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Reviewing the Live Action Shorts, Which Run the Full Spectrum of the Human Condition

Each of the five nominated shorts offers a different perspective on the human condition which spans the globe from Kenya all the way back here, to our own history of violence, past and present. While it’s difficult to single out the best one, as they’re all as good as you would expect given the abundance of entries every year.  Each of the categories in the short films explores the black experience in America. With My Nephew Emmett topping the live action shorts, to Dear Basketball, a poem by basketball superstar Kobe Bryant put to animation, to Traffic Stop – a horrific encounter of a black schoolteacher pulled over for a routine traffic stop and thrown to the ground these are hard hitting films that fit with the big stories of the year that also revolve around the black experience, like Get Out and Mudbound. We’re living through a “black new wave,” and the representation in the shorts is no exception.

I’ll start with My Nephew Emmett because the story of Emmett Till is one that still haunts the pages of our history books. I didn’t know the shot was about Emmett Till until the last shot of the movie. The power of the story is mesmerizing – probably it works better if you go in not knowing this the was the last known real life sighting of the young man. Emmett Till was just 14 when he was picked up by a gang of crackers in Mississippi and lynched for “offending” a white woman in a grocery store in 1955. His story has been told again and again, including Bob Dylan’s Death of Emmett Till.  

Directed by Kevin Wilson Jr., an NYU graduate film student who won the Student Academy Award for the film, My Nephew Emmett hits home so hard because it appears to be just an ordinary day in the life of a black family in the south. What could they do with guns in their faces to protect young Emmett? It’s filmed in the blue of midnight, as we see the faces of the older folks who sheltered Emmett Till until he was taken away. The real life footage of Till’s uncle is shown at the end of the film, and probably many wondered what that night was like. It’s an exceptional work.

These stories still invoke anger as they should. It remains horrifying that this is our American past. We spend a lot of time with bullshit virtue signaling on Twitter, chasing people down for things they’ve said as though if we can purge our culture from sinners we’re erase this past. We can’t. Only art can keep these stories alive so that we will never forget the injustices done in this country. To me, My Nephew Emmett stands out as the best of the lot, but honestly, its a close call as all of these films are brilliant.

Next in line for me would be the Eleven O’Clock, which might win. It is brilliant and funny filmmaking, while making a subtle commentary on how we all probably think we’re the only sane ones in the room – and are probably the most insane. Made by Australian filmmaker Derin Seale, The Eleven O’Clock is well acted, tightly wound and keeps you guessing from frame to frame. I laughed out loud a few times. It’s not particularly “important” but it’s entertaining and as such is probably a threat.  The film opens with a guy meant to be the psychiatrist meeting his first patient who is seeing him because he’s a guy who thinks he’s a psychiatrist. The two volley back and forth and you have no idea who is who and what is what until the very end. It’s wickedly funny throughout.

Right up there is DeKalb Elementary, which is based on a real live event and is quite timely in its subject matter. Directed by Reed Van Dyk, the film follows an elementary school receptionist tasked with talking down a school shooter. She has called 911. While talking to the operator and talking to the shooter, the woman manages, eventually, to convince the shooter to surrender, to not kill anyone, while the police wait outside. It is a stressful situation but ultimately the message comes through loudly and clearly that nothing can really replace human contact, compassion, and love.  Because of recent events and the way the students out in Florida have responded to the violence, it could certainly ride that wave to a win.

The Silent Child is another great one – they’re all good of course – and follows a deaf kid whose mother really can’t be bothered to learn signing and would prefer her daughter to speak like other kids, even if she can’t, even if it leaves her feeling lost and removed from everything her family and friends enjoy. It’s a distressing thing to watch but the actors are so good and the sense of place so strong and specific it does rise above the trappings of being just another PSA, though ultimately, of course, it must be. Too many parents of deaf kids still have a hard time accepting that singing is a great way to communicate and that there is no stigma attached. The film follows a young child and her new teacher who finally reaches her and is able to communicate with her using sign language. But her mother resists and eventually fires the teacher.  It also could win, as it is an “important” film too, and a moving one. I suspect many will be predicting this.

Watu (All of Us) isn’t in last place – rather I rank these last four about equally. This is another brilliant film that is based on real life events, in this case terrorism at the hands of Al-Shabaab. When a bus is stopped and raided the muslims and Christians are pitted against one another. But they stand together to save themselves as one people. It’s such an important story and probably the most “accomplished” in terms of recreating a time and place. It is difficult to watch, as most of these are except The Eleven O’Clock, but it ends on a positive note about unity.

I am not sure how to predict these yet. I have to think on it. Most of the folks at Gold Derby have DeKalb Elementary winning – and they could be right. I might ride it on through with My Nephew Emmett because it was the most moving of the bunch – and considering how great all of these are that’s saying something.  Keep your eye on Kevin Wilson, Jr. I have a feeling he’s going to be a big deal.