Reviews Short Narrative

Color of Love (2023) – 2 stars

Director: Natasha C. Smith

Writer: Natasha C. Smith & David Cox

Cast: Clara Francesca, David Cox, Elija Nicols, Fatimah Diallo, Genesis Valleon

Running time: 11mins

One of the most telling aspects of the script for Color of Love is that neither of the children has names. Presumably, Natasha C. Smith and David Cox never got round to replacing the placeholder ‘Son’ or ‘Daughter’ with an actual name, suggesting that they were so blind-sided with the grand mission of Color of Love that they forgot to figure out ways to make it into a piece of relatable – or at the very least, watchable – entertainment.

In the grand scheme of things, when a film is trying to address the lasting legacy of slavery in America – and is trying very hard to ask some very worthy questions about what ‘freedom’ within the context of modern capitalism really means for Black people – the lack of a name might seem like a minor issue. But it’s important if we are going to learn to see the characters on screen as human beings, and not simply vessels for some extremely clunky messaging about privilege theory.

In the end, the fact ‘Son’ (Elija Nicols) never receives this base level of characterisation is indicative of wider failings in the production. The whole scenario revolves around Son being pulled over by a violent policeman for “driving while Black”, and being hospitalised. There is no opportunity for him to discuss his own feelings at any point after, though. All the frustrations are aired by his mother, Susan (Clara Francesca), and father, Andre (David Cox), who immediately descend into angry recriminations.

The pair describe themselves as a bi-racial couple, but apparently have never openly discussed what that might mean for the character they only ever refer to as “my/our son”. Andre feels that while Son is in hospital, now is the time to launch into a speech about how Susan underestimates life for Black people in America, and how she is ‘erasing’ them by failing to acknowledge it. This might work better if Susan at any point actually said anything that seemed to minimise anyone’s experiences on screen.

Susan is repeatedly told she can no-longer be “neutral” – something which would make her complicit in the horrors inflicted on her husband and children. But we need to be shown this apparent side of her – because as she cries while holding her son’s hand in hospital, it seems hard to imagine how somewhere in her brain, she might be trying to justify what happened. The officer was only doing his job when he put Son in the emergency room?

Just like building the character of Son, however, fleshing out this conflict would take time. That would mean – unless there was the scope to extend the run-time – there would be less space for Andre and Susan to shout therapy-speak at each other, before an overly simple and saccharine conclusion that will leave you with toothache.

Oddly enough for a film which talks so much about the need for change, its solutions seem rather tame, too. Like everything else in our crumbling society, treatments are easier to come by than cures, and being mindful of how racist cops may treat young Black people, so they can adapt and survive, seems more important than talking about how we might stop cops being racist – or indeed, if the whole institution might need to be replaced if that is not possible. Instead, the ‘togetherness’ of the family unit, the need to respect each other’s feelings, and to acknowledge their trauma stands in for anything more radical or wide-reaching.

This attempt to wrap things up might have meant something if we knew more about these individuals, or what makes them actually love each other besides proximity and DNA. It might have also meant more if we saw more of a reaction to what was supposedly driving them apart, or if Son – the character who by far had the most potential for an arc – had the opportunity to confront his parents properly about any of this. After all, his parents have been babying him about the construct of race his entire life, leaving him to find out everything he later reveals he knows about it from the outside world! He might also have something to say about the police as an institution, or at least the ‘bad apple’ who abused him at the start of all this.

It leaves me wondering why tell this story in this medium at all? It would be easier to make a documentary or a video-essay out of the text-books Andre and Susan seem to be quoting, without the need to sculpt emotionally relatable characters to help those points take root. Instead, all the emotional loose ends – the lack of characterisation or opportunities for the story’s avatars to interact in a recognisably human way – come across like a sterile infomercial you might see as part of a corporate diversity training programme.

This project was created as part of studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York and, according to the submission form, it was Natasha C. Smith’s first film. She will have learned a great deal from the process, long before I had anything to say about it. Most filmmakers on IFL do not have the luxury of an $18,000 budget while they learn those same lessons, though. In the future, if she commands such a sum again, she might put it to better use examining structural injustice in a more patient and provocative way, using three-dimensional characters to scratch beneath the surface and better carry audiences along with the message.

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