Last night, Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe won the Oscar for their short film, Two Distant Strangers. Among other things, the movie is perhaps the most bleak-yet-realistic-feeling time loop movie ever made. A loop in which Carter, played by rapper Joey Badass, tries any number of ways to keep from getting murdered by a police officer, only to land on the same violent result, thereby resetting the cycle. It’s an idea that feels tremendously potent right now — the same month as the Chauvin verdict and the killings of Daunte Wright, Ma’Khia Bryant, and Andrew Brown Jr., all by police.
But the truth is, as Free stated in his acceptance speech last night, the plot of Two Distant Strangers has always been relevant for Black Americans. And it will continue to be relevant for as long as our current system of policing remains in place — colliding headlong with both overtly personal and more broadly systemic forms of racism. As Free says, “Until we address the actual issues, this will never stop.”
In the days preceding the Oscars ceremony, I spoke to Free and Roe about their co-directed film, the systems that perpetuate police brutality, and what questions they hope the film’s newfound audience will walk away asking themselves. Spoilers for Two Distant Strangers to follow.
Two Distant Strangers is a time-loop movie. When I think of that genre, what comes to mind is Groundhog Day and Palm Springs. In both of those, you have a white male protagonist who is able to make his single day progressively better. In this movie, the construct is very similar but our protagonist is Black and he’s not able to improve his situation, though his actions change.
Did you intend this movie to contrast Palm Springs and Groundhog Day on any level?
Free: I didn’t even know Palm Springs existed until we were starting our movie, to be honest. I am well aware of Groundhog Day, of course, but it wasn’t until we were partway through our process that I saw Palm Springs. I didn’t know it was a movie that used that trope until I watched it. I was like, “Oh wow, what interesting timing.”
But it was more about just connecting to the feeling of what it feels like in reality. I mean, Martin always uses the example of how in our movie, the Groundhog Day trope is a metaphor for life, which doesn’t necessarily play out that way in the other movies that use it. I think that’s why it was a more direct inspiration because of all the scenarios it has been used in, the scenario in which Black people keep getting killed by police in the same manner — it feels like we’re living the reality of it.
One of the conservative or pro-police arguments we hear so often is, “Well, did this person, who was shot by the police, properly acquiesce?” The movie goes out of its way to show Carter as charming, funny, and self-confident, but he also makes himself progressively more accommodating to the cop. Was that layer always central to the story?
Free: From the beginning, what I was thinking was that the only way it would connect beyond the Black experience and connect for other audiences is that if I made the character unimpeachable in every way I could imagine. He had to, at every turn, be innocent. He had to be. There could never be a moment where you could question his behavior or character because that opens that door. That’s the door that always opens in real life. It’s like if you do anything that — which is almost always white people in these scenarios — deems as bad behavior toward a police officer and interaction with the police officer, then that somehow justifies you being shot.
For him, it needed to be him portraying the average Black American just going about their life, doing very mundane things, going to work, going home, seeing friends, seeing family. Just like trying to enjoy their life and being caught up in these moments that we also find ourselves caught up in. I think about my own experiences, that’s how it happened. I’m just living my life, and then all of a sudden there’s a cop present. Occasionally, that ended up with guns pointed at me for reasons to this day still don’t make sense. It’s a very scary way to live your life, not knowing or knowing that at any given moment, someone can just decide to take your life for whatever reason. If you don’t immediately bow to authority from someone who is essentially asking you to give that up because they simply say so — it’s a challenging way to live.
It was important that people saw him do everything possible to not open that door. People have asked, “Why didn’t he fight back? Why didn’t he shoot the cop?” And it’s like, “Well, what happens to Carter if his goal is to go home to his dog and he shoots a police officer? Let’s say the loop stops when he shoots the police officer, does he just get to go home and live his life?”
Of course not like, “Okay, you shot the cop who’s killed you a hundred times. Now, guess who’s coming to your front door? Guess what happens?” It’s a ridiculous assertion, I think, for people to stop the logic there. “Well, why didn’t he shoot him?” Okay, and then what? You wouldn’t do that in real life, that was kind of good thinking behind it.
The movie mixes very subtle metaphors and very clear metaphors. The blood in the shape of Africa at the close, for instance, is on the nose but also really worked for me as a viewer. It added depth. On the flip side, one of the things that felt the most realistic to me — even as a white male with all the privilege that entails — was how police officers ramp up so fast.
How have people reacted to how those police interactions escalate in the movie?
Free: I’ve heard that mostly from Black people, who say that it’s almost watching a memory in the way that this stuff went on for them. I mean, me and Martin, we screened the movie a couple of weeks ago for a couple of people from BAFTA. One of them was a Black gentleman, and he talked about how the film felt like a recreation of his younger adult life. It’s that for so many. So many people. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to make this particular story. I could have thrown in 10 more scenarios of his trying to escape.
I mean, it’s exactly what you described. It’s what happens. I have had a couple of times where police officers would tell me at the end of a stop or something, whether that stop is justified or not, I always pretty much keep the same temperament and they’re like, “I’m going to let you go because you were respectful.” And I was like, “You’re not going to harm me because I’m going to behave a certain way?” You’re supposed to remain calm no matter what I do, as long as I’m not trying to physically harm you.
If I’m yelling, that shouldn’t change the way in which you, the person with the gun, behaves. But for some reason, there’s this sense of domination that they have when it comes to their interactions where you’re expected to behave like a well-mannered person at every turn. No matter what they say or do. That’s just a lot to ask of the public, the general people they are encountering, who are unarmed and just kind of living their lives.
As far as the blood, that was actually not written that way. That was unintentional. That actually happened on its own. I mean, Martin, do you want to talk about it?
Roe: It was the last shot, on the last day, and we were stealing it because we ran out of time on the location. The location very kindly let us back a couple of days later just to pick up that shot. Cause we knew we really wanted it. And then, the blood just started pouring out and Travon was punching me in the arm — “It looks like Africa.” We tidied it up a little bit in post, ’cause it was once the universe gave us that we were like, “Well, let’s finish off the job.”
I mean, obviously, everybody catches it and it’s become the visual metaphor of the film. It was a gift from the universe that one.
It comes at the end of the car ride, which I think is an incredibly successful sequence and deeply agonizing. Can you guys speak to choosing that moment as the climax? The film has been doing short chops and jump cuts and then that sequence is really long. What do you want to share about that moment?
Roe: Did you think it was the climax?
For me? Yes, the tension created in the car ride was the climactic event.
Roe: Well good, I’m glad. ‘Cause, we worked really hard for that. Travon, do you want to say why?
Free: If you notice a lot of times when the country finds itself having these conversations, the talk of community policing comes up and all these different things police can do to better connect with the black communities they police. You see police playing basketball with kids and you see police throwing water balloons with kids. It’s always Black kids; always innocent kids. We’ve also seen that even when these programs exist, cops still kill some of these kids who actually participated in these programs in these neighborhoods. To me, I think the notion is so ridiculous that in order for you to not kill the people in my community, you have to know me.
First of all, that you’d have to know me. Then, that you have to know me on a level that involves you playing games and sports with me. For you to see me as a human being worthy of not being shot at a moment’s notice. I’ve for the last, I don’t know how many years now, between working at The Daily Show and coming back to L.A., in Hollywood and near Hollywood. It’s mostly white people and I’ve yet to see the police playing basketball with the white kids. I have yet to see any of those programs be deemed necessary for police to stop killing white people. We know that police kill a lot of white people. In terms of sheer numbers, they kill a lot of white people. They just happen to kill Black people three times more. It’s that type of prescriptive behavior that ignores the actual problem.
In that car ride, that’s Carter doing those things. That’s his version of the basketball game. It’s like, “Let me get to know. Let me try to disarm you. Let me show you that I’m a person with thoughts and feelings. I met a girl that I like, and also, I read books. I’m pretty knowledgeable about the situation with which my people find themselves in.”
Even when you think he’s connecting and they’re connecting, even though they agree to disagree, that they found some human common ground, the end result is the end result. Because that’s the reality. It does not change the reality of the way in which they see you. It’s why they are the scorpion and the frog, because the scorpion does not know how to not behave like the scorpion.
When I think about the type of police officers who would take a selfie in the spot where they killed Elijah McClain or the type of police officers who would watch another police officer abuse a dog and then ask each other to make sure that the cameras were off — things where you feel like there’s so much humanity lacking in those situations — that to me is what Merk represents in that last moment. He represents the thing we don’t want to reckon with, which is people like that exist and we continue to ignore it. The cop who shot the young man in Kenosha is back on the force. It’s the thing that we just continue to ignore the reality of — what these situations actually mean and the impact that they have.
Until we address the actual issues, this will never stop. It will never stop. The Band-Aid prescriptions just have to end. It can’t be about community policing. It has to be changing the way police behave and are training to do their jobs.
The movie is nominated for an Oscar. On the day of this phone call, it’s on the front page of Netflix. As more people see it, what are some of the conversations that you hope to hear people having about the film?
Free: I hope that especially given what happened this past weekend [the killing of Daunte Wright], that people now can connect even more emotionally with the actual community who’s feeling that pain. I don’t think there’s been a movie like ours previous that has done anything like this with this particular subject matter to this effect. I think now that you have a “companion piece” to the pain that you see on the news, I hope it actually allows people to connect on a deeper level with what they see when they see a mother and brother crying in a video about the loss of their son.
Now, you have a better idea of what she’s actually feeling. I hope that translates into more questions about the actual solution to the problem. To not think that it’s always just a few bad apples or we just need to like talk more with the people in the community. I hope it leads to people being so exhausted and so tired and so hurt that they really want to wrestle with the real issue of how to solve the problem. The problem is not us. The problem is not the victims. The problem is not the people who are encountering the police. It is the police, and they have to change their behavior in order for this to stop.
Roe: I hope that it becomes a curio in ten to 15 years’ time. That people look at it and can’t really understand what it’s referring to.
Two Distant Strangers is available to stream on Netflix.