Before the virus hit in 2020, critics were fighting a losing battle to gain awards traction for strong films with black characters, worthy stories like Queen & Slim or Just Mercy. This year, British Academy voting members will wrestle with a new group structure designed to try and mitigate the kind of a innate white bias responsible for skewed results we saw in 2020. The underlying issue is that older white audiences seem to have a prejudice about watching films dealing with the current black experience, and it’s a shame that they’re choosing to miss out; cinema is a broad church, and all stories should be represented.
SD Green’s Out of Bounds has gained a reputation as a buzzed-about contender in the late-starting 2021 awards race, and will automatically be handicapped by that traditional bias of white juries against black films. While this film has flaws, it’s certainly worth watching as an outlier; whatever gets nominated, some pundits will suggest that Out of Bounds should be there instead, and there’ll be some merit in that argument. In a story which has some thematic similarities to the slicker 2019 indie hit Waves, this film depicts a crossroads in the life of Travis Elliott (NJ rapper Deyonte ‘Tatted’ Hunter), who is pursuing the proverbial hoop dream of being a pro-basketball player. But getting out of high-school is a problem, given that many of the peers of his Memphis, Tennessee neighbourhood have different aspirations, which is to say that they see no future other than to get involved in street crime.
Much like the prospects of the film’s protagonist, the odds are stacked against a film on this subject; in the golden age of streaming, culture has fragmented in a way that a relevant, authentic film like this is easy to ignore. Travis’ situation is easy to understand and universal in resonance; he’s just trying to make a living, but problems with his incarcerated brother Rico (Tenichi Garner), his girlfriend Naomi (well acted by Shalonda SJ Johnson) and the dangers of his daily hustle pull him off his path. Green offers a few cinematic grace notes, connecting Travis’ situation to the 1981 Scarface remake via a well-handled burst of chainsaw torture, but never veers into a tribute or pastiche lightly; the criminal lifestyle is not a choice that the characters make easily.
Out of Bounds is not a perfect film by any means; some of the camerawork and editing is very raw in places, and while the film has to reflect the characters’ everyday interest in strippers and guns, they’re a little too casually depicted here for comfort, the camera lingers a few moments too long. How to depict a ‘gangster’ lifestyle without glamourising it is a problem that’s assailed film-makers for decades, and it’s not entirely solved here. But such hand-wringing may well be beside the point; Out of Bounds is a raw, angry and immediate film by intention, and even as an awards-season outlier, the press attention gained should help get this powerful film to the audience it deserves.
From Dec 23rd 2020 on ON-DEMAND PLATFORMS: Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, & YouTube Premium