Times of social upheaval and global protest are often accompanied by a debate about the arts; more precisely whether the arts have a role to play in transforming society and supporting social movements. There isn’t a right or wrong answer. Some writers, musicians, directors and artists feel comfortable traversing that kind of political or sociological terrain and others don’t.
Oscar winning short film Two Distant Strangers is a comment on a pressing societal issue in its entirety. The film is essentially a kind of violent Groundhog Day, where every morning the main character (Carter, played by Joey Bada$$) has a violent encounter with the same police officer. When he wakes up it is the same day starting all over again and no matter what strategy Carter adopts, he still ends up facing the same police officer and is unable to get home to his pet dog.
The murder of George Floyd last summer by a police officer sparked protests around the world and the Black Lives Matter movement was back in the global spotlight once again. Two Distant Strangers is a powerful commentary on the issue of police violence and more pertinently on what life is like for a black American male in the US today. Commentary is perhaps not the right word to describe the film though. It is both much more subtle than that and yet it is unapologetically overt in its intention and message. That is part of the film’s brilliance; it takes a moment of everyday life in America and transforms it completely and shockingly over and over again. The symbolism is clear.
As the short film progresses, Carter attempts to talk to the racist police officer. The dialogue represents the idea that individuals can negotiate and deal with the system in a respectful, common sense manner and that the system will respond in the same way. I will refrain from saying too much more because I don’t want to spoil the plot and the ending for anyone. What I will say is what follows is a brilliantly intelligent illustration that dismantles notions of racist police officers being ‘bad apples’ and give prominence to the idea that the discrimination faced by minorities in America and other Western societies is in fact systemic and deeply entrenched.
Two Distant Strangers won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. Joey Bada$$, Zaria and Andrew Howard all give excellent, believable performances. And co-directors Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe deserve a lot of praise. They decided that their art should reflect and make a statement about what is happening in the world today. Not only does Two Distant Strangers do that, it does it in an impactful and thought provoking way. The film lasts a mere 32 minutes but the experience stays with you for a lot longer – exactly as great cinema should do.