That’s the premise of an Oscar-nominated Netflix short titled, “Two Distant Strangers.” The film, written by actor and comedian Travon Free, centers around Carter James, a smart and witty Black urban hipster repeatedly reliving the same day as he wakes up in bliss, then reluctantly leaves his new sweetheart to head home to feed his dog. Or at least, he tries to head home. In the course of the 32-minute film, he keeps meeting the same menacing White cop who always assumes he must be hiding something in his backpack.
It’s a bit like the 1993 film “Groundhog Day,” where a grumpy weatherman relives Feb. 2 again and again until he gets it right. Except this version is like “Groundhog Day” meets “Hunger Games.” James wakes up each day knowing that he’s stuck in a death loop. So, he changes his route, changes his clothes, tries to be friendly and show that he’s respectable. Doesn’t matter. Boom! Each time, game over.
“Two Distant Strangers” is a potent work of cinematic fiction that captures the grimmest reality of American life right now — a never-ending, ever-growing list of unarmed Black people who have had brutal and often deadly encounters with police.
Like James, we are stuck in a cycle of deja vu. We have not even reached the end of the trial for the gruesome killing of George Floyd before we’re processing a fresh dose of police brutality. Twenty-year-old Daunte Wright shot dead by a Brooklyn Center, Minn., police officer who claims she meant to fire a taser instead of a firearm, according to the police chief. Or the December case, captured on video, that just went viral showing Caron Nazario, an Army second lieutenant, facing excessive force from Windsor, Va., cops who drew their guns, used pepper spray and threw him to the ground during a supposedly “routine” traffic stop for a missing license plate.
Free, who wrote the film shortly after Floyd was killed last year, is a former college basketball player who has written for the “Daily Show” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” Raised in Compton, he now lives in Beverly Hills and has been pulled over by police throughout Southern California while driving, walking or simply holding car keys on the street. “I wanted people to feel what I was feeling, and it got to the point where words no longer got the job done,” Free told me this week.
Carter’s repeated encounter with the menacing “Officer Merk” conjures the hideous buffet of police violence in America — he’s pulled to the ground one day, chased the next day, he’s mistaken for someone else on the street, he’s making breakfast when NYPD officers burst into the wrong apartment. This brief film is an immersive experience: You root for Carter to get home to his dog; you look the cop in the eye; you pray one day there just might be a different outcome; and every time, you lose.
Midnight basketball and community policing won’t lift us out of his hell. The kid and the cop are like the Scorpion and the Frog, two creatures whose shared survival in crossing a stream depends on the scorpion repressing his instinct to attack. The scorpion can’t do it. He stings the frog knowing it will doom both of them because, as the fable holds, it’s just the nature of the beast.
We will never escape the infinite loop of death and trauma until we accept the fact that American policing was born out of a system that was established to protect the tenets of white supremacy and control the movements and aspirations of Black and brown communities that might threaten that status quo. This may not be the mandate of police work today, but it is its origin story. Until we admit and remove the vestiges of that history, we are doomed to live inside this tragic spin cycle.
“Two Distant Strangers” is one of the five Oscar nominees in the category of live-action short. I hope Free and his co-director, Martin Desmond Roe, snag a statuette. But they’ve already won something bigger. Free says police departments in Miami, Los Angeles and elsewhere are looking for ways to use this film in training and to foster deeper discussions around reform.
Free wrote this film because he wanted people to understand the constant fear of being surveilled, judged, bullied and then deified after death through hashtag eulogy. But to make real progress, police officers must also do what the scorpion could not. They must change the nature of the beast.
An earlier version of this article misidentified the city in which Caron Nazario was detained by police officers. It was Windsor, Va. This version has been updated.