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‘Two Distant Strangers’ captures the real-life nightmare Black people face with police brutality

“What would you do if somebody was trying to kill you every day?” 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

*Warning Spoiler Alert*

I can’t breathe,” Carter repeatedly shouted as the officer violently ignores the pleas. A woman recording exclaims, “He didn’t do anything!” as she looks on in horror.

Although that may sound ripped from an actual news headline where a Black person is the victim of police violence, it’s a movie scene where directors Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe highlight the terrors of police brutality, a flawed criminal justice system; and the unfortunate, gloomy actuality that for Black people, the next protest-invoking hashtag could be any one of us. Carter’s fictional dying words have become a real-world rallying cry for Black people as the character’s death mirrors an unsettling reality.

Starring Brooklyn-bred rapper Joey Badass, Two Distant Strangers tackles how the average day can result in a nightmarish end for Black Americans at no doing of their own.

After spending the night with a new romantic interest, Carter just wants to get home to his dog, Jeter. However, the protagonist finds himself stuck in a never-ending dream-like situation. No matter his behavior, he ends up dead at the hands of police officers every day.

The high of a promising one night stand is quickly sobered by the harsh reality of racial profiling once he exits the building and makes his way home. He accidentally bumps into a passerby, an interaction that calls for the attention on-duty cop who wrongfully assumes Carter is engaging in criminal behavior. He and Officer Merk, played by Andrew Howard, struggle physically over the search of his backpack, and he ends up on the ground, suffocating to death.

And then Carter wakes up, and it happens again and again.

In a conversation between Carter and the police officer, the film attempts to break down barriers between Black people and police. He questions the officer on his reasoning for taking up the shield and the policeman realizes he has never even spoken to a Black person for as long as their car-ride conversation. At first look, it seems as though the film is attempting to humanize the cop and offer an out. In the end, Officer Merk proves to be what police stand for and uphold. Although he seemingly grew to understand Carter and even accept the deja-vu theory and his repetitive uncalled for violence, the cop fulfilled his murderous duty.

“See you, tomorrow kid,” Murphy says with joy after shooting a confused and angry Carter in the back.

The time loop is used as a tool to build momentum in the short, but suspenseful, drama. However, it is also indicative of the never-ending cycle Black men, women, and non-binary people experience with police brutality based on prejudiced beliefs carried out by an unjust system built on racist values. For Black people, our own timelines in real life are infinitely spiraled to repeatedly endure the trauma of police violence and death, no matter how hard we try to escape it.

In the film, Carter grows more and more frustrated each time he wakes up to the same day — a relatable looming angst. Watching, reading or listening to the news media or monitoring social media can be a heavy emotional experience for Black people as the news cycle is repeatedly full of traumatic videos, images, and stories of Black death at the hands of police. Carter battles with conflicting feelings of guilt and innocence, trying his best to stay alive. It is a timely artistic portrayal of the heavy emotions ranging from rage and hate to confusion and disbelief carried by Black people when we learn of yet another police killing.

Through protesting, kneeling, boycotting, and more, the growing frustrations experienced by Carter, in real life, boiled over and spilled onto the streets. Black America and ally communities reached a breaking point during the summer of 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic combined with back-to-back instances of Black death at the hands of police or white people assuming the role of law enforcement created new energy in the movement against police brutality.

Unfortunately, just as in the movie, Black people go to sleep and awake to new terror daily — no cinematic time-loop necessary. In every instance, there is a new story, new circumstances, yet the same fatal ending, a point hammered down by the film. One day it was George Floyd, then Ahmaud Arbery, then Breonna Taylor, then Casey Goodwin. Their deaths add to the other names we should not know who have become immortalized by hashtags as victims of racist police violence.

Carter’s continued fictional deaths mirror the violent ends faced by Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Elijah McClain, and so many more. These victims of police violence were also just living their regular lives before a normal day spiraled into a nightmare that they paid for with their lives, thus damaging communities and families forever.

The short film is an homage to the aforementioned names that are engraved on an unfortunate and lengthy list that will continue to grow without an overhaul of the policing system. Two Distant Strangers proves the problem stems from behind the badge. In fact, the modern normalcy of the movie can be the scariest aspect.

While in some instances police violence and the bullet-wounded body are depicted in the film, the creators do not rely on the shock-value of overly graphic imagery to hone in on the message: The police are killing Black people repeatedly and unchecked; and creating an inescapable bad dream that mere “wokeness” cannot solve.

Overall, Two Distant Strangers captures the sometimes terrifying aspects minority populations face. As Black people, many of us carry the burden that becoming the next hashtag is not a fantastical belief but a grim possibility. All viewers will have to reckon with the question poised by Carter, “What would you do if somebody was trying to kill you every day?”

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