Nathaniel Martello-White’s “The Strays” follows Cheryl as she calls up her family to let them know that she’s going through a tough time, but her complaints are brushed off. So, she decides to pack her bags and leave her apparently married life to start anew. After a time jump of several years, we see that Cheryl has now become Neve. She is married to an insurance agent named Ian, and she has a daughter named Mary and a son named Sebastian. She is the deputy headmistress of the most prestigious private school in Combe. And she is a respected member of (mostly White) society. But one fine day, she starts to notice a Black man and a woman stalking her. This causes her to have several nervous breakdowns, and by the time she realizes what’s going on, it’s all too late. Through Neve’s journey, Nathaniel tries to unpack the modern-day problems centered around racism and classism. So, let’s talk about it.
Major Spoilers Ahead
Going by the opening scenes of “The Strays,” Cheryl was upset about the rising racism in mid-2000s London and the fact that the housing office was discriminating against her. Going by her accolades as a salesperson, she thought she deserved more, which was something that was unachievable with her then-husband, Michael, and children, Carl and Dione (who appear later on in the movie as Marvin and Abigail, respectively). So, she just bailed on everyone and moved away to a White neighborhood in Combe to build a completely new life. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be something more than what destiny or society wants you to be. But doing so by abandoning one’s own family isn’t the way to do it. Neve’s logic is that men abandon their families all the time, and that’s not looked down upon as much as when women do the same. Since two wrongs don’t make a right, that argument is essentially useless. However, Cheryl/Neve’s biggest crime is her attempt to hide her Black identity by hiding her hair, marrying a White man so that she can have racially ambiguous children, and adopting an upper-class White accent to be accepted by the White folks in her neighborhood and school.
The history of racial passing is quite dicey. So, apologies in advance if there are any mistakes on my end. Light-skinned African-Americans were the result of slaves who were violated by White men. Eventually, interracial marriages were conducted to ensure that people from the Black community got access to education, thereby enabling them to uplift other Black people in the future. Later on, racial passing was used to avoid being enslaved by White people and, as shown in the movie, to be welcomed in a predominantly White society and avoid any kind of segregation. However, in recent times when Black people are proudly flaunting their roots and fighting racism by excelling in every field or by simply existing in spaces where their forefathers weren’t allowed, racial passing is looked down upon. That’s because it is seen as a rejection of one’s Blackness and a blatant attempt to equate the lightness of one’s skin color with the eliteness that White people think they have due to their low melanin levels. Racism hasn’t been eradicated, and it isn’t going to go away anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean anybody from the Black community has to resort to the kind of White appeasement that Cheryl or Neve resorts to just because she’s afraid that if everyone in Combe knows she is “actually” Black, they are going to reject her.
Racism is a vile trait that’s propagated by actual human beings and is pretty much an open-and-shut case. But internalized racism is much more complex because it involves people from a race with a history of racial oppression being racist towards their own tribe. Why? Well, if we see it from Neve’s perspective, she thinks that her Blackness is the reason behind all her issues instead of seeing racism and bigotry as the real problems. I think that she knows that racism is a thing that exists. However, due to her troubled marriage and the degree of discrimination she faces on a daily basis, she fails to understand that there’s nothing wrong with being Black. That’s why she not only hides her Black identity but also sees Black people as the race that is “polluting” (Neve literally uses that word, despite being a Black woman) in the otherwise White locality. Neve tries to make it look like she’s still in touch with her roots by donating money to underprivileged Black kids. That said, what good is this overt display of charitability if the sight of her fellow Black people causes her to go absolutely berserk?
Even though Neve is confronted about her very obvious internalized racism, and even though she explicitly states that she is going to work on it, she still manages to come off as a bigoted person. It’s a pivotal moment that comes right before the beginning of the third act and involves Neve meeting Marvin and Abigail at a diner. Now, if you aren’t guided by any kind of prejudice or bias, would you think that Carl/Marvin and Dione/Abigail aren’t doing well financially? They are able to book a suite at a pretty expensive hotel. They are charming as hell. The things they wear and the way they carry themselves are quite stylish. They are evidently great at locating people who have erased any trace of their existence. So, it is pretty bizarre for Neve to assume that they are in dire need of money, and that’s why they’ve come to her doorstep. Yes, the £20,000 check is also a bribe so that Marvin and Abigail don’t harass Neve and her family anymore. However, the way she puts it, I think she genuinely believes that two Black kids can’t be educated and self-sufficient in the 21st century. And her internalized racism ends up triggering her and her family’s downfall.
Does Neve’s Final Decision Reveal the Meaning of ‘The Strays’?
Surprisingly enough, the third act of “The Strays” goes totally into “Funny Games” home invasion territory as Marvin and Abigail enter Neve’s home and begin to terrorize them. It seems like a very adverse reaction to Neve’s efforts to push them away yet again. But when you realize the number of morbid birthdays that the siblings must’ve “celebrated” with their aunty because they didn’t have a mother and their father was or is an abusive individual, you start to understand where they are coming from. I don’t think Mary and Sebastian deserved the trauma that they sustained from the incident. I’m not sure if Ian deserved to die at the end. I think Neve deserved an extensive confrontation regarding her past. However, being abusive to her just brings her back to where she started, thereby justifying her decision to leave the father and the kids in the first place. And, well, that’s what Neve does yet again—this time with Marvin, Abigail, Mary, and Sebastian—as she leaves with a delivery executive, probably to start yet another new life while forcing all four of her children to deal with her mess.
I am going to be very honest with you, the moment Neve just left her home for good and the credits began, my jaw metaphorically dropped to the floor. Because I couldn’t believe she had done it again. But as I sat through the credits, I began to realize that Neve’s final moments give meaning to the title of the film: “The Strays.” The word “stray” defines an individual (generally used for an animal) that doesn’t have a place to stay. They live on the streets, moving from one place to another, finding shelter and food wherever they can. And even if they seem to find something permanent, their ambiguous identity doesn’t allow them to be accepted by the locals. Neve and the title of the film also speak to how light-skinned Black people feel as they aren’t accepted by the Black or White communities because they aren’t Black enough to be proud of their Blackness, and they aren’t White enough to actually be a part of a society dominated by White people. Nathaniel Martello-White doesn’t exactly offer a solution to all this, though. He just addresses this very sticky situation that his people are in and forces us to deal with this uncomfortable feeling. Well, maybe if we sit with it long enough, we will be able to see beyond these man-made divisions and treat each other as humans.