Photo courtesy of Elevation
Kelvin Harrison Jr., left, and Sterling K. Brown
"That's the shallow interpretation," said filmmaker Trey Shults, about critical reactions
to the racial and gender depictions in his latest movie, Waves
. The film is a drama about a black family set in South Florida.
, the 31-year-old Orlando native's third movie, the main character, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), is a macho Black high school stud on the wrestling team. He's much like his hyper-masculine and tough dad (Sterling Brown). Tyler has a white girlfriend who he clearly cares for but they run into some problems, which he handles in a horrible way.
A quick look at the general themes of his film's narrative, like any hasty, unnuanced look at anything, said Shults, leads to cliché.
Tyler has a sister, Emily (Taylor Russel), and a stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry), two Black women who are soft and loving, whose lives are pushed and complicated by the actions of the Black men around them.
Rap and R&B scores fill various scenes, and notions of inner-conflict are expressed using Black art. It's a very Black look at the intimate struggles of a well-to-do but very Black family – by a white director.
In short, the Black dudes look like stereotypical Black savages, the Black women like feckless saviors here to sacrifice themselves for men of all stripes. One of the only nice guys in the flick is a white dude who ends up dating Emily.
And therein lies the mastery of Shults' challenging work. Watching a movie about a Black family, about Black men and women and people, who are struggling or who make mistakes, even horrible ones – you know, things humans do - is just that, a movie about Black people struggling. It doesn't mean that the struggle is a byproduct of inherent Black inferiority, or that any moment of Black accomplishment or joy is bucking stereotypes.
Even seeing every Black representation in film within the binary of "good representation" and "stereotypical, damaging representation," is cliched and tired.
"We're doing the opposite of that," said Shults.
He says "we" because the meticulous creation of the main character, Tyler, was a collaboration between director and actor, who worked together on Shults' 2017 movie It Comes at Night
"Kelvin wants to convey more," said Shults. "He gets roles where they only want him to convey the saint or the sinner."
They endeavored to create a multi-dimensional young Black man, a character, like a person, who is not the sum of a few mistakes or cultural identity points.
This is truly a challenge to witness. Enriching, enthralling, mesmerizing in its attempt and execution – but challenging. Waves
is not Shults trying out for Avengers 83
. There are few modern movies out there like it.
Throughout the movie, Shults engineers the unique experience of being confronted about how lazily we make assumptions about one another, in a way that is so intimate and visceral that the viewer is tempted to retreat to the complacent-comfort of the stupid shores of prejudiced-laced cultural ideas.
Shults begins forcing us to do away with our presumptions with a feat of technical filmmaking to start the movie. He toys with audio that first forces us to stop guessing whether or not the scene is going to result in a car crash or some other bit of dramatic action and actually engage with the characters, with their interior life, what's in their head – not what might happen to them.
In a screener for Orlando media, more than a couple in attendance went to the movie operators to complain that the sound must not be working. They were being challenged about their notions of what makes for movie sounds, for movie scores and the tenor and vibe of dialogue, and they wanted to paddle back to familiar harbor.
is a filmmaking endeavor, Shults like a spelunker who comes up with a technique to plumb even deeper, to eschew societal fear and complacency, to free himself and anyone who dares join him to the depths of race and gender, toward an understanding of the ways we can and do relate with one another.
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