Tribes could almost be seen as a variation on the classic: ‘An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman’ joke, substituting the nationalities to African American, Arab-American and white. The premise is simple and comfortably formulaic. A racially diverse trio attempts to carry out a robbery on a train. All is not as it seems, however, as neither of them are prepared to rob members of their own race.
Based upon the gang’s physical appearances and criminal intent, we are presented with what looks like a straightforward case of wrongful misconduct. But as the plot unravels our initial judgement is soon reflected back onto ourselves, exposing any preconceptions or fixed bias. It catches the audience out and one has to admire the disorientating effect this has.
Director Nino Aldi cleverly subverts cultural and social stereotypes. He manipulates the audience, playfully challenging assumptions of race, class, identification, sexual orientation and the broader issue of discrimination, which is prevalent on all sides. The comedy remains light and deadpan, never mocking, and is treated with sensitivity.
The film’s turning point comes during a sudden outburst of intellectual discourse, an articulate diatribe expostulating social mores and prejudice. This self aware and genre breaking scene is all the more shocking for the fact that it is delivered by the perpetrators themselves, not the victims. It jolts us out of our comfort zone, derailing the narrative in a gratifyingly comic way.
It is an unexpected moment of rhetorical hilarity, as funny as it is perceptive, and a fine example of writer Andy Marlatt’s sharp script, even though the hyperbole may at times slip into sounding a little overwritten. But as this is partly the point it does not diminish the overall impact.
Following the group’s worthy character development, coming to realise some important truths along the way, they end up just as confused and conflicted as the audience is. Yet their original criminal incentive cannot be completely pardoned. We are still allowed to feel a reasonable amount of antipathy towards them, making for a much more rounded and satisfying conclusion.
Intelligent, smart and divisive, Tribes teasingly provokes us us to re-think and re-evaluate our thoughts on identity, discrimination and expectation.
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