Screening at the 2nd Toronto Black Film Festival (TBFF), which kicked off yesterday, February 11, running through the 16th, is The Retrieval – a film well deserving of our appreciation
and attention. Writer/director Chris
Eska (2007’s August Evening) has crafted a very unique and cleverly scripted
tale about a young boy named Will, played impressively by newcomer Ashton
Sanders, who is sent along with his uncle Marcus (Keston John)
by a gang of bounty hunters to retrieve Nate (Tishuan Scott),
a wanted freed man.
It’s an unexplored part of history dealing with slavery, especially on film; a
complex and jarring dilemma of slaves who are promised a reward for capturing
runaways and fugitive black freed men; these are oppressed slaves manipulated
and many times coerced into turning against other slaves for monetary gain and
The Retrieval is set during
the Civil War, which serves as more of a backdrop. But it’s very much a character-driven narrative between the
youngster Will and the seemingly hard-hearted Nate, a man who has undergone a
traumatic separation from his wife, while fleeing up north with intentions of
returning, and the loss of a child. Nate is reluctant to travel
with the orphan Will and his uncle Marcus, as he should be. Their plan is to
con Nate into going back to his hometown by telling him that his brother is
sick and waiting to see him. There’s a carefully orchestrated plan, which will
lead the bounty hunter gang to Nate’s recapture.
The young Will carries a
guilty conscience; his uncle is hardly a father figure, and Will begins to seek
the comfort and acceptance of the aloof Nate, more so after his uncle perishes
during a Union/Confederate encounter. There are so many elements to the narrative crafted with
authenticity and humanity. There’s survival, but there’s also the need for
kinship, friendship and familial ties, even if such are the surrogate kind.
These elements ultimately forgo survival at the very end, in a sense.
There have been comparisons to Django Unchained made on
the web from articles written about the film, which I find perplexing. The Retrieval could not be more distinct
in tone, style, and narrative in general. It’s not an epic, grand scale production, but
its quality is very competent, especially for a limited budget. The film is
admirably photographed; its set design is striking, and its score is effective,
adding to the significance of the film. But it would all be remiss if it weren’t
for the nuanced and affecting performances by rather unknowns, especially
Tishuan Scott and the young Ashton Sanders, which make the film truly
compelling to watch.
Retrieval is more
of an observant, quietly affecting tale, but a few of its scenes are
suspenseful and pack their share of action; they are not necessarily brutal,
although they are definitely believable. The film reeks of authenticity, which
makes the viewing of it all the more intriguing.
Chris Eska’s sophomore feature film is a well-researched and
relevant drama with instinctual and gripping performances, which should
definitely garner some accolades along its festival run (Tishuan Scott won the SXSW Grand Jury Prize for lead actor).
This resonant, gem of a film deserves no less
than “sleeper hit” status, along with theatrical distribution, and I’m
particularly hopeful for the latter.