Ear for Eye Film Review: Debbie Tucker Green Adapts Her Lauded Play

Based on Debbie Tucker Green’s stage play of the same name, the unflinching film version is finally available in the US thanks to the Criterion Channel.


I was blown away by this movie.

The critically sharp, immediately poetic statement – “An ear to the eye” – conjures up fiery rebukes, a flood of unassailable truths, waves of intense emotions in your heart to root back to a cathartic lineage. What happens to a dream postponed not once, but several times? It doesn’t wither on the vine. It will be sour, and rightfully so.

Black people often feel that the dream is so delayed that it exists only in painful whispers and broken promises. This happened during Postbellum Reconstruction, during the post-World War II boom, and again during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. And now, more than two years since the Black Lives Matter summer that was meant to change everything, it’s happened again.

The trip is a playwright and director Debbie Tucker Green‘s “Ear for Eye” – now finally available in America on the Criterion Channel – is particularly apt. Based on Tucker Green’s stage play of the same name, the film version, visually adapted for the camera, played at the 2021 BFI London Film Festival and was shown on the BBC. Despite the film’s urgent theme of various sketches of black people debating what constitutes effective activism and how to combat state-sanctioned violence and its cumulative emotional and psychological consequences—it took much longer for this film reaches a wider audience than you might expect.

In “Ear for Eye,” these aren’t the usual characters, so to speak, though the people testify powerfully between cinematographer Luciana Riso’s filled frames. The figures that appear are more suggestive of a physical evocation of anger and regret, as well as deep determination. Anonymous Brits and Americans occupying minimalist sets, couches here and chairs, cozy nooks and crannies where they can ruminate, evoke specific places (Harlem, New York) or avant-garde dream spaces.

The film is divided into three parts, each more startling than the last. It opens with actor Hayden McLean, reprising his role from the stage production, standing in the middle of a black void. The camera, positioned from a god-eye perch, pans down around his figure as other black men in black stand on each side. They occupy a shallow pool of black water, their movements shimmering with each spat-out beat and barbed soundtrack. When you look down at your hand, do you feel fear or sorrow in this opaque sea? “Ear for Eye” rarely depicts such internalizations. Rather, tucker green asks the audience to simply listen to the experiences, trials and frustrations of this talented black ensemble.

It’s telling that Tucker Green uses the palm of his hand to write the countless intense monologues and dialogue that populate his haunting drama. Historically, from the image of a grandmother’s hand to an elaborate handshake to clenched fists, the cultural symbolism of black hands ranges from comfort to community to empowerment. But in “Ear for Eye,” tucker green finds their other mass-spread meaning: from grainy body camera footage to cell phone videos of witnesses confronting blacks with raised hands telling the officers, “Please don’t shoot me . ” or “I can’t breathe.”

In 2021, many would have mistakenly referred to Tucker Green’s perceptive observation as such timely. Now, as in 2018, when he originally staged the play at the Royal Court in London, it serves as a reminder of the ongoing threat of anti-black angst that black people face.

“Ears for eyes”


tucker green slyly translates the shared, multigenerational anguish of blackness with timeless conversations. Sharlene Whyte, who plays McLean’s mother, explains to him what white people see in black hands: “Attitude, arrogance, insolence, defiance.” McLean tries to negotiate with his mother. What if he turns his back or looks down at the floor? Isn’t the way it asks you to move through the world different from the confidence you’ve been instilled in since birth? For blacks, staying unbowed, yet alive, is a dance on the edge of oblivion.

Before long, an elderly black woman (Carmen Munroe) enters the scene. He first speaks directly to Whyte, then turns to a gallery where young black women are listening to his wisdom, signaling the words. “Before it was uploaded, downloaded, unloaded, done. Before they tried to dissect it, disrespect it, try to disrupt it, counterbalance it, infiltrate it, destroy it,” he explains as the crushed leaves of autumn gather at his feet. “When it was involved, it was physical, it was difficult, it was dangerous, it was physical, it was difficult, it was dangerous,” he continues in a cascade of snowflakes.

The first half of his monologue, delivered in a mesmerizing staccato, signals the new online activism that blurs the lines between branding and community building. The latter statement reflexively bends past and present tenses, as if to say that these things were so in their former form, but still exist, allowing the goals of each generation to coexist with the primary problem: the black- with opposition.

Tucker Green doesn’t give in to the sentimentalized sound of the strings, the tears, or the infantilized dithering needed to explain difficult issues simply. “Ear for Eye” moves with an undeniably thought-provoking edge. The vignettes formalistically clash and care, bump and clash with the intensity of the racism they tackle, threatening to shake the entire film to pieces. The broodingly poetic language verbalizes the tension felt between old and young, white and black. Who is to blame for the lack of success of contemporary activists: the previous generation for not winning enough battles, or the newer fighters who do not dig deeper into the struggle?

In one scene, an older man (Danny Sapani) tries to comfort a distraught younger man (Tosin Cole, reprising his stage role), even as he fights off his embraces. Preaching about the war, the young man says, “It’s a bloodbath.” Despite the older one’s protests, he continues, “How did this shit help? To read a book. Then what? Scratching your head over an article? You see a picture, turn the TV over?”

Tucker Green isn’t afraid of the close-up, he understands the reality and the resentments that can play out torturously on the face of an actor like Cole, who turns from respectful to furiously defiant as apocalyptic hues of rusty orange and crimson are carved into his background. “Go listen to those who have lived longer than you, spent years on you, spoke more quietly than you, and listen to them more,” says the older man atop his stoop, as black and white images of Angela Davis and the Black Panthers flow. in. A similar confrontation takes place in other scenes with other characters, those who have made protest an aesthetic rather than a conviction. “Ear for Eye” reflects our world and our strategies to fight inequality with quiet strength.

Tucker Green gives his film the opportunity to expand from internal debates to external targets: In the second part, an impassioned American student (Lashana Lynch) has a heated argument with her patronizing white teacher (Demetri Goritsas) over the events of a recent school shooting. white terrorist against black students. Was the gunman driven by racism or by environmental forces that make him a partial victim? You can guess who falls on which side. But the ruthless spirit of the scene lies not in the facts of the case, but in seeing those facts through the lens.

While the formalistic shift from vignettes to straightforward two-handers is a serious risk, it doesn’t dampen the momentum of Tucker Green’s visual and verbal voice. With each blow, searing volleys reveal deeper cracks upon impact: Lynch, who ranks among cinema’s most charismatic and emotional performers in an art form that desperately lacks actors of both, embraces the negotiations necessary to black women show intelligence without having to fight. on charges of threats. Through their debate, Tucker Green acknowledges the fragility of white victimhood, the apathy toward real black victims, and the heated debate over gun control.


The final part of the film is another drastic shift: an all-white cast, American and British, children and the elderly, read the historical line of anti-black laws enacted in America in antebellum and postbellum America. “No state funding for non-segregated schools” and “separate buildings for black and white patients in hospitals for the insane” are just a few of the sobering earlier readings of the legislation. The trick of this scene, however, is not that it recounts past grievances, but how tucker green connects these antiquated rules to contemporary extralegal discrimination.

Other than Ava DuVernay’s “13” and Garrett Bradley’s “Time,” few films have presented and exposed the gross inequities literally embedded in the fabric of our courts, records, and institutions with the director’s subtle grace and strong determination.

Tucker Green’s “Ear for Eye” is one of the most powerful pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen for Black Lives Matter, the madness and psychosis of black existence in a white society, and the cycles black activism has reworked, even the barriers. the direction of change seems to remain the same regardless of century or decade. Through every composition, every jagged cut, and every lived performance, it’s a rebellious and revolutionary masterpiece that swims so deep into the racial historical and public consciousness that you can’t help but devour its unshakable depths equally.

grade: A

“Ear for Eye” premiered at the 2021 BFI London Film Festival. Although not distributed in the United States, is now available to stream on the Criterion channel.

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