The nameless Black characters who make up the ensemble of Debbie Tucker Green’s “Ear for Eye” have a lot to say, but are also in no mood to explain themselves. As their words hit the screen with crisp, rapid purpose, forming hard truths on subjects ranging from privilege to police violence to updated family values, the contemporary Black experience is conveyed in a way that brooks no debate — after all, as one man states, “change is gonna do its thing with or without you.”
An electrifying adaptation of Tucker Green’s own theater piece, “Ear for Eye” is not out to coax audiences into taking its point of view, to reach across the aisle or to change hearts and minds in the process. Rather, this abrasive, exhilarating film is out to candidly say its piece, to identify and evoke the world as Tucker Green sees it, and doesn’t much care if viewers agree or not.
Staged at London’s Royal Court in 2018, the source of “Ear for Eye” precedes last year’s seismic series of Black Lives Matter protests, but Tucker Green’s creative, propulsive screen treatment now feels like a key text for the aftermath: a film with a fast stride beneath heavy baggage, with its gaze fixed firmly on the future. Its conceit remains theatrical, as the bulk of the film — the first of its three chapters — is dedicated to a rotating chorus of Black characters addressing both the historical racism and contemporary macro- and micro-aggressions they live with, their rage bouncing off the unlit walls of a minimalist, black-box-style set. Yet Tucker Green (who styles her name and the titles of her works in all-lowercase, a preference she has described as a leveling of status between creator and creation) shoots, cuts and scores these vignettes with a jagged dynamism — a kind of aesthetic violence — that refutes all filmed-play expectations.
It’s altogether a very different proposition from her 2014 debut feature, the Idris Elba-starring “Second Coming,” which couched magical realism in more conventional, naturalistic film language. “Ear for Eye” may directly acknowledge its theatrical roots, but it feels the more intuitively cinematic work — even if British audiences will largely experience it on the small screen. Simultaneous with its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, this BBC production was televised and released directly to the national broadcaster’s iPlayer streaming service. Away from home, however, one hopes this universally relevant work — incorporating race-based issues and perspectives from both sides of the Atlantic — gets festival play and multi-platform distribution.
One international selling point is the casting of Lashana Lynch, fresh from her breakout turn as the new 007 in “No Time to Die,” in what might be described as the ensemble’s spotlight role. (James Bond honcho Barbara Broccoli has an executive producer credit here.) In the film’s second act, which switches from the vignette-based structure of the first to a sustained two-hander, Lynch bristles with hot, barely contained anger as an American college student locking ideological horns in debate with her condescending white professor. The two discuss the politics and optics of a recent school massacre, perpetrated by a white shooter, in which many Black teens were killed. It’s a hard, brilliantly written scene of verbal and philosophical warfare, touching on U.S. gun culture, Black victimization versus white rationalization, and the ongoing discourse around “safe spaces” in academia, all braided in sharp, pithy tandem.
The film’s third, shortest and most subversive segment, meanwhile, is a comparatively stark feat of performance art, as a group of white actors — young and old, American and British — recite a litany of racist laws from the Jim Crow era and beyond. The stunt is simple, but the payoff is shiver-inducing, erasing the distance contemporary liberals place between themselves and the shameful history of their forebears. Luciana Riso’s cinematography, hitherto textured and fluid and alive to skin tone, reverts to plainer, flatly contrasting monochrome (shot by Joel Honeywell), a visual echo of a time when black and white were dully defined and separated.
Tucker Green’s filmmaking abounds in such stylistic leaps and rhythmic whiplashes, the screen sometimes splitting to keep pace with her ideas, voices giving way to music when her torrential words occasionally — and only briefly — tire themselves out. One climactic soundtrack cue feels pointedly chosen. In context, British R&B artist FKA Twigs’ gorgeous, charged ballad “Cellophane” (“They’re watching us / They’re hating / They’re waiting / And hoping I’m not enough”) brings to mind the racist fan abuse she was infamously subjected to while dating Robert Pattinson — just one example of the separate standards and terms Black people must negotiate throughout their lives. “Ear for Eye” is the kind of work that expands and enriches whatever other art it touches, from a creator at once singular and generously community-minded. Like time and change, however, she’s not slowing down for anyone.