In “Two Distant Strangers,” Free’s first Oscar contender, a Black man named Carter (Bada$$) perpetually repeats the same day. It starts off well enough; Carter wakes up beside a beautiful woman and excitedly plans to return home to his dog. But Carter never gets the chance. His day ends with him being killed by a police officer who chooses lethal force in every iteration of their interaction.
At first, Carter believes that a change of action or presentation will change his outcome. However, after multiple attempts at this metaphysical course correction, it becomes apparent that no changed behavior on his part would cause this officer not to kill him.
Free is attempting to convey a number of ideas with this storyline, all of them intimately linked to his personal experiences as a Black man, as well as the larger schism between African Americans and police officers who view Black people as universal suspects.
“When the idea occurred to me last summer during the protests,” Free tells CNN, “even knowing that there have been similar attempts to use this type of device to tell stories about Black people in policing, I recognized where my story differed.”
Free is referring to the infinite time loop he employs, which moves an otherwise dark plot toward magical realism territory. This choice has drawn comparisons to the popular 1993 film, “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray, which similarly introduces thematic questions on personal choice and the confines of time.
However, another defining characteristic of the film is its depiction of traumatic death, specifically of Black people. There is no shortage of that imagery on screen, especially this year. “Two Distant Strangers” premiered on Netflix on the same day as Amazon Prime’s “Them,” another controversial project begging the question of whether the racialized torture and death of Black people belong in the entertainment space. Does simply depicting the real experiences that Black people go through make a cinematic project subversive? Filmmakers like Free and “Them” showrunner, Little Marvin, say it can be, but intent is everything.
“In writing the film this way, at the time,” Free shared with CNN, “I was also processing my own pains as a human being first, and as an artist.” It is no small task replicating the experiences Black people go through, especially when artists are aware that their audience might be similarly triggered by seeing certain things on screen.
On the subject of Black trauma, Travon Free says that Black filmmakers should not shy away from depicting the very real lived realities of people who look like them. In fact, that is one of the responsibilities of cinema.
“I think if we begin to say we can’t show certain things or say certain things, as creatives we’re losing a part of, not only who we are as Black people who finally have a seat at the table to express what our lives are like, what our feelings are like, but also as creatives place ourselves within the landscape of the history of White cinema and television where people still don’t know what is happening to us.”
The film accomplishes a lot during the course of its half-hour span, raising questions of how Black people are forced to repeatedly process the precarity of life and the toll that takes on the human spirit.
It also features a riveting character-performance by Joey Bada$$, the Brooklyn-raised Pro-Era rapper who in recent years has been leaning more and more into the acting space. Critics have spoken favorably on Bada$$ (whose real name is Jo-Vaughn Scott) in the role of Carter. He embodies the character so well that many fans of music wouldn’t immediately recognize him as the award-winning rap star, Free tells CNN.
“He took it very seriously. He was so great,” says Travon Free. “I remember watching, watching his takes and thinking, ‘Like, man, when people see Joey, they’re gonna be blown away by the range you have as an actor.'”
“Two Distant Strangers” is nominated for the Academy Award for best live-action short.
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