Inside the 28-Minute Film That Gives Viewers a Glimpse of the Black American Experience

Writer and director Travon Free speaks about his short film on police brutality

When Black Lives Matter protests swept the country over the summer of 2020 in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, they sparked a national conversation about systemic racism, as well as police brutality. Many white Americans in particular were forced to confront what is often an inescapable reality for racial minorities in the country.

That is the message that writer and director Travon Free has for audiences in his new short film, Two Distant Strangers. The film opens with Carter (played by Joey Bada$$), a young Black man, waking up at a young woman’s apartment, presumably after a one-night stand. After a few minutes of flirtation, Carter leaves the apartment, where he runs into a white police officer. After a short and tense back-and-forth, the police officer pins Carter down and places a knee on his neck, eventually killing him in a horrific and gut wrenching scene. Even after being brutally murdered, Carter’s torture has just begun. He wakes up back in bed with the young woman, destined to relive this nightmare repeatedly. KCM spoke with Free about why he decided to make this film, and who he hopes will watch it. 

KCM: At the end of the film we see a list of some of the many names of Black and brown people who have been the victims of police brutality. Was there one case in particular that inspired you to make this film?

Travon Free: I was watching the news one night in July, and I just had this moment where I felt the repetition of these stories, and how often they happen, and nothing seems to change. It felt like the worst version of Groundhog Day you could ever imagine. I realized maybe I could do something with that idea — to try to create something that would help people feel what I felt like as I processed these murders over and over. 

I wrote the script at the end of July, after so many stories like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd seemed to collide at the same time. The script didn’t come from one specific story, but from experiencing, hearing about, and feeling so many of them repeatedly in such a short span of time. 

For white viewers, the film offers a glimpse into the seemingly endless cycle of violence and trauma that white people continue to inflict upon people of color. What do you want white viewers to take away from the film?

For 28 minutes, I want them to get a glimpse of what it feels like to be us every day. We intellectualize the experience of, of “being Black in America” a lot. The thing about cinema is that it can help a viewer connect so much more emotionally to something they just can’t intellectualize. I wanted to capture the feeling of what it is to walk around the country you live in in constant fear — fear of knowing that at any given moment, the police can take your life for whatever reason. 

After those 28 minutes, I want white viewers to come away with a little bit more empathy and understanding of what it is we go through, and what we’re trying to explain when we talk about this fear. A lot of times people feel like we’re trying to just bash or demean white people for being white, when we’re really trying to have conversations about police brutality. I want viewers of this film to understand that Black people have a much different experience than white people walking around this country. We just want you to hear us out, so that we can ultimately figure out how to bridge the divide between communities and police. 

What do you want Black viewers to take away from the film?

This is nothing that Black viewers don’t know already. I hope they can use this as a tool in their toolbox of how to express to people what it feels like to be Black. Sometimes rather than having an argument or conversation, it’s easier to just hit play. You can tell your non-Black friends, “take half an hour to watch this and you’ll have an idea of how I feel. These 28 minutes are what my life feels like all the time, or what I fear my son’s life or daughter’s life will turn into.” I love making movies and TV because sometimes the best way to change someone’s mind is with art. 

I want people to walk away from this film and think, “Why is this issue so unique to our country? Maybe we need to reassess what it means to police this country.” If my film sparks that thought, or moves the needle in that direction, then I’ll feel like I accomplished what I set out to do.

How do you think Carter’s nightmare finally ends?

I wanted to end the film in a way that felt truthful. The conclusion I came to was that the cycle for Carter does not have an end. If the movie is a reflection of reality, the nightmare can’t end until we as a country commit to police reform. I don’t have a solution for how to end this nightmare from happening to us in real life, so it doesn’t end for Carter.  

So, how does it end? I want more people to ask that question. How do you break the cycle? It starts with us looking at that list of names [of victims of police brutality at the end of the film] and knowing that it is such a small representation of the number of names that belong on that list. How can we as a country come to terms with this? This is not a “blue versus Black” or a “left versus right” thing. It is about taking a step back and realizing that so many communities in our country are suffering because the police are allowed to do their jobs the way they do them. 

That should be unacceptable to Americans of any color — that a large swath of the population are being killed by the people who are sworn to protect and serve us. I wish I could have made a movie about something else, but I felt so compelled to tell this story because of the emotions it carries, and the emotions I carry with me every day. A white director doesn’t have to make a movie like this — they get to tell whatever story they want to tell, because they’re not constantly thinking in the back of their minds, “I could die at any moment, no matter how successful I am, no matter what I’ve done, no matter what I do at any given moment, I can have an encounter with a police officer and it could be the end of my life.” That is a fear that only a minority of this country carries around every day. Until we figure out how to solve that problem, until we decide it’s a big enough problem that we need so solve, the cycle will continue. Carter will be stuck in that loop forever. 

Two Distant Strangers will be available soon – keep an eye out here for more info

Reported by Emily Pinto