I was a guest at the American Black Film Festival in South Beach a few weeks back -- right around the time the jury was chosen for the George Zimmerman trial -- showing my new film The Suspect. The picture is shot in a distinctive style (the old Twilight Zone episodes were an influence) and during the question-and-answer session after the screening, a woman in the audience expressed her interested in the production's overall look, and suggested the film seemed... she struggled for the right words...
"Dated," she said, a little anxious thread to her voice.
I didn't take offense, but I offered an alternative to her word. "Maybe it looks timeless?" I suggested.
The woman agreed. "Yes, that's how it feels. Timeless."
Timeless indeed. As the film deals with issues of social justice and keys off a dangerous instance of racial profiling, it is as au courant as the circus of a trial we were all about to watch unfold. Yet I couldn't watch the verdict over the fate of Trayvon Martin's killer come in without thinking of Lamar Smith, Emmett Till, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Cell phones, 911 recordings, neighborhood watches, stand-your-ground laws and a Kel-Tec 9mm pistol may conspire to make this story seem 24-hour-news-cycle new, but it is far from that. Sadly, some perversions of human dignity are so far-reaching they seem eternal, some epic form of society-wide damnation. But a society isn't damned unless it sins, and our transgressions against our people of color are sinful. It's not bad enough that we don't act particularly sorry for all the damage done to date; as a country we continue the charge. The racism changes methods, gets rearranged, dressed up, hidden differently, or thrown into soft focus. But it never truly seems to move in the direction of dissolving.
And knowing this, and knowing this George Zimmerman is merely the latest in a long parade of George Zimmermans, I chose to shoot my film in a surreal style-its setting a sort of indeterminate time in an indeterminate town. It could take place anywhere between the 1960s and yesterday; anywhere within my lifetime, which is kind of the point. The only certainty the audience can pin down? The power belongs to the white man, the crime is blamed on the black man, and we are somewhere in an America we all somehow recognize.
A film like Fruitvale Station is of-the-moment (2009 as yesterday) and feels that way. And I applaud its makers for finding sure footing to dramatize that urgent, current tale. But the story of the rush to judgment is as old as stories themselves. The story of racial tension as old as the races coming into contact. And this goes to the heart of why that woman wanted to talk to me about the "when" of The Suspect. I wanted to create the kind of iconic cinema that echoes America in the broadest sense, the same way the cowboy in the showdown or the GI readying for battle, in films at least, are not pinned down by time like a butterfly in a frame.
We like to think we outgrow the ugliness that's sewn into our history. That's the only logic I see behind the Supreme Court's neutering of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; surely those states that heaped on such fraud at the polls won't do that now that they're all grown up. Just you watch those states History says otherwise. And those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
In the words of William Faulkner, the past isn't dead; it isn't even past.
If that isn't damnation, well... I don't know what is.
The Suspect starring Mekhi Phifer and William Sadler, will have a distributors' viewing in Los Angeles on Wednesday at the Aidikoff Screening Room.