My experience was that of so many Black people in this country. But I was fortunate. While I didn’t know how to process my feelings of terror and rage at the time, after the murder of George Floyd, I decided to make my own protest in the best way I knew how: as a filmmaker.
“Two Distant Strangers” was born.
Taking the 1993 film “Groundhog Day” as inspiration, I channeled my experience, and that of so many others, into the creative process. I sought to use the familiar device of a day endlessly repeated to bring empathy, understanding and light to the constant tragedy of police violence against Black people in America. Dozens of incredible people joined our project, including my co-director Martin Desmond Roe. It was the journey of a lifetime that culminated with our movie being acquired by Netflix and, eventually, being honored with an Academy Award.
Never could I have imagined, then, just a week after winning an Oscar for sharing a story born of my trauma, that another director, Cynthia Kao, would suggest that my film had been copied from hers. Her evidence was the involvement of NowThis, a digital news outlet that provided marketing services to our film and who also amplified her work on social media. This claim is baseless. NowThis did not join our project until after filming was complete and had no creative influence on the project. More than that, it is absurd that Kao would accuse me of stealing her story when my film is based on my own trauma.
I will defend myself against this outrageous claim, but there is a larger point in what’s happened here. Of course, the concept of the time loop film device is not new. It certainly is not Kao’s invention. It predates even the film about a groundhog that made it famous. But Kao is not even the only other person to have the idea of using it to examine the repeated deaths of Black men at the hands of the police. In fact, she is not even the first.
Several works of art have used the device in recent years, most notably the feature film “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” by Stanley Kalu and an episode of “The Twilight Zone” by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds called “Replay.” The earliest example that I know of can be found in the fabulous 2015 essay, “About Images of Black Death and the Groundhog Day of Police Brutality,” by Luvvie Ajayi Jones.
But I had no knowledge of any of these works when I wrote my script; it was only later, as production and development of our film gathered momentum, that I discovered them. I was excited and interested by each. But it never occurred to me that anyone would claim ownership of the “Groundhog Day” device.
More important, when I realized we were going to be at least the fourth film using it with police brutality, it was clear that we were tapping into a deep part of the zeitgeist. I couldn’t stop wondering how many people must have made this same connection. Hundreds? Thousands? And besides, our films were all just so radically different. Kao’s was a comedy; Kalu’s an epic, Hinds’s a mystery, mine a tragedy.
A tragedy I had to share. Surely, it’s obvious how each of these teams arrived at this idea independently? I mean, let’s be honest — it is not a stretch to see the constant images of Black men killed by police as the same terrible day repeated without end. And yet I am at a place where it is necessary for me to categorically state that I was not aware of any of these projects when I wrote my film.
I did not need to see them. I lived them.
So I pushed on with my tiny independent film, because I wanted to share my version of this story. My piece of the tragedy of what it means to be Black in America. And that is why I cannot allow anyone to move the focus away from the primal roar at the heart of my film: that the police in America must stop killing people and they must stop killing them now.
The goal of “Two Distant Strangers” was to scream that message from the rooftops. And it still is.