Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s Black Box is a split narrative that explores the depths of memory loss and identity as a result of an experimental treatment gone wrong. Although the film uses a Black-heavy cast – comprised of actors such as Tosin Morohunfola, Amanda Christine, and Charmaine Bingwa to name a few –it’s clear its universal story can apply to anyone.
We tend to automatically label films Black movies based on how many Black faces appear in a cast lineup, but Black stories are more so those rooted in our culture and traditions that would otherwise require such a label. Contrary to popular belief, the stories of the marginalized have a place in every culture because at the end of the day they’re just human stories. Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s film sets out to break free from the Black story label to prove that Black Box is a relatable story drawing from common themes such as grief, loss, family values, and unconditional love.
Phylicia Rashad and Mamoudou Athie – the two leading stars of the Amazon Television and Blumhouse-led film – shared with Shadow and Act their thoughts on how Black Box is leading the conversation behind of inclusive storytelling as it relates to our humanity.
“See, people are people. There are things that are very specific to us as Africans, things are very culturally specific,” Rashad said. “Please don’t mistake what I’m saying, but there’s a common thread that runs throughout all of humanity, which really is why we can enjoy human stories from anywhere. Think about the stories you’ve seen that were not about African-American people that you enjoyed because they were human stories. It doesn’t have to be culturally specific, but it’s wonderful when it is because it’s very good to see ourselves reflected in good work, in good solid work. That’s what I think is important about any work.”
Black Box indulges us in a lo-fi, emotional thriller constructed to break down an amnesiac’s condition with the help of a genius neuropsychiatrist who has ulterior motives of her own. Nolan Wright (played by Mamoudou Athie) and Dr. Lillian Brooks (played by Phylicia Rashad) engage in a sparring match of mind games for the duration of the film in which Nolan is determined to regain his memories, while Dr. Brooks has a mission to bring her deceased son’s mind back.
Rashad’s character goes through her own transformation in the film as Dr. Brooks’ intentions in helping Nolan are slowly revealed in a sinister way, bringing about a startling realization for viewers. Rashad unveiled the value in Dr. Brooks’ persona that emphasizes the film’s message of what grief and loss will drive a person to do.
“You see a person with a great mind in a position of authority, who has the backing of academia and funding from other sources. That’s a very esteemed position to be in,” she said. “It carries with it a great responsibility, not just to oneself or for oneself, but to others as well. How should one in this position conduct one’s self? It’s an interesting look at human vulnerability, even in a high place.”
Casting for the film was purposeful in the sense of bringing together voices who have the range to bring this chilling story to life. Recruiting both familiar and new faces, Black Box sets out to show our capabilities when it comes to storytelling where race isn’t at the forefront.
“I think we have more than a rank just to tell stories that have nothing to do with our culture specifically,” said Athie in regards to dismantling limited standards set for Black actors and stories. “Just simple stories. Just like this is our story, this is a universal story, with our faces. We’re going to continue making them and I’m very happy to see more and more [stories] cause it’s past due time.”
Black Box arrives following months of protests demanding justice for those victims who have suffered at the hands of racial and police violence. Although the film makes no direct mention of race, the message behind its intent to amplify diverse filmmakers and talent both on and off camera gives it a place in that conversation.
“You know, I’ve been looking at this and saying, ‘Ooh, Ooh, this is … chile, it’s woo.’ That’s all I can say,” Rashad said sharing her thoughts on the recent national outcries for social justice. “Humanity is having to reshape and reform itself. Some people in some parts of the world are doing a better job of it than others. I think that this is something that we can come through.”
The film is both a testament and catalyst that will begin to shift the conversation about Black talent and our stories that have ubiquitous appeal. Black Box is a one-of-a-kind narrative in which every person who sees it can resonate with a piece of it in some form or fashion. Every member of the cast and crew plays a part in what this film is meant to represent – what change will look like in our near future.
“I’m just so excited to start to begin to see some of the changes already happening, but the most important thing to me right now is more diversity behind the camera as well as the front,” Athie said. “I think that’s supremely important in terms of what stories are being told and how they’re being told. I think there are certain sensitivities that need to be addressed. So more of this, just more, more, more, more because why not?”