I think I just had the craziest, realist dream.
You can’t read the synopsis for Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe‘s short film Two Distant Strangers and not think about The Obituary of Tunde Johnson—if you’ve seen it. Both utilize a time-loop scenario wherein their lead Black character is stuck in a never-ending cycle of police brutality always ending up with him shot dead. The difference between the two ends up being the fact that Free and Roe have less time to work with and thus less room to let their conceit breathe. So rather than give Carter (Joey Bada$$) the ability to discover, explore, and alter his forward progress like the aforementioned feature, he’s firmly cemented as one half of an unavoidable whole. No matter what he does, it remains him versus Officer Merk (Andrew Howard).
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as its more specific focus ultimately distills a situation that’s all too prevalent in America to its most potent form. Whether or not Carter leaves his date’s apartment with a yellow hoodie, a t-shirt, a backpack, a cigarette, or whatever else he has on his person at that moment, Merk will always be there to accuse him of walking while Black. Whether Carter knocks into someone and spills their coffee, opens a door for a businessman, or tries to run, Merk will either put him in a chokehold while declaring an unwillingness for compliance or simply pull out his gun and shoot him in cold blood. It happens over and over again until Perri (Zaria) makes a suggestion. Talk to him.
It’s here that I started checking out because watching this character hear that advice and have it become his newfound driving force for change rang wrong to me. Why should Carter, the victim, be the one that needs to talk? Why should he (the Black man) have to shoulder the responsibility of Merk’s (the white man) racism? Suddenly what had been a depiction of the Black experience seemed to be skewing into “a white person’s version of the Black experience.” Thankfully something happens to throw another wrench that let the movie deliver because its ability to make us question whether it should be on the Carters of this world to “fix” what’s wrong is important. The shifts between comedy and drama, absurd circumstances and hard truths is too.
The execution of those juxtapositions felt off as a result because I couldn’t shake the incongruity of championing Carter’s inspiring motivation to persevere by forcing the responsibility for change on him and not those refusing to listen. Rather than demand transformation from white America, this presupposes that compromise is possible as though mutual fault exists. It doesn’t. The ending, however, reveals potential confusion in that I’m not Black and perhaps missed the nuance to realize what I read as optimism was actually futility. Maybe having Carter be willing to do anything is the point because it exposes how the shouldering of white America’s responsibility still can’t save him. Saying he’ll make it home isn’t therefore positive thinking. It’s simply what Black America says to get out of bed.