Racism exists. That’s a fact that is backed by reports of racial violence and oppression. It’s a fact because people who’ve been oppressed for generations are still congregating under anti-racist movements like BLM just to live peacefully. But the weird thing is that racists all around the world make it seem like racism is a thing of the past. And those who feel that they are being racially profiled are overreacting. The reason they can say that is because modern-day racism involves subtle cultural appropriation and microaggressions that don’t show up on the proverbial radar. Thankfully, movies like “Emergency (2022)”, “Blindspotting (2018)”, “Sorry to Bother you (2018)”, “Master (2022)”, and now “A Lot of Nothing (2022)” shine a light on the minutiae of modern-day racism, thereby not letting it fly too easily.
Directed by Mo McRae and written by Sarah Kelly Kaplan and McRae, “A Lot of Nothing” opens with James (Y’lan Noel) and Vanessa (Cleopatra Coleman) watching the news of a cop killing a black kid. They realize that the cop in question is their neighbor Brian (Justin Hartley), who has apparently racially profiled Vanessa and James in the past. They toy with the idea of confronting Brian. But then they call it a night and go about their day job. There we see James’s code-switching and casual sexism on display.
On the other hand, we see Vanessa being subjected to racism and sexism. The duo leave for the day, highly aggravated. James tries to cool off with a weirdly sexual cycling program. However, Vanessa randomly comes across Brian, one thing leads to another, and she ends up kidnapping Brian to ask him why he shot a kid.
The central plot of “A Lot of Nothing” runs high on emotions because of its relevance. McRae and Kaplan expertly build up to that moment where Vanessa snaps and holds Brian hostage. You get to see a reversal of the power dynamics between black and white people. But then the realization creeps up on you that, no, maybe this is where white people want black people to be, which is aggravated and reactionary, so that they can look meek despite being the aggressors. And before you or the characters get the opportunity to fully comprehend the nuances of this situation, two ticking time bomb elements are thrown into the mix. One is the fact that the longer a cop is held hostage, the worse it gets for the couple. Two is the inevitable arrival of James’s brother Jamal (Shamier Anderson) and his pregnant wife Candy (Lex Scott Davis). Before you get to deal with the urgency of those two plot devices, murky details and subdued feelings between James, Brian, Candy, and Vanessa begin to surface as well!
So, yes, “A Lot of Nothing” is a lot, to the point that it’s overwhelming. That’s where cinematographer John Rosario, editor Annie Eifrig, and production designers Emma Rose Mead and Amy Lee Wheeler come in to provide an engaging visual experience. They grab your attention from the opening conversation between Vanessa and James itself by letting it play out like an approximately 19-minute-long uncut take. Once you become accustomed to the visual language of the film, McRae utilizes their skills to insert all kinds of little details, with the best one being the use of mirrors to represent duality, and truly puts you in Vanessa and James’s complex shoes. When the close-ups and extreme close-ups become too much, they let the frames breathe by cutting to wide and extremely wide shots that let you know the gravity (or lack of it) of what’s transpiring. By the end, McRae dives into straight-up surrealism to exhibit how far gone everyone is mentally, with one scene featuring Noel which feels like it has stepped out of a horror movie.
The performances from the entire cast are on fire. Everyone undoubtedly gets their fair share of screen space. But it’s Cleopatra Coleman who steals the show. The way she demonstrates Vanessa’s vulnerable side by singing out-of-tune in her car to cope with her humiliation, the way she tries to be assertive with Brian, the way she tackles James’s inability to confront and be “good” with white people, the way she lays all her cards on the table in a gut-wrenching scene with Candy, it’s all beautifully measured. Noel also delivers a powerhouse performance and effectively shows the myriad of things he’s struggling with, in addition to the current situation he is in. And while the duo find small moments of levity amidst all the mess, it’s with the introduction of Anderson and Davis that the satirical bits become more frequent. Until things crescendo wildly, of course. Justin Hartley does so much despite being restricted to a chair for 90% of the runtime. He deftly toes the line between being somewhat worthy of empathy and deserving of all the punches in the world.
“A Lot of Nothing” is about the battles a black person living in modern America has to fight, just because of his color. They have personal issues that need an ample amount of time and patience to tackle. But they often have to be sidelined to deal with systemic oppression and casual acts of racism. McRae asks us, “Where does this end?” What we need to do to stop racial profiling? What needs to happen to stop making every corner of society a volatile space inviting people to just react? What needs to happen to make the majority community finally realize the importance of equity and equality? “A Lot of Nothing” essentially has one answer, and that is that there is no answer. At this point, we’ve got to wait and watch until this cycle of hatred and bigotry runs its course.
“A Lot of Nothing” is a 2022 drama thriller film co-written and directed by Mo McRae. The film was screened at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.