Two Distant Strangers (2021)
Directors: Travon Free, Martin Desmond Roe
Screenwriter: Travon Free
Starring: Joey Bada$$, Andrew Howard, Zaria
“Say their names. Remember their names.” Those are the words on the closing title cards of 2021 Oscars Live Action Short nominee Two Distant Strangers, a drama that brutally and unflinchingly explores the racially motivated murders by United States law enforcement that have occurred over the past few years.
What would you do if you woke up every day knowing you could be unlawfully murdered by the law itself? That an act so small as lighting a cigarette could cost you your life? It’s an eternal worry for some, and yet one that many will never be able to comprehend. It is this that is precisely the premise and construct of this acclaimed short film.
Told in a cyclical nature not too dissimilar to Netflix series ‘Russian Doll’ or classic comedy Groundhog Day in how it tells of a protagonist living through the same day over and over again, Two Distant Strangers highlights the everyday threat faced by black people by quite literally having its protagonist Carter James (Joey Bada$$) brutally murdered by a police officer time and time again, his personal choices proving irrelevant to his eventual fate.
Two Distant Strangers has clearly been made to send the message that the murders of black Americans by white law enforcement officers is a daily occurrence, and as such it cycles through examples of some of the most heinous crimes highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, beginning with a dramatic scene reminiscent of the widely circulated George Floyd video and even re-enacting the circumstances of Breonna Taylor’s murder.
It is very on the nose, one could argue that it is borderline exploitative, and yet the tone of the film isn’t quite the call to arms or righteously angry affair that you might imagine. Carter is young, he has just had a one night stand, and now he has to wake up next to a woman (Zaria) he barely knows day after day to struggle through the events of his own senseless murder time and time again. He’s a well painted character, filled with charm and a genuine sense of realness, and his early comedy routine of feeding his dog remotely, trying to escape an awkward goodbye and crashing a coffee into a passer by all work well to highlight the sudden impact of his unjust death. A number of his murders at one stage become so quickly cycled through that it’s uncomfortably unfeeling, the film accurately mimicking the news cycle and the culture of trending hashtags for only several hours or days at a time.
Joey Bada$$ is exceptional in the lead role, his character’s young artist persona glowing through in Bada$$’s costume, hair and sense of self. He’s believable right away, and doesn’t stray from being a likeable and relatable lead. In contrast, his co-star Andrew Howard is utterly despisable. Clean cut, to the point he doesn’t even have eyebrows, and sporting the subtle addition of a golden tooth, his police officer is defensive, hyper-aggressive and fundamentally despicable. Even in moments where Howard’s character Merk is offered some semblance of humanity, he is stripped of it soon thereafter, Howard playing him with the kind of unblinking gaze that you’d see in a hungry shark. Together they form an exceptional representation of the people we’ve seen highlighted in these situations so often over the past few years, and each lift the material tenfold.
At points, Two Distant Strangers seems at odds with itself, its tone conflicting with the film’s message and thus highlighting the sense of discomfort that comes with the film re-enacting the real-life murders of ordinary people, but it is quite clearly necessary nonetheless. Shot beautifully, including a number of drone shots of New York’s city streets that look like they’re lifted out of any classic New York movie, Two Distant Strangers is every bit the achievement that you’d expect from an Oscar-nominated film; an important and timely message movie with a distinct charm and exceptional level of presentation.
This short film is available worldwide on Netflix.