The following review originally appeared on a more reputable, higher-brow website (i.e., The New Yorker, The New York Times, or even The New Inquiry—basically, somewhere NEW). The esteemed author and Large Media Conglomerate have graciously allowed Trop to reprint the article and its comments section in full. — Ed.
Director: Alan Smithee; Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s eyes are possessed of such incredible grace and magnetism, it’s hard to read him as anything but a hero. African American leading men are distressingly rare in Hollywood, even for actors of Ejiofor’s caliber, so it’s refreshing to see him cast as a romantic protagonist. His presence in what is—somewhat weirdly—basically a romantic comedy must be due to his recent Oscar-worthy turn in Twelve Years A Slave. Ejiofor’s mesmeric presence is, arguably, the only good thing that can be attributed to this strange film.
Silver Lining Payback has made the rounds of the indie festivals, inexplicably winning prizes in Toronto and Cannes. A thick silence surrounds its origins. Online evidence suggests crowd sourced funding strategies, but dogged investigation turned up no promotional materials whatsoever and no names of actual producers. This critic, at least, remains deeply puzzled.
Ejiofor plays Pat, a strapping young man recently released from psychiatric prison on criminal charges. Once out, Pat begins a concerted effort to stalk his estranged wife, who has a restraining order out against him. The order makes sense: When Pat discovered his wife in the shower with another man, Pat beat the lover viciously, almost to death. The victim, we learn in flashbacks, did not fight back and looks like an aging, bald, tax lawyer. The fully grown and relatively lucid Pat is deemed mentally unstable by the courts. Yet, somehow the court sees Pat’s psychiatric volatility not as a further risk but as a reason to release him to his parents’ (De Niro and Weaver) custody. This strains credibility, even if the parents do seem like remarkably solid people.
The audience is then asked to concern itself not with the community’s safety but with Pat’s romantic yearnings. Ejiofor brings great charm and charisma to this implausible plot. His chemistry with the somewhat troubled but guileless Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is undeniable. She convinces him to train for a dance competition with her.
From this point on, the violent young man’s re-entry into society is a garden variety rom-com. Will Pat get over his ex-wife and see his love for Tiffany? But the light-hearted humor is opaque. The neighborhood accepts Pat, but he’s not being welcomed home as a “gangsta.” Neither is his past discussed openly, as might seem normal or even necessary in civil society. The silence surrounding his crime is hard to interpret.
The anonymous film-makers obviously intend this as some sort of comment on race relations in America. During a dance rehearsal, one of Pat’s African American friends from the mental ward encourages Pat and Tiffany to move their hips and “Black it up.” The implication seems to be that Pat, in conforming to society and learning to dance like a white girl, has lost some of his “blackness.” The goal is for him to be re-integrated, blackness and all. Thus the movie implies some racially charged positive political value for Pat’s return to the fold.
It’s true that our society should do a better job of re-integrating young black men after they spend time in jail. So far as this is the film’s message, so good. But perhaps if Pat’s crime had been less violent, this message would seem more lucid. Mainstream middle class America has a hard time re-integrating violent people, and this may not be a bad thing. Feminists are also unlikely to appreciate the fact that Tiffany is “saved” by Pat’s aggressive and obsessed masculine presence.
In the end, the racial message dominates and distracts. It’s hard to imagine this movie getting made with a white protagonist. One can only hope that the truly excellent Ejiofor will be offered other, less controversial leading roles.
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Dude. They DID make that movie with a white protagonist. It won an Oscar.
@solidaRityIsForWhiteBiatches,you’re referring to Silver Lining Playbook. Yes, I see that now. Obviously the title is a reference. My colleague Adam Antby reviewed that film, and I don’t actually like romantic comedies, so I hadn’t seen it. I did not at first recognize the similarities. Having now watched Playbook, I can say that Payback is related but different. Ejiofor’s character is much more violent. Also, the explicit references to race have been added. So, I’m still not sure what the goal was here.
DUDE. It’s the same movie, re-made with a black man. Line for line. Shot for shot. “Black it up.” Everything. THAT’S THE POINT.
OK, it’s true I haven’t made a shot-by-shot comparison, but I will put money on the films being different.
Yeah, you’re watching both movies through the race goggles of your own privilege.
I grew up in a trailer home and ate ramen for a year when I started on the obituary desk at the magazine, so don’t talk to me about privilege.
YOU’RE THE WHITEY MALE CRITIC FOR THE WHITIEST MAGAZINE IN AMERICA. You do not understand how white privilege works. Take a f*&king class.
Yeah, OK, I read Frantz Fanon at Yale, I don’t need to take any classes.
Michelle Chihara lives in Los Angeles, where lately she has been thinking about debris basins. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, the Santa Monica Review, n+1, Bloomberg.com, Mother Jones, and the Boston Phoenix, among others. You can find her online at thisblueangel.com.