Black Box

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There are exceptions, but it used to be the case that apart from blacksploitation, or movies made by and for specific black audiences, you didn’t used to see an awful lot of people of colour in genre movies – like rom-coms or sci-fi, action or horror – except, perhaps, as the guy who dies first.

That has been changing for some time, but Get Out and Hamilton seemed to mark a watershed, the arrival of “post-white America” on screen. A black man isn’t a black man, he’s just a man.

Black Box, title be damned, sits comfortably in that niche. A knotty identity thriller starring the subtly persuasive Mamoudou Athie as Nolan, a photographer with life-altering amnesia after an accident that killed his wife, and Phylicia Rashad as the medical specialist with a “black box” that can potentially cure him.

Rashad is best known as wife to Bill Cosby in The Cosby Show. And if Cosby was (before his fall from grace), “America’s Dad” (in his own estimation at least), then that made Rashad America’s Mom.

This makes her perfect casting as the kindly, concerned specialist who can re-insert people back into their forgotten memories by tapping into their unconscious mind. Rashad plays both to her career image and, as the story develops in a sinister direction, increasingly to her career baggage.

A spiderwalking creature
Nolan’s dreams are trying to tell him something

Without getting too spoiler-y, though the treatment initially looks promising, Nolan’s journeys into the farther reaches of his memories do not go quite as planned. And somewhere about about the halfway mark the film also takes a swerve and shifts from being a drama about a man trying to reconnect to his past to something else entirely, a thriller with identity at its core.

Nolan is not quite the man he thought he was, and nor is Doctor Brooks (Rashad) working entirely at hippocratic levels of probity.

Perhaps this model dad, convinced to undergo potentially dangerous treatment in an attempt to reconnect to his cute daughter Ava (Amanda Christine), is not a good guy after all. As for his concerned best buddy Gary (Tosin Morohunfola), another doctor, is he the decent, stand-up friend he appears to be?

We know something is up because there’s a creature spiderwalking through Nolan’s psyche every time he is black-boxed into his recovered memories (a sight that’s unsettling until it’s repeated a few times too many).

Director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour aims for the cool pacing of a Get Out and achieves it until things swing wildly into melodrama in the last act, a change of gear which seems to catch everyone – writers and actors particularly – off guard, in a handful of scenes where way too many developments crowd together and cool gives way to feverishness.

Until then, in spite of a few flappily unresolved plotlines, some redundant scenes and the transparency of Gary as a Swiss Army Knife character always on hand to explain something, introduce someone or act as babysitter to Ava, it’s been an efficient, proficient and satisfying film. And in its bones it remains a good film to the end, a domestic, lo-fi version of Total Recall in some ways – trips to Mars and conversations with three-breasted women not included.

Black Box – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

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