Tyrel: Speak Up, by Josh Long
Despite what you might hear from some of society’s louder voices, awareness of racism in its many forms is growing in the United States. Perhaps the racist voices themselves have gotten louder at the same time, but studies show that a majority of Americans see racism as “a big problem.” Even if the man on the street might not see it, Hollywood has certainly been forced to, in the wake of “Oscar’s so white,” and similar grievances. In the last few years, studios, executives, producers, and unions have made clear efforts towards greater diversity in the stories movies tell and the people who tell them. With this backdrop, it’s unfortunate that Sebastián Silva’s Tyrel is such a lackluster, poorly conceived exploration of such a salient subject as modern American racism.
The story concerns Tyler (Jason Mitchell), an African-American man who is invited along on a birthday weekend with his white friend Johnny (Christopher Abbott). For Tyler, who doesn’t know birthday boy Pete (Caleb Landry Jones) or most of the other white party members, the weekend is more an excuse to get away from his own crowded apartment which is overtaken with in-laws. But as the weekend progresses, Johnny, Pete et al seem not to realize how they continually alienate Tyler, the only black man along for the ride.
I wish I could go into more details about where the plot progresses from there, but the sad truth is that it doesn’t. The film is a setup that drags on for ninety minutes with no development. The closest thing is a moment at the end when Tyler gets drunk and weepy, and wanders out into the streets alone (shortly after, he is found by the other party people, who bring him back safely). Nearly nothing happens to build or change relationships between the characters, no one learns anything, and no one leaves the film any different than they began. Static characters would be forgivable if they were in service of something important, but where the film tries to discuss deeper issues, it also falls flat.
The thematic goal here seems to be to point out that because white and black people come from different backgrounds, there will be natural blocks between their abilities to connect. Well, duh. Any American high school student will have as much insight. Little moments throughout the film make Tyler uncomfortable when someone at the party says something insensitive, or maybe even openly racist. Yes, it is a very awkward situation for him, but it never becomes any more than that, so ultimately, who cares? Why is this a movie? What does the filmmaker have to say about racism – just that it exists in ways people might not realize? If so, he’s about thirty years late to the conversation. Puppets have been singing about this on Broadway for the last fifteen.
Worse, because the film thinks it is making a good point, it drives Tyler to take more drastic action than is dramatically necessary. Yes, he’s not enjoying the weekend because he’s surrounded by insensitive people, some of whom are even racist (really, the racism is secondary to the fact that this is a group of friends who are not good at including outsiders). Is this a good enough reason for him to drink to excess, break into tears, stumble into the cold night seeking help? The film’s ethos thinks that Tyler has been so wronged that these reactions are natural, but as an audience, it’s clear that they’re not. Ultimately this ends up making him look worse and weaker as a character. We should feel that he has no alternative than to take these steps – we never do.
At the risk of coming off as xenophobic, I must say that a Chilean filmmaker may not be the most qualified to explore the labyrinths of white-black race relations in the United States. I’m happy to be proven wrong in this regard. But Silva comes off like a Nebraskan trying to explain good Toro to a Tokyo sushi chef. He seems in way over his head, and painfully unaware that his story says nothing about racism that most Americans don’t already know (or, likely, have experienced first-hand). For the film to act like its themes reveal anything new is offensive to minorities who have been saying this kind of thing for decades.
Tyrel is mumblecore and issues-driven, both at their worst – it lacks the emotional depth of good mumblecore, and the poignancy of a good issues film. In a bizarre turn, the trailer seems to court the Get Out crowd, who will undoubtedly be sorely disappointed in a film that not only has little to no excitement, but bungles any exploration of race relations. It’s uncertain who this film would cater to (besides, apparently, Jordan Hoffman at Vanity Fair). Better films about race relations have been made continually since the 1950s. Better films about race are in theatres now. Go see those instead.