THE STORY – Robert Peace grew up in an impoverished section of Newark and later graduated from Yale with degrees in molecular biophysics and biochemistry while on scholarship. Peace led a dual life in academia and research while also earning six figures selling marijuana.
THE CAST – Jay Will, Mary J. Blige, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Camila Cabello, Michael Kelly & Mare Winningham
THE TEAM – Chiwetel Ejiofor (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 117 Minutes
You might not be familiar with Robert Peace’s story, but director/writer Chiwetel Ejiofor gives this brilliant young man a well-deserved spotlight in “Rob Peace.” The director shines a light on a young Black man’s struggles to help his loved ones and the place he calls home while navigating his own challenges in pursuing excellence. While Ejiofor conventionally tells the biographical film, the story is brought to life powerfully by a talented cast, especially lead Jay Will.
The story of Rob Peace spans decades in Ejiofor’s film. As a young boy, Rob (Jelani Dacres) impressed everyone around him with his mathematical skills, as seen when discussing baseball stats with his father, Skeet (also played by Ejiofor). He also gained an early appreciation for his neighborhood, as Black men would gather around the front porch of a house, drink, and listen to the baseball game on the radio. But his childhood quickly ended soon after because his father was convicted of murdering two women and sent to prison. His mother, Jackie (Mary J. Blige), doesn’t want her son going down the same path, whether Skeet did the crime or not, so she does what she can to set him up for success.
From this point on, “Rob Peace” weaves in two stories. One is dedicated to this brilliant young man as he attends a Newwark prep school (his teenage version, played by Chance K. Smith) and later Yale University (his adult version, played by Jay Will), honing his skills in science and standing out every chance he gets. The other focuses on Rob’s fight to get his father out of prison, which comes with constant wins and losses. Ejiofor and Will have electric chemistry whenever they’re paired, and their interactions often lead to contentious moments, as Skeet puts tremendous pressure on his son to do the impossible.
At Yale, Rob captures the hearts of many. He impresses a white professor (Mare Winningham), who hires him to work in her science lab; he meets his eventual girlfriend Naya (Camila Cabello); and he’s an integral part of the water polo team that’s full of preppy, white, frat guys. He’s a charismatic man who finds kinship with almost anyone he meets, and it works because of Will’s own charming presence. He looks at people with kind eyes and has a calm demeanor – who wouldn’t want to be friends with someone like that? But despite having so many people in his corner, Rob refuses to tell people that his father is in jail. When an opportunity arises to bring on a high-profile lawyer to the case, he starts manufacturing and selling marijuana to raise more money than his on-campus jobs can provide.
It’s here that “Rob Peace” explores the push-and-pull that Black students feel. He works hard to get good grades and excel at everything, but if he’s caught selling weed, it could all be over for him – even though his white counterparts do the same and no one bats an eye. But there’s no other option available to him. He’s unlike his peers, who have all the money in the world and don’t have to bat an eye if they are dealing with a similar situation. It also shows the deep devotion he has for his father. In one conversation, a peer doesn’t understand Rob’s dedication to his father’s case and admits he wouldn’t do the same. It makes Rob consider all he’s put on the line for his father and even instills doubt over his innocence, which Will portrays authentically through conversations with his mother and in a heartbreaking scene with his father.
However, the deeper we go into Rob’s story, the bulkier the film feels, especially as he attempts to revitalize his neighborhood after graduation and then deals with financial strains from the 2008 recession. It’s understandable why Ejiofor wants to include so many aspects of Rob’s life in this biographical film – Rob’s story is fascinating and so multilayered – but some of the later parts are brushed over too quickly, not giving us the same emotional weight as the earlier moments.
Nevertheless, Ejiofor packs a lot of heart into his second feature that will introduce so many people to Rob Peace. Though it’s conventional in its storytelling and tries to fit a lot in, it’s a moving portrait of a young man who worked so hard for the ones he loved and who deserved so much better in return.