On Tuesday, a few hours after Derek Chauvin was convicted of George Floyd’s murder, another chapter closed in the history of Travon Free’s film that was inspired by the case. Voting ended for this year’s Oscars, at which Two Distant Strangers is frontrunner for live-action short.
It was an odd day. The film was nominated as the trial began and its fate was sealed the day it ended. Speaking from Los Angeles, Free says it feels as if “there’s this weird synced-up relationship”.
The collision of pain and plaudits has been challenging. “Celebrating a piece of art you’ve created while living with the subject matter – juggling those two emotions has been so strange.”
Free, 35, began his adult life as a college basketball player before being derailed by injury. In 2011, he wrote a book called Stop Hetero-Supremacy: How to Save Our Children and Our Future While Creating a World That Works for Everyone before pursuing a career in comedy, winning an Emmy in 2015 for his work on The Daily Show.
He wrote Two Distant Strangers – the title is inspired by a 2Pac lyric – in a five-day burst last July, two months after Floyd’s murder. It was shot over another five days in September; it was one of the first projects that the US actors’ union had allowed to go ahead since the start of the pandemic. About a quarter of its budget went on Covid protocols.
In the 32-minute film, a young black man (played by the rapper and actor Joey Bada$$) tries to return home one morning to his beloved dog from a new lover’s apartment, only to be stymied by lethal police violence in a sequence that repeats itself each morning.
It is fictional, but also all too familiar. Each brutal incident depicted – from the opening chokehold to officers’ bursting into the wrong home and shooting someone with their hands raised – was drawn from real events.
With the high-profile police killings last spring of Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude and Floyd, “you as a black American go through this cycle of emotions where you’re sad and upset, then you feel hopeless and then you work back to being hopeful”, says Free. “That’s when the thought occurred to me that it felt like living in the worst version of Groundhog Day ever.”
The short format is well suited to responding nimbly to current events. “The power of this film is largely born from how quickly we were able to get it out and have it be part of the conversation,” says the co-director Martin Desmond Roe, also calling from LA. “There’s no art form other than the short film that could have done that in this timeframe.”
Yet amid the film’s success, some black viewers have called the film’s violence triggering or “trauma porn”. Free is sympathetic: “I understand how, because the nature of our film is so right now, so an immediate representation of what you see on today’s news, that it’s difficult for people. But they should know that Two Distant Strangers was made for them, to express that very feeling. It’s unfortunate that communicating that message requires using some imagery that is tough.”
Free says he always recognised that the film would elicit different reactions from different audiences. His intention was to give those unaccustomed to the time loop nightmare of being a black man in the US a brief taster.
“For black people, this is not something you don’t already know – this is a validation of your feelings,” he says. “For white audiences, I hope it’s an opening of not just a conversation, but a pathway to empathy for our experience as black Americans. I can put you in [the protagonist’s] shoes for half an hour to try to understand what it’s like to be us for 24 hours [a day].”
Roe, 42, was born in Bristol, read classics at Oxford and has been based in the US for more than a decade. He says working on the film prompted him to confront his own biases. “This gave me the visceral appreciation of what generational fear, generational trauma and generational lack of justice does to a community.
“I don’t want to ever belittle the institutional racism in Britain. But I also don’t want to pretend that people in armoured cars with machine guns patrolling your neighbourhood doesn’t do something to you as a society. Growing up in England, even when I was getting arrested, I wasn’t really afraid of the police. Here, even as a white person, they’re terrifying.”
Should the film win on Sunday, Free will be the first black director awarded the prize in that category. “For this particular film, in this particular moment, I couldn’t even put into words what it would signify,” he says, emotion filling his voice. “To do it, representing the slain and the families of these victims, as well as anyone who has made a short in the last 93 years and never had a chance to be considered – it is a weight that no one should have to carry.”
He slowly grins. “But I’m a 6ft 7in, 270lb [122kg] black man. I’m happy to carry it for us.”
Two Distant Strangers is available on Netflix now.