Home Video Hovel: The Retrieval, by Dayne Linford
All societies engage in hagiographic depictions of themselves. Powerful societies, while not free from censure but largely free from any direct consequences for censured acts, engage habitually, repeatedly, and systematically in building a common, self-serving, and overwhelming mythology that places themselves as not only the center of the universe but the most active force and, to quote many, many American politicians, “last best hope” for goodness in the world. This might be political and purposeful in nature, as with the infamous propaganda machine perfected by Goebbels, or simply an outgrowth of the remunerative impact of self-congratulations, as with nearly everything Hollywood has created over the last century. Some are subtle, some are not; some nuanced and others stupid; but nearly all take for granted an assumed set of values commonly identified as American and work vigorously to defend them and enact their victory on screen. Whatever our past sins, these films argue, our values hold fast – an American set of values that give us the right to force them on other peoples because, we assume, eventually they’ll like it. This is not the constant but the usual and the standard voice of Hollywood. Hopefully erected against that but often sadly compromised by it is the independent American cinema, which has the difficult job of expressing counter viewpoints, be they ethnic, political, religious or even just idiosyncratic. Independent cinema is our mirror to ourselves, removed of gauze and cobweb, as we are now, have been before, and perhaps may be. At its best, it is a living representation of our lives and thoughts and values and faults themselves. The Retrieval is such a film.
An historical drama set in 1864, The Retrieval is the story of Will (Ashton Sanders), a young, black but ostensibly free boy working for a group of white bounty hunters in the midst of the Civil War. Will is given a difficult task under pain of death – he and his mentor, another freedman named Marcus (Keston John), are to find and retrieve a former slave, Nate (Tishuan Scott), under the ruse of seeing his brother one last time before he dies from tuberculosis. Right out of the gate, The Retrieval is unique. A story told entirely from the perspective of a young black boy, primarily about black characters, that is a period piece, not a studio film. It announces itself as something special; ambitious without sizable monetary backing; intimate without the conventions of modern art cinema. This is enough to pique our interest but the film itself is immensely satisfying.
Settling into a game of cat and mouse as they travel through the war-torn South, Will oscillates between Nate’s independence and desire for dignity, and Marcus’ practicality and scorn for higher goals than basic comfortable living, even as the carnage of the war forces Will to face his own choices and develop into a difficult, painful maturity. These three are complex, well-rounded characters, each of whom have made difficult choices to survive. Each of whom, from Nate’s craving for respect and dignity to Sam’s pursuit of financial independence, have faced their reality and come away with their goals, their reasons, and their limits. Each is allowed to defend himself and given plausible, difficult motivations – Marcus constantly degrades and controls Will but also seeks to protect him, especially against the gravity and potential consequences of their task, as well as their surroundings.
As the film progresses, Nate is forced into the role of a reluctant father figure for Will even as the journey painfully exposes his weaknesses and fears (a darkness borne of necessity), all while Will leads him to the rendezvous, struggling against his morality and instinct for survival. Perhaps one of the things I liked most about The Retrieval is how it says so much about race by effectively not talking about it. Yes, it’s a civil war film but slavery is treated as the historical, albeit horrible, circumstance that surrounds the characters. There are no speeches, no proclamations of equality, no teary eyed whites convinced by a black person’s goodness to abandon their racism. Instead, Chris Eska, writer, director, and editor, simply portrays his character’s struggle with universally human themes – morality in the face of death, personal sin and redemption, painful self-realization and change – which serve to argue eloquently and undeniably against the inhumanity of the film’s setting. By leaving it as subtext, Eska allows the audience to grapple with and discard their own preconceptions through the simple power of human drama and dignity in an unforgiving world. Frankly, since the better moments of the 1977 miniseries Roots, we as a culture have lost our way from this dialogue, one that allows all characters to be what they are, a part of their circumstances but not representative of them. Compare this to the obnoxious faux social discussion of Django Unchained or the recent rash of police killings throughout this country, in which the victims are made representative of larger preconceptions and social problems, allowing them to be killed in a systematized, prescriptive fashion, then, as protest and media attention build around the tragedy, are again made representative to hopefully grease the wheels of the political process. However arguable the origins of a high crime rate among African Americans, however well-intentioned the protest movement, the casting of representation on an individual does irreparable damage to their memory and to our cultural understanding of the tragedy, couched now not in the unjustified and disgusting waste of life it is, but instead in political talking points and electoral platforms. This is the point of movies like Fruitvale Station, to restore one such victim to his essential humanity and dignity, an attempt to rescue his memory from the poison of hagiography.
The Retrieval similarly looks at one of the most degraded groups of people in our, and all, history, even more so now because they are so often treated in this representative fashion, and restores them to an essential dignity by taking for granted, as it should, the evil in which they live. For these characters, this is just life and the most they can hope for is a place where “it’s supposed to be different” and a little peace in the moment. Neither is available to them and their society will steamroll them as it has many others. This film is a beautiful, powerful, and necessary critique of our culture, a countering to our regular hagiographic endeavors, especially surrounding the Civil War, and an intimate, dignified portrait of people attempting to outlast their society in the crux of painful change, or at least claim some personal dignity and worth in the face of its destruction and dehumanization.