Reviews Short Narrative

Soul Bones (2019) – 2 stars

Director: Andrew Huggins

Writers: Andrew Huggins

Cast: Zach Ball, Lucien Rattray, Mirachol Carroll, Chris Wolfe

Running time: 11mins

As the world erupts into justified outrage at the murder of George Floyd, one of the things that should have become clear is we cannot afford a return to normality after this. In America, as around the world, the mask is slipping as elites edge further into totalitarianism to preserve the rapidly crumbling economic and political hierarchy they sit atop. At the heart of this, the constructs of race, religion, class, sexuality and gender essential – as the murder of George Floyd and the resulting fallout proves beyond doubt.

Since Floyd died – hours after a member of the Minnesota police crushed his neck with a knee as Floyd screamed “I can’t breathe!” – demonstrations have spread around the globe, as well as the US itself. Yet despite the apparently clear-cut example of systemic injustice, many individuals remain highly resistant to any suggestions of wrong-doing. While police continue to batter and bloody people calling for change, and an end to the brutality; while state troopers arrest journalists reporting on the situation based on the colour of their skin; while President Donald Trump seems to be laying the ground work to silence opposition groups by listing antifa (a vague, non-binding blanket term for activists publicly opposed to racism) as a ‘terrorist group’; many people steadfastly maintain there is nothing untoward is going on.

Something which cannot be stressed enough in this moment is that this surely demonstrates the short-comings of liberal ideology in addressing structural oppression throughout the last century. So-called ‘moderates’ have fiercely maintained that an individualised free market of ideas would be enough to drive forward progress. As in films like Trading Places, Driving Miss Daisy, or The Butler, this downplays the structural roots of bigotry, and instead suggests it can be dealt with by informing bigoted individuals about the experiences of oppressed groups. These lessons are then taken into the every-day lives of the former bigots, and everyone just gets along famously – ignoring the socio-economic fractures which continue to create and exacerbate new bigotry.

Andrew Huggins’ Soul Bones suffers from precisely this problem, and while it might have been made before the unfolding struggle relating to George Floyd, it is only a year old. It will have been created in an environment where many innocent lives had been cut short by police brutality, and where the argument that ‘being nice’ and ‘showing humanity’ to racists had objectively failed to prevent that. I think in this context, despite its competent technical accomplishments, it is only fair that Soul Bones be criticised on this basis – as the simplicity of this story on modern race-relations will leave a bitter taste in the mouths all but the most wilfully ignorant of audiences.

A man of few words, Baker Alred (Zach Ball) clearly has some skeletons in his closet, as he chugs beers while slouched before his television. A quiz show is blaring out at him, and suddenly barks the words “CIV-IL RIGHTS” as an answer to a question – something which Baker is unmoved by. Disturbed by a sudden knock at his door, Baker finds the young Harrison Keys (Lucien Rattray) at his door, seemingly reciting a sentence his mother gave him, word for word. A black child asking for chores to help with does not seem to please Baker, and he wordlessly shuts the door in his face.

Later, we discover Harrison’s mother is being abused by a faceless white man that the credits confirm was supposed to be her boyfriend. As he witnesses one particular encounter between the couple at the grocery store, Baker clearly sees something of himself in the situation, and it is something he doesn’t like. The next day, he concedes to the persistent Harrison, and lets him help move the forest’s worth of firewood he is chopping. Clarifying what exactly it was about the last scene – whether Baker had an abusive step-father, or just realises he is also a white man who has abused black people could have lent more credibility to this conversion – but it is sadly left out of Huggins’ final cut.

Following this apparent lowering of Baker’s guard, Harrison again calls upon his new ‘friend’ for help – as an altercation with the abusive partner has left his mother “hurt bad” (though we see no blood, bruises or signs of a struggle in her house). Things hastily turn out for the best, before the source of Baker’s shame is revealed. Building a fire with the wood he has been chopping, he burns his old Klan mask. And that pretty much is that; bigotry solved, post-racial society achieved; don’t worry everyone, you can go home.

For all intents and purposes, Huggins seems to have had his heart in the right place, but it is surely not hard to see why this particular handling of these issues is problematic. I’m not suggesting that a former member of the Ku Klux Klan could never turn over a new leaf – and I don’t think that a film depicting that couldn’t make a compelling intervention in the turmoil of current events – but it’s going to be a damn sight more difficult for them to shed lifelong convictions on race, to win back the trust of the communities they terrorised, or even start to make amends for the lives they likely wrecked in their previous activities.

One of the most problematic aspects of this is that Harrison and his mother are passive players in a story about their own oppression; something which Huggins badly needs to address in future projects if he intends to address such issues again. In reality, I think most mothers might take issue with their son spending long spells in the house of an axe-wielding former Klansman (whether or not she was aware of that.) Indeed, if Harrison’s mother had have gotten wind of Baker’s past, that could have injected some much needed conflict into this movie – as well as giving her a chance to rightfully hold him accountable for his actions. The failure to do this not only means these characters become tokenistic moral commodities which a white man can use for individual growth and emotional enrichment, but paints black people as bit-part-players in their own liberation – something they can only achieve by appealing to their oppressors for help.

With regards to Baker, meanwhile, if a film about someone like him wants to show he has changed, then individualistic acts of kindness will not cut it. The Bakers of this world should be on the front line of places like Minneapolis, fighting against the systemic inequality their behaviour previously helped to enshrine, shielding the people they previously harassed and brutalised from the police. Suggesting that all is well and good after a brief, super-local deed of good makes everyone square in this situation is to diminish the importance of the economic and political history which has led to such injustice, as well as the fact that beyond this particular setting its legacy of violence continues to this day.

The time for films like Soul Bones is passed – it is patently obvious that long-standing divisions in society need systemic change if they are to be consigned to the past. In a world where all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others, the supposedly enshrined rights of liberal democracy are not worth the toilet-paper they are so cheaply scrawled upon, and nothing but a continued rapture of indignant demonstration will do anything to change that. Niceties are not going to cut it anymore.

To support those currently calling for justice for George Floyd and countless more victims of police brutality, donate to the Minnesota Freedom FundOther ways of helping support the movement for change can be found here.

Leave a Reply