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Sundance 2013 Review: George Tillman Jr’s ‘The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete’

Sundance 2013 Review: George Tillman Jr's 'The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete'

Outside the theater after a recent Sundance screening of director George Tillman Jr’s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, a buyer, who shall of course go unnamed, gave his final appraisal of the film to a group of friends. He declared the movie to be: “Precious-like,” “not quite the essence of the ghetto movie,” and in no way “marketable.”

Comparisons to Precious may abound with this movie and though they are lazy comparisons, they should not be wholly surprising: both films deal with the overall awful lives of young youths living in the ghetto. What the “essence” of the so-called ghetto movie actually is remains to be determined, but certainly what lies at the heart of The Inevitable Defeat… is something that transcends any genre or pseudo genre, a unique and oddly uplifting film that’s part coming-of-age, part survival story.

When we meet Mister (Skylan Brooks), he is a preteen with suffering grades, a bad attitude, but a good heart. On his last day of school he arrives home to a tiny, battered apartment in the projects to find two things: his mother strung out on heroin (played wonderfully by Jennifer Hudson), and Pete (Ethan Dizon), a 10-year-old boy sitting on his bed and using his Playstation. Pete is the son of a prostitute that Mister’s mother works for, a polite, if quiet young boy who seems to revere Mister. It might be a jarring first introduction, but for Mister, it’s a reality that he’s clearly known all his life – we see him go through the motions of anger, self pity, disgust, and finally indifference as he witnesses his mother shoot up, and later service a stranger for a couple bucks in a bathroom stall.

The film is heavy in its first ten minutes, and it gets even heavier when Mister’s mom is arrested, leaving him to fend for himself and little Pete for three hot summer months as they evade the police and placement in a local orphanage while trying to stave off hunger and sickness. While the film does at times go too far in the extremes of tragedy and misfortune – literally anything bad that can happen to these little boys will –  it never devolves totally into what some would describe as poverty porn.

It’s a testament to the script by Michael Starburry and stellar acting by the cast (including Anthony Mackie and Jordin Sparks) that the movie doesn’t come across as voyeuristic, a touristy excursion into a bizarre and grotesque world. But the true essence of the film lies in its two leads, particularly Skylan Brooks, who carries the weight of the movie on his shoulders with a charisma and a vulnerability that’s rare for both child and adult actors alike. We root for him not because we feel sorry for him, but rather because he constantly fights against the urge to feel sorry for himself, with big dreams of becoming an actor and auditioning for a Beverly Hills television show that he hopes will change his life.

The inevitability of the film’s title is, well, inevitable, but the journey that we go on with Mister and Pete suggests that, in a certain sense, they lose a battle but win an even bigger war at the end. There’s a moment in the film when the police chief (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who has been pursuing him all summer tells Mister to keep fighting, no matter what. He replies, tearfully: “But I can’t do it on my own.” It’s this sentiment, really, that drives the film – a child realizing that, no despite circumstances that force him to be strong, it’s okay for him to still want to be a kid. It’s okay to ask for help. This, perhaps, may not be a marketable sentiment – but it’s certainly a refreshing one.

Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

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well- I saw a clip of the film [as per S&A] and I'll admit it reminded me of Precious. I am looking fwd to seeing the film, not another clip or trailer.


Very frustrating read. I'm not sure if I like the idea of using an anonymous buyer's quote to start off this review unless the critic was going to use the quote to either reinforce or reject the person's statement. This review leaves me confused. Some people loved Precious. Some hated it. A comparison does not give me a compass to gauge the reviewers impressions. How was George Tillman's direction? Best known for Soul Food, how does this compare to his other movie set in Brooklyn, Notorious? What exactly is a "ghetto movie?" Even though this is tough territory, how do you feel, writing for S&A about the film's theatrical prospects? I know festivals are tough and you've got a lot of films to see and writing to do but reading this, I can't even tell if you liked this.


Sorry, I stopped reading the rather rambling review after the reference to "young youths" (not old youths, mind you). But the film sounds interesting; I'm excited over the possibility of seeing it.


It's time to bypass the distributors and just put it out yourself. No time for the foolishness dealing with the racism. We have to be way over the top with ghettoness. I'm good, just give me this movie on DVD on some website and I will buy 3 of them for myself and others.


"He declared the movie to be: 'Precious-like,' 'not quite the essence of the ghetto movie,' and in no way 'marketable.'” I couldn't get past this quote! WTF?! It's outrageous that in 2013, after all of the success that blacks have had in cinema, in front of the camera and behind, that this muthaf@%&$r reduces this film to a "ghetto movie." And what "essence" exactly is missing? More shooting? More cursing? More indiscriminate sex? More sociopathic black behavior that fits this fool's image of blacks? This quote encapsulates the problem with the American film establishment: prejudice. The white folks in charge absolutely, positively refuse to believe that any person of color possesses as much variety and nuance as their precious white people do. This deeply entrenched attitude is ultimately that against which we're fighting.

Monique a Williams

Sounds great! Looking forward to it.


Will Ms. Wallis have two other young actors join her as Oscar nominees next year? We'll have to wait and see.

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