A new movie short directed by a Black filmmaker gives a raw take on racial injustice and will be showcased at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this month.
“Black Bodies,” a four-minute film vignette about the impact of deadly police violence against the Black community, is slated to make its United States premiere Jan. 28 at the nation’s largest independent film festival.
The movie was shot last year just outside of Toronto. It portrays a Black man who steps into an empty warehouse and finds the bodies of all the victims of fatal police encounters strewn across the floor. The man, played by poet/artist Komi Olaf, is left to grapple with his own internal turmoil at the sight of his fallen brethren.
Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, who wrote and directed the film, said she tried to confront a profound question.
“All of the Black people that have passed away have become hashtags and then they fade away,” she explained during a recent interview with Atlanta Black Star. “But what is it like when we encounter all those things?”
“Black Bodies” is a film inspired by the real-life consequences of racial profiling. Fyffe-Marshall, Olaf, and the short’s lead actress — Donisha Prendergast — lived through a traumatic brush with law enforcement that garnered national headlines in April 2018.
The three were part of a group of artists and filmmakers in town to complete a project. They were detained and harassed by officers that converged upon them as they were checking out of an Airbnb in Rialto, California. A suspicious neighbor lived across the street from the rental property in the predominantly white neighborhood. She watched the group as they packed their suitcases and other belongings into a car. Fyffe-Marshall said the neighbor smiled and waved at them. When the group didn’t wave back, the neighbor called 911 and told police a potential burglary was in progress.
That set off a full-scale police response. Squad cars swarmed, helicopters hovered overhead and the three filmmakers were questioned. They were ultimately forced to prove they had a right to be there before officers released them.
“I think for me, it’s still bittersweet,” Fyffe-Marshall said of the success of her creation. “It’s a great accomplishment cinematically. I mean, this is what any filmmaker could ask for. … But this film is so relevant, and I don’t want [films like this to be] relevant all the time. Like, I want it to be historical film.”
The complainant who sparked the incident was merely described as an elderly white woman. Authorities never identified her publicly. Afterward, Prendergast said, the woman simply laughed it off.
“At the heart of everything, I was really just so mad,” Prendergast said. “Just so seething with anger at the fact that this is still happening. In a moment so simple, we could have lost our lives. And it was just like everybody just shrugged their shoulders at the end of the altercation.”
Following the 2018 incident the three helped bring awareness through We Have The Right To Be Right (RTBR), a nonprofit collective of artists aligned to impact change through social advocacy.
For Fyffe-Marshall, that change came in the form of her work.
The Canadian-born artist grew up with dreams of becoming a television producer. But she graduated college in 2009 during the height of the Great Recession and found it hard to break into that field. So she began filming commercials and music videos instead. That led her down the path toward making movies.
Fyffe-Marshall describes herself as an “Afro-diasporic impact filmmaker” and imbues more social activism into her projects.
“Black Bodies” is advertised as a movie about the “realities of being Black in the 21st century.” It already made its world debut. That came in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the Shawn Mendes Foundation Changemaker Award. It’s an honor bestowed upon films that tackle issues of social change.
“It is activism against police brutality in moving colour,” the Toronto International Film Festival’s Next Wave committee said.
“Black Bodies” is the continuation of “Marathon,” a film released online last spring in the aftermath of the Ahmaud Arbery killing. Olaf and Prendergast were both main characters in that film, which Fyffe-Marshall wrote and directed as well.
“I always hear that Black folks can’t breathe, we don’t have the chance to slow down,” Fyffe-Marshall said. “So that’s what ‘Marathon’ is about. It’s like that ever-lasting marathon that we’re on. We’re either chasing the American dream, or running from something. But it’s never that feeling that we can stop.”
Prendergast, who comes from a lineage of Jamaican icons, is the granddaughter of Reggae legend Bob Marley. Her father Peter Prendergast is a famous FIFA soccer referee and another relative competed in discus in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
“It’s exciting as an actress to be able to create such impactful work and to be recognized as a human within the context of why it was was created,” the dancer/model/poet said, later adding: “White people’s privilege is not something that they’ve ever had to talk about. There’s never had to be a conversation. But with a film like this, it creates a tool to instigate that conversation without using even the term white privilege.”
Just days before the group’s ordeal in Rialto, Darren Martin, a Black staffer in former President Barack Obama’s White House administration, had his own profiling encounter clear across the other side of the country. Martin was questioned by police after neighbors accused him of being a burglar as he was moving into an apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side.
Fyffe-Marshall, Olaf and Prendergast aligned with Martin to introduce to Congress an “accusers accountability” national policy change that would punish people who, under false pretenses, make 911 calls that endanger the lives of others. The push would also ensure 911 operators and officers get training to better identify racial profiling by callers. Prendergast said “Black Bodies” and “Marathon” are part of that campaign.
“Black Bodies” is titled after a poem about the big-picture effects of police brutality that Olaf wrote and recited in the movie. In it, he asks “what becomes of the babies left behind, the mothers left to cry, the promises left unkept and the futures left behind?”
Olaf, a Nigerian native, acknowledged that he hadn’t had any serious interactions with police prior to the group’s Rialto experience. He painted artwork in response to the traumatic incident and said the movies, his first forays into acting, have also been therapeutic. They’ve also forced him to re-open old wounds.
“When we were on CNN and they released the 911 call for the very first time, it was like a slap on the face to see how we were being viewed from the eyes of the stranger. I haven’t been able to shake that because now every time I go around, I’m constantly aware that I’m being watched. And to manifest that through the film, it was a kind of a way of getting rid of the trauma. But every time, unfortunately, I have to relive that experience, knowing that we had gone on this trip to create this artistic project and meanwhile we were under surveillance.”
No information is available on the mass release for “Black Bodies” as of this writing.