Play it Safe still

In ‘Play it Safe’, an actor faces a tough decision when receiving an assignment in his latest rehearsal among his peers.

Directed by: Mitch Kalisa.

Starring: Jonathan Ajayi, Heather Alexander, Grace Daly, Emily Seale Jones, Charlie O’Connor, Kate Ovenden, Lauren Raisbeck, Louis Richards.

Country: United Kingdom.

Genre: Drama.

Running time: 13 minutes.

Mitch Kalisa‘s short film and debut Play it Safe holds an organic power few films carry with them. There’s a recognizable proposal of dramatic tension in its first minutes, when Jonathan, its main character, falls prey to the ridiculous expectation of his peers and his teacher. But as his struggle only continues to get more difficult and he arrives at a crucial crossroads, we get the surprising twist. The initial context of racism in the film makes it seem as if we’re going to look at the same awakening as always. But not everything is what it seems.

Fortunately, Kalisa decides to do otherwise and he doesn’t display the same kind of consideration for a racial struggle. His method is considerably wiser, more visceral, and hence more aggressive because it actually needs to be. Play it Safe is only 13 minutes long but there’s more power there than in a flagrant epic film about racial bias and the acknowledged injustices that don’t seem to lessen over the years.

The jarring simplicity of bias and prejudice

Jonathan is part of a group of actors that take lessons in a drama school in London. We notice he’s not as comfortable as he could be. He’s silent, unresponsive and shy. But he manages to continue with his role in the group. As a couple of partners approach him, we get a sense they could be friends.

However, his classmates also offer him a part in a play and everything seems to be ideal until he notices he’s actually being pigeonholed: the role is that of a black thug. It only gets worse when he learns the teacher has actually given this horrible decision a validation. As he’s astounded by the typecast, he must attend class.

In this class, an assignment, one that falls in his hand by chance, will present Jonathan with an opportunity to play along with this horrible scheme or to make everyone around him wake up.

The focus shift from action to reaction

Kalisa could shoot his film’s climax based on a power performance by Jonathan Ajayi, who plays the affected Jonathan. Instead, he realizes the importance of their actions, their responsibility in Jonathan’s nature as a man that gets broken every day. The camera hides behind Jonathan’s primal performance, and focuses on the behavior of those who are actually coming to a realization. As the silently analyze Jonathan’s enraged body, they understand they’re part of a larger organism that inexplicably hasn’t changed its view on racism.

Jonathan is always part of the frame. He goes from flooding the image to being an element of action causing horror in his classmates’ faces. A few minutes are enough to drive you to tears when you understand what is Kalisa’s approach. I understood it very well and after a few watches of Play it Safe, the effect is more robust than ever.

These are the films that force you to take a look at a harrowing reality some members of our community face on a daily basis. It’s inexplicable that we have to get these direct punches to the gut to take notice of an issue. Play it Safe has a twist in its method, and it’s actually its most prominent resource. When some other films make us look at specific struggles, Play it Safe holds a universal code for the implicit racism all too present in the artistic world. This is where artists should feel safe. And Jonathan feels anything but safe.

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

A trailer

With information from IMDB

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