THE STORY – A Black artist on the path to success is derailed by an unexpected visit from his estranged father, a recovering addict desperate to reconcile. Together, they struggle and learn that forgetting might be a greater challenge than forgiving.
THE CAST – André Holland, John Earl Jelks, Andra Day & Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor
THE TEAM – Titus Kaphar (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 117 Minutes
Plenty of films have tried to reconcile strained fathers and sons, but few have been able to show as much rawness as Titus Kaphar’s feature directorial debut, “Exhibiting Forgiveness.” The director/writer digs deep into his characters’ pasts and shows just how hard it can be to forgive someone, no matter how close they are to you.
On the outside, Tarrell (Andre Holland) seems to have everything going for him: A beautiful home where he can work in his expansive art studio, a loving family — a wife, Aisha (Andra Day), and their son Jermaine (Daniel Michael Barriere) — and artistic talent and success that would make so many people envious. But, what people don’t see is all the nights he wakes up gasping for air from the nightmares that plague him. He doesn’t talk much about these restless nights; instead, he paints them. Scenes from his childhood, including boys hopping a fence and riding bikes, are displayed on massive canvases and stand out in vibrant colors, thanks to cinematographer Lachlan Milne. Though these scenes may appear like nostalgic memories from the past, they’re clouded by the pain that Tarrell’s father, La’Ron (a magnificent John Earl Jelks), inflicted. The two have not spoken in 15 years, but they find each other face to face after La’Ron, a drug addict and homeless man, decides to clean up his act following a brutal brawl. The reunion is forced upon Terrell by his mother, Joyce (a wonderful Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), who is in the process of begrudgingly moving out of her home at Terrell’s request.
Holland Jelks are like dynamite when they’re on screen together. Their characters are reserved around each other, never knowing the best approach to take, and it’s exciting to see them navigate the tension in the room. In one scene, Terrell interviews Jelks and asks him how he first started using drugs. Jelks describes, nonchalantly, how he tried to stop a family member from using but then ended up trying it himself and realizing he’d found nirvana. It’s a heartbreaking moment — for both Terrell and the audience — when his father essentially reveals that doing drugs and continuing to chase that high was better than anything else he had in his life, including Joyce and his son. Holland’s soulful approach throughout the film is magnificent, especially how his eyes take in a moment, allowing the audience to feel the hurt and abandonment Terrell experienced as a child whenever he looks at La’Ron. It starkly contrasts the loving moments he shares with Jermaine and Aisha, who light up his life and bring stability to his world. It’s a beautiful and striking performance from Holland.
Moments that Terrell and Joyce share are also difficult, as she wants to see him forgive his father because that’s what the Bible says people should do. But it’s an almost impossible task, as we’re shown in flashbacks of La’Ron’s tough teachings. Years ago, while the two were working out of La’Ron’s pickup truck, teenage Terrell (Ian Foreman) stepped onto a plank with a nail sticking out of it, letting out a guttural scream. But La’Ron doesn’t show him any mercy. Instead, with a bloody sock and shoe, the teenager has to continue mowing people’s lawns, though he barely has any strength to limp around. La’Ron believes that toughness will put “steel” in Terrell, but it only makes the young boy resent his father even more.
The film’s pacing struggles sometimes, and Day’s character is left in the shadows compared to the others, which is a shame given her grounding presence. But, Kapher’s “Exhibiting Forgiveness” is still a triumph. Forgiveness is hard and not always the easiest thing to grant. While most movies would end on splashy displays of characters coming together and settling their differences, Kaphar keeps his ending real and raw, like the rest of the film, showing that while hurt may linger, the future holds hope to move forward.