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The Subject film review

Updated: Feb 17, 2021


Directed by: Lanie Zipoy

Written by: Chisa Hutchinson

Starring: Jason Biggs, Aunjanue Ellis, Caleb Eberhardt, Richarda Abrams

Film Review by: Aiysha Jebali |


The Subject (2020) – Film Review

I’ll be honest, before watching The Subject (2020), I had never heard of its writer, Chisa Hutchinson, nor its director, Lanie Zipoy.

Well, I certainly know them now and so should every film fanatic.

This film follows award-winning documentary filmmaker Phil Waterhouse (played by Jason Biggs) as he battles with a torturous inner turmoil – haunted by his own indecisions.

Jason Biggs in The Subject
Jason Biggs in The Subject

Phil’s mind is running in circles, questioning his whole existence due to the moment that changed his life forever: seeing a young black boy die in his arms due to gang violence – the very thing Phil was documenting as “art”.

It is certainly a drama – though I would say it is even more so a psychological thriller as Chisa, Lanie and the phenomenal cast force us to look deep inside at our shameful biases and beg the question: what would we do and why?

Is there even beauty or much less, entertainment, in such horrific situations that so many young people of colour or of low-income face every day all over the world?

What’s beautiful in not having food, access to healthcare or a good education?

What is entertaining about seeing a teenage boy being beaten to death simply because he wants those things?

Oscar-worthy Screenwriting & A Directorial Cinematic Masterpiece from Chisa Hutchison & Lanie Zipoy

Aside from the magnificent storytelling by Chisa Hutchison and the reality of the events depicted - the thing that I love the most about The Subject (2020), as a filmmaker, is that every technical decision was meticulously planned out and executed to perfection. Analysing it, I can hardly believe this is a directorial and screenwriting debut from both of these fantastically gifted women. I could write a thesis on this movie because there’s just so much to unpack.

Firstly, let’s talk about the stunning production design by Chantal Demorial and the resonating colour grade choices by Oliver Ojeil, as they just mirror each other so well. You’ll notice the sometimes heavy but wise use of complementary opposing colours throughout The Subject (2020). The film has mainly been graded with teal and orange, to communicate the depth of each character’s inner conflict visually. In addition, desaturation subtly but effectively delivers Phil’s depressive episodes that are most apparent in the first third of the film.

Couple those with the cinematography of Darren Joe and the intelligent directorial decisions by Lanie Zipoy, with a score that will haunt you in all the best ways and you’ll see that The Subject (2020) really is a cinematic masterpiece.

The Subject film review
Filming The Subject

Zipoy uses extreme close-ups on such talented actors that we can almost see their character’s every thought and fear in real-time. She perfectly places horror-esque tracking shots, has a clever use of handheld moments, static splashes of strength, classic downwards/upwards angles between characters signalling the power struggles at play and so much more which culminate in building an inexplicable tension for the audience.

This is a film that tells the story so well visually that you could almost press mute and still pick up on every meaningful detail.

From American Pie to Golden Globe-Demanding Performances

As for performances... I can honestly say that I could never think of Jason Biggs as “just a comedy actor” ever again as he and Aunjanue Ellis are quite literally breath-taking as their characters. Another actor that really stood out for me was Caleb Eberhardt as Kwame. Caleb’s performance was genuine, raw and aptly painful. That being said, the entire film has been well cast and everyone convinced me in their role, which is rare – particularly in lower budget indie films.

As a final note, I am well-known as being somewhat of an ice-queen when watching “sad movies”. Well, Aunjanue Ellis, you did it honey, you made me full-on ugly cry – hard.

With this film, you simply cannot avoid being sucked in and having your heart absolutely broken.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Subject in a Wider Lens...

Should the Innocence of Childhood be such a Luxury if Black Lives Matter?

This film is more than just something to watch – it is something to learn from.

As you watch it, let’s keep in mind that Nile Bullock’s character is just a boy at 15, not the man that society has predetermined him to be. Surely, he should get to be just a boy that goes to school and grows up blissfully unaware of the divide – just like his counterparts? Do boys like Malcolm not deserve that same privilege?

Yet, such gruesome tapes of their brutal end go viral every day and we often can’t explain why…

Then some say naively insensitive things like “All lives matter…” – completely missing the point that right now, they don’t. What they mean is all lives should matter but the data suggests otherwise. In fact, this has been the case in some form or another for many generations in both the U.K and U.S, due to the systems put in place.

Are we Guilty of Subconscious Filibuster over Civil & Political Rights?

Any step forward in the civil rights movement or the more recent Black Lives Matter movement has been accompanied by a portion of judgement, violence and victim-blaming. As a society, we often try to deflect by talking about “crime statistics” in “urban areas”, for example, as if that somehow lets everyone off the hook for the circumstances that have been carefully created for our fellow humans to navigate, regardless of colour or income.

In fact, this blame-game attitude is partly why tragedies like the one in this poignant film still happen every day. We didn’t personally create the situations that children like Malcolm Barnes (Bullock) grow up in, but we often refuse to acknowledge the difference those circumstances make to the final outcome of whom those kids become and how that could be influenced.

Obliviousness, turning a blind-eye like Phil Waterhouse (Biggs) or an inability to truly empathise is exactly how racism and racial inequality continue to thrive today. It’s not only about the racist fanatics that bellow the N-word at people of colour. It’s the quiet onlookers that “agree” by their silence or document it without intervening, who can do just as much damage to our civilisation.

Yes, we’ve taken steps forward, sure.

However, if people in my generation still don’t have access to the basics despite working two jobs like Leslie Barnes in The Subject (2020) (Aunjanue Ellis) and having a side-hustle, then we are nowhere near as progressive as we’d like to proclaim.

If people in my lifetime can recall being directly and systemically racially abused, discriminated against or profiled then we are really NOT where our politicians say we are – Republican or Democrat, conservative Tory or liberal Labour, U.S.A or UK… We’re just not there yet, sadly.

Moreover, the strength of black people for raising their voices about these issues and telling stories like this one, inspires other people of colour as well as open-minded white people to stand together and be the change that we all want to see – the antiracism that will bring about genuine racial justice, as well as socio-economic equality among us all.

Why is that so terrifying for some of our society, the media or seemingly – our leaders?

A daunting and painful question, indeed.


This review was provided in collaboration with –

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