By Nasu Nguyen.
From the opening shots of Josiah, we are immediately introduced to Brandon, an actor who is about to audition for the titular role of Josiah, an indentured servant during the end of the Civil War. As he practiced his lines through an audio recording on headphones, a producer calls him over for the audition and misinterprets him practicing his lines to him reenacting a rap video. That moment sparks the beginning of an emotionally nuanced film that dissects the racial tensions of the Hollywood industry.
Written and directed by Kyle Laursen, he makes bold choices in both the writing and the shot composition. One stylistic choice that stood out was his use of the long take, which is prevalent for a good chunk of the runtime until it chose to break the take around the third act. However, the moment it chose to cut could not have been more appropriate as it showcases an unhinged version of Brandon, who is expressing the sheer anger for the character that he’s playing, yet realizing the correlations between this character and himself. Laursen utilizes the long take to his advantage. On one hand, he guides the audience along with Brandon, on the other hand, he chooses to divert the attention away from him and focuses on the other characters, but every shot feels meticulously crafted to serve each character. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman, with it’s similar aesthetic and premise.
The aspect of the long take never felt like a gimmick as it served to match with the overall tone. Laursen’s direction is visceral. There is this underlying tension that bubbles up throughout the entire film, and part of that is due to the restraint that many of these characters feel. In an industry that is highly strict and competitive, people feel obligated to stay silent to avoid any repercussions. Laursen does a fantastic job of capturing the intense level of suppression in this work environment. Additionally, he fortifies an atmosphere of awkwardness and unease that lingers with you far beyond the credits.
Laursen’s script in this film is one of the strongest parts of this film. The density of the writing evokes more through the subtext. Laursen offers social commentary on Hollywood’s obsession with telling black stories that focused on the past and their excuses for underscoring the more insensitive aspects of black history. The film relies on ambiguity to drive the narrative, which means that audiences who expect more answers and deeper dives into certain character motivations may be disappointed.
Nevertheless, there is a ton to unpack as it’s a richly layered script that is benefitted from multiple viewings. Laursen shines a light on an issue that is often overlooked in film and television, which is plausible considering how much Hollywood enjoys films that glorify them. During a time where we are having one of the most prolific civil rights movements in history, this film could not be more relevant in its themes.
The performances in this film are exceptional. It can be easy for someone to tackle a serious subject like this and play it out as melodramatic. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for this film. Each character knew when to be nuanced and subtle. Kevin Dunn plays the director of this new pilot series and knows when to show authenticity. His character epitomes the good intentions that “White Hollywood” thinks they are doing when telling black stories, but are ultimately blinded by their own ignorance and superiority.
As Dunn’s character provides a rationale for his use of derogatory language, he subconsciously speaks on behalf of every black individual who actually suffered during and before the Reconstruction era of the United States. Luke Forbes is the true star here, delivering a raw and unfeigned portrayal of a black actor and his ambivalence with this role. The sense of containment he must show for this titular character is parallel to his own containment in the acting industry, but even when he releases some of the anguish building up from inside, it’s only in the context of delivering a second take for the audition. Forbes’ is most profound when he is saying no words. Instead, it’s his own facial expressions and mannerisms that speak volumes to his turmoil.
Laursen’s short film is a pensive examination of how the entertainment industry is fixated on retellings of black history that highlights the oppression and dehumanization of black individuals. Josiah demands the audience to question the motivations of white individuals who spearhead these stories and how it is inherently a form of racism. There was a point in the film where Kevin Dunn’s character talked about how the Civil War may have freed the slaves but they were far from being free men, and the irony in that statement is indicative through the lack of freedom when it comes to how his character wants this story to be told.
The problem resides with the disenfranchised feeling voiceless. As much as it is imperative to showcase the blatant horrors of the black community, there are enough stories that get the message across. Now it’s time to tell original stories of black individuals who are not at the epicenter of slavery, aparheid, or any other facets of racism. The representation of black people being treated as unequal is far too emphasized in film and television and the black community who consume these medias don’t deserve being riddled with reminders of their torture. They deserve to have valuable roles where they aren’t defined as the oppressed. Unless we change these paradigms within society, they will never truly be free.
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