By Nijla Mumin | Shadow and Act February 13, 2014 at 3:01PM
There’s an interesting thing about audience. Filmmakers make
movies with them in mind, but don’t have any control over their reaction. Such
was the case in Wednesday night’s screening of Scrapper, at this year’s Pan African Film Festival. Written and
directed by Brady Hall, the film stars Michael Beach, who’s probably most known
for roles in Waiting to Exhale, Soul Food,
and ER, where he loved and cheated on
black women. These black women were the primary audience members at this
screening of a film that saw him in a radically different form than these
Set in Seattle, Scrapper tells the story of Hollis Wallace, a lonely man who makes his living collecting other people’s scrap metal, and caring for his ailing mother, who happens to be his only friend. His daily adventures collecting metal brings him into contact with an array of neurotic characters looking to dispose of their “junk.” One of them is a deranged white male neighbor (Aiden Gillen) involved in a BDSM/bondage activity with an 18-year old white girl named Swan (Anna Giles). When Hollis walks in on this scene while collecting the man’s metal, he feels immediate concern for the girl, and so begins a codependent relationship between them.
Under his guidance, the misdirected 18-year-old trades in her bondage activities for metal collection. At first a father figure, Hollis buys 500-thread count sheets for her to sleep in his home, but things get odd when the relationship takes on a sexual nature. This is one of the many places where tonal confusion disrupts the film, and a dark dramedy about two troubled people building a complex connection, becomes an uneven tale of a self-sacrificing black man repressing desire for an 18-year old girl, and getting beat up and spit on in the process. So, instead of being funny, an awkward, long sex scene between Hollis and Swan, where he stares off into space as she grinds into him, becomes a little off-putting, not because it’s interracial, but because it’s cheap. Character and relationship development are sacrificed for plot contrivance. Another very different film called Diego Star navigates this same intimate terrain, but in ways that don’t rely on unmotivated sex to bring people together.
And so we come back to the idea of audience. We don’t see many (if any) films about black scrap metal workers in Seattle, and especially ones that involve dark, wry humor. As America’s fourth largest export, scrap metal becomes a kind of metaphor for Wallace’s relationship with Swan- how damaged parts can in some way become good, or become even more damaged. Aside from some strong performances from Beach, these were elements of the narrative that I found interesting, and that I wish there were more of. There was more to learn about Hollis, beyond his supreme care for Swan, like how he devolved into a life of loneliness, but that wasn’t in the film.
During an intimate Q&A in which a handful of mostly black women- audience members gathered around Michael Beach, the moderator asked the group, including myself, how we felt about the film. I smiled as my mind swarmed with thoughts I didn’t want to voice, but one woman said: “It was okay. It wasn’t what I expected from you.” It was one of the most honest audience reactions I’ve ever heard at any screening, and one that stayed with me on my drive home from the theater. What was her expectation and why wasn’t it met? Does it matter? Michael Beach addressed his string of roles portraying the "cheating black husband," and how he liked this role because it was different. But, I wonder how different is it? We’re living in a time where race neutrality, diversity, and post-blackness have become safe slogans, and this film feels like it’s trying to ride that wave. But just like the scrap metal that it represents, it recycles the same ideas and images we’ve already seen.