmed. It ends by not ending. The main character descends stairs once again, resolving to find a way to eventually get out of his predicament.
The film’s lack of closure provides a launching pad for debate and hopefully sustained action about the issues it raises. Is there meaningful free will? Is it possible for individual action to alter a systemic problem? Is moral transformation by an opponent possible? What factors cause racism? Should the movie really be called ‘Too Distant Strangers?’ Should the police be defunded? What does that mean and is it enough? etc.
The short-film format and the populating of the piece with a small number of unknown actors keep the focus squarely on such questions. Every frame from the effective establishing shots (in both senses of ‘shots’) is used to service the story. The pacing is taut, with just the right balance of character backgrounding. In this regard, the choice of Carter being a clever, articulate, financially stable professional rather than coming from the projects is an interesting one. It provides an important reminder that none of those things will save you if you’re a young black man in the USA. The narrative drive is well-paced, alternating with slow (relative to a half-hour timeframe of course) scenes and sudden bursts of kinetic energy. There are some very cleverly worked in allusions such as a spoken one related to George Floyd and visual ones such as a bloodstain in the shape of Africa and a police license plate 1488, but these are passing notes used to visually support the rest of the plot. There’s a lot going on and it’s all well done.
Sadly this story is as relevant now as it was 400 years ago. Watch it, and watch it and watch it and…