Canadian-made short film Counter Act would have screened at the Rendez-Vous Festival earlier last month, had it not been for some last minute festival rescheduling. No matter, writer Sagal Kahin got her hands on a screening copy and reviewed it anyway!
I tend to avoid films about slavery or civil rights.
In most cases, I feel these works aim to show us how far we’ve come. In others, it seems the objective is to humanize victims or show characters who were once villains (racists) as people capable of arriving at place of compassion and understanding. Neither of these narratives appeal to me, as a brown-skinned individual. Instead, films about overt, normalized and institutionalized racism scare me, make me feel sad and think, ‘hey, that could have been me.’
It seems important to acknowledge that I’ve got some biases, as I move forward with this review. Before sitting down to watch the Affolter brothers’ Counter Act, I was already wondering; who is this film for and what will it contribute to the conversation?
Set in a quiet luncheonette, Counter Act is a short film about what happens when Ray and Mary, a black man and woman, walk into a “Whites Only” establishment, ask to be served and are denied. Then comes Alice, a white woman often bullied for being overweight, but a regular at this luncheonette. Frustrated to see Ray and Mary being denied service, Alice sits-in too. What follows is the harassment and assault of the trio.
The white saviour complex is prevalent, and of course problematic, even in just a fifteen minute film. Alice demonstrates what can happen when we aim to help others, but don’t know how to be effective allies. She also serves to remind the audience that that allies, though they may endure abuse too, can pack it in, head home and move on with their lives. For Mary and Ray however, that is not the case.
The overt racism in this film does it a disservice. My opinion is that for a film about race in the civil rights era to be worth watching, it should draw parallels that help us think about race in a contemporary context. If Alice, in her well-intentioned but horribly executed attempt to be an ally, is someone we’re meant to be thinking critically about, then it ought to be visible and understood. Instead, it’s the use of the word "nigger" that is over-simplified and held at the forefront, because apparently that is the true sign of trouble. Depictions of overt racism in this context also perpetuate a narrative which claims that this was a time long ago, that we have changed, and that racism is a thing of the past. None of this is true.
The things about which the filmmakers are subtle and contrastingly overt leads me to question their intent. Was this meant to be a criticism of Alice’s attempt to be helpful? I hope so, but I’m not convinced. In this sense, I don’t feel the work spoke for itself. If this was about more than standing up for what is right, even when you don’t have to, then it’s too simplistic. I don’t feel that the depictions of violence were necessary. Nor do they communicate anything that hasn’t already been said. I cringed as Ray, Mary and Alice were kicked and hit and had condiments poured on them. As I waited for it to be over, I was increasingly convinced that this film was not made for me. Rather, it was made for those who can watch and sympathize, not empathize. They don’t have to; they don’t share the same skin tone as Ray and Mary.