We’re all gonna die today.
There’s a moment in Reed Van Dyk‘s DeKalb Elementary where the young, mentally unstable white male shooter (Bo Mitchell‘s Steven Hall) exits the school in search of a suicide-by-cop scenario. He opens fire on the police—receiving bullets in return—until the courageously calm black female receptionist (Tarra Riggs‘ Cassandra Rice) asks him to come back in so as not to hurt himself. It’s a surreal exchange because you place yourself in her situation and realize you would probably start silently praying that the cops do grant his wish. This whole ordeal is over if they succeed at shooting him dead. The lockdown ends, the scared children in their classrooms remain safe, and another gun-toting domestic terrorist is off the street forever. But life is never so simple.
What makes these harrowing circumstances more resonant is learning that they’re based on an actual event. Van Dyk takes a real 911-call from a similar incident in Atlanta, Georgia to inspire his tale of an almost unfathomable display of human compassion. Watching Riggs’ outstanding performance is to witness the complexities behind events we’re always so quick to dismiss. Everything she does is in direct relationship to what he doesn’t do. He has the opportunity to shoot her and a co-worker, but doesn’t. He has an unsuspecting gentleman dead to rites and fires a warning shot instead. He even targets teachers in the hall but lets them lock their doors while muttering the phrase, “I don’t want the kids. I want the police.” Cassandra processes this nuance almost immediately.
She sees his internal struggle and is willing to listen as he painfully seeks help instead of taking the opportunity to be a “hero” and risk exacerbating their already precarious reality. And let’s be completely honest. Would things shake out the same if he were a black man entering a white school? Would a stereotypically suburban white woman without the intrinsic hardships someone like Cassandra has faced show the same amount of empathy for a young black man? Would she see a victim no matter the gun in his hands or would her latent racist tendencies only see a criminal? Those who think these questions are reaching reveal themselves ignorant to their privilege. Rather than sacrifice his life for hers, Cassandra hopes to save him. That’s true heroism.
Credit all involved for embracing this message of hope within dire straits and for doing so with sensitivity. DeKalb uses stereotypes (Cassandra as a black single mother barely out of difficult times and Steven as a psychologically disturbed white shooter with easy access to a gun and ammunition he has no need to possess on American soil), but he wields them with subtlety and purpose rather than exploitative means. If only we as a nation possessed the ability Cassandra and Steven have to talk and understand. If only we allowed ourselves the room to let people surprise us rather than blindly reject them as a statistic unworthy of being more than a number. If only we increased mental health accessibility and limited automatic weapons instead of the reverse.