There’s an interesting thing about audience. Filmmakers make
movies with them in mind, but don’t have any control over their reaction. Such
was the case in Wednesday night’s screening of Scrapper, at this year’s Pan African Film Festival. Written and
directed by Brady Hall, the film stars Michael Beach, who’s probably most known
for roles in Waiting to Exhale, Soul Food,
and ER, where he loved and cheated on
black women. These black women were the primary audience members at this
screening of a film that saw him in a radically different form than these
aforementioned works.

Set in Seattle, Scrapper tells the
story of Hollis Wallace, a lonely man who makes his living collecting other
people’s scrap metal, and caring for his ailing mother, who happens to be his
only friend. His daily adventures collecting metal brings him into contact with
an array of neurotic characters looking to dispose of their “junk.” One of them
is a deranged white male neighbor (Aiden Gillen) involved in a BDSM/bondage
activity with an 18-year old white girl named Swan (Anna Giles). When Hollis
walks in on this scene while collecting the man’s metal, he feels immediate
concern for the girl, and so begins a codependent relationship between them.

Under his guidance, the misdirected 18-year-old trades in
her bondage activities for metal collection. At first a father figure, Hollis
buys 500-thread count sheets for her to sleep in his home, but things get odd
when the relationship takes on a sexual nature. This is one of the many places
where tonal confusion disrupts the film, and a dark dramedy about two troubled
people building a complex connection, becomes an uneven tale of a self-sacrificing
black man repressing desire for an 18-year old girl, and getting beat up and
spit on in the process. So, instead of being funny, an awkward, long sex scene
between Hollis and Swan, where he stares off into space as she grinds into him,
becomes a little off-putting, not because it’s interracial, but because it’s
cheap. Character and relationship development are sacrificed for plot
contrivance. Another very different film called Diego Star navigates this same intimate terrain, but in ways that
don’t rely on unmotivated sex to bring people together.

And so we come back to the idea of audience. We don’t see
many (if any) films about black scrap metal workers in Seattle, and especially
ones that involve dark, wry humor. As America’s fourth largest export, scrap metal becomes
a kind of metaphor for Wallace’s relationship with Swan- how damaged parts can in
some way become good, or become even more damaged. Aside from some strong performances from Beach, these were elements of the narrative that I found interesting, and
that I wish there were more of. There was more to learn about Hollis, beyond
his supreme care for Swan, like how he devolved into a life of loneliness, but
that wasn’t in the film.

During an intimate Q&A in which a handful of mostly
black women- audience members gathered around Michael Beach, the moderator
asked the group, including myself, how we felt about the film. I smiled as my
mind swarmed with thoughts I didn’t want to voice, but one woman said: “It was
okay. It wasn’t what I expected from you.”
It was one of the most honest
audience reactions I’ve ever heard at any screening, and one that stayed with
me on my drive home from the theater. What was her expectation and why wasn’t
it met? Does it matter? Michael Beach addressed his string of roles portraying
the “cheating black husband,” and how he liked this role because it was
different. But, I wonder how different is it? We’re living in a time where race
neutrality, diversity, and post-blackness have become safe slogans, and this
film feels like it’s trying to ride that wave. But just like the scrap metal
that it represents, it recycles the same ideas and images we’ve already seen.