Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

dir Anthony Mandler
scr Radha Blank, Cole Wiley, Janece Shaffer
prd Tonya Lewis Lee, Nikki Silver, Aaron L Gilbert, Mike Jackson, Edward Tyler Nahem
with Kelvin Harrison Jr, Jennifer Ehle, Jennifer Hudson, Jeffrey Wright, Tim Blake Nelson, Rakim Mayers, Nasir "Nas" Jones, Paul Ben-Victor, John David Washington, Jharrel Jerome, Dorian Missick, Lovie Simone
release US/UK 7.May.21
18/US 1h38

hudson wright nelson

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harrison and ehle
An internalised approach to the courtroom genre, this drama sometimes feels a bit obvious and uneven in its approach but inventively engages the audience. Told out of sequence, the story is packed with powerful moments as it explores a dark side of America's judicial system through remarkably clear eyes. After its Sundance premiere, it's taken three years for this film to get a release, and it now feels urgent.
When he's charged with murder, bright 17-year-old Steve (Harrison) is determined to prove his innocence. His court-appointed lawyer Katherine (Ehle) takes a no-nonsense approach to the case. And after their initial shock, his parents (Hudson and Wright) support him through each court appearance. In jail, Steve is trying not to imagine the rest of his life behind bars. But during the trial the presentation of witnesses and evidence builds a messy picture of what happened on the fateful day when two thugs (Mayers and Washington) he knew from the neighbourhood robbed a corner shop.
An aspiring filmmaker, Steve narrates this experience as a movie he's writing, directing and starring in, flickering to flashbacks for some back-story. (An extended reference to Rashomon is rather on-the-nose.) Repeatedly called a monster, Steve's mistake was hanging out with the killers as a documentarian, so he's lumped in with them in a robbery that went tragically wrong. As Katherine points out, a jury will always believe a young Black man on trial is guilty, regardless of the evidence.

The gifted Harrison layers complexity into each scene, adding warm humour and edgy emotion. As the soulful Steve mixes with some scary people, his curious storyteller's perspective grapples with the definition of masculinity itself. Beefy supporting roles bristle with honesty, with unsurprisingly pungent stand-out turns from Ehle, Hudson and Wright, plus an understated Nelson as Steve's film studies teacher. And Washington adds a blast of menace when he takes the stand.

There's a nice underlying theme about a young artist seeking the story he wants to tell through his work. Steve constantly notices provocative details, such as how average teens break the law in tiny ways every day. "This doesn't change who you are," Steve's mother says as he's losing hope. "You're not this." Since we can see that this is true, there's real tension as the trial unfolds, Steve takes the stand and we await the jury's verdict, knowing that justice is often elusive in these cases.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 7.May.21

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