In Michael Cooke's immensely moving short film Across the Tracks, two African-American sisters grow up in 1960's Georgia - however, one of them is fair-skinned and when the schools integrate she decides to dramatically change her destiny by passing for white.
Across the Tracks begins with the now older sisters having long since separated in distance and in their lives, their reunion brought about only by the passing of their mother in the small town where one has remained and lived a quiet life of menial labor and simple living.
I'll let you figure out which one is which.
As the two sisters lay their mother to rest, the circumstances that tore them apart are revealed and, in particular, one traumatic incident that truly changed everything is brought to light.
A quietly impactful film, Across the Tracks powerfully illustrates how one simple decision can alter the course of our lives and our relationships. Weaving into its beautifully told story the themes of bullying, peer pressure, identity, and colorism, Across the Tracks lingers in your psyche' much longer than one might expect given the rather matter-of-fact way in which Cooke presents the story that he co-wrote with Kimberly James.
During a time in which racism is again often found to be dominating national media, a film such as Across the Tracks has a particularly strong impact and is even more important. As the film largely involves the actions of children, its words and deeds are even more jarring and, at least for this writer, emotionally disturbing.
Across the Tracks has picked up a slew of awards including from the African Movie Academy Awards (Best Diaspora Short Film), Black Maria Film Festival (Director's Choice Award), Metropolitan Film Festival (Best Short Film), Peachtree Village International Film Festival (Best Short Film), Music Video & Screen Awards UK (Best Short), Chelsea Film Festival (Special Jury Prize and Best Supporting Actress - Carla McCullough), and Real Sisters of the Diaspora (Best Short Film). The film has spent a couple of years on the film festival circuit and continues to be a film that deserves and needs to be seen.
While the entire ensemble cast is strong, special kudos do go to both actresses playing Ella - Berkeley Clayborne as younger Ella and Carla McCullough as adult Ella. The two actresses take a difficult role and manage to make their performances individually exceptional and cohesive in transitioning back-and-forth. It's no small task and it's done incredibly well here.
This is not to minimize the strength of Brynn Crosby's performance as the younger Tara, whose facial expressions tell words beyond those being spoken, nor that of Thursday Farrar, who manages to breathe life into the lesser developed role of the adult Tara.
Cooke lenses the film himself and does so quite beautifully, capturing the beauty of the South without losing sight of the ugliness being portrayed. The rest of the production quality is incredibly effective, the impossible to forget imagery of a sign at the town's line proclaiming it the "friendliest city" contrasting with the harrowing images of a hanging effigy warning coloreds to not be around after dark.
Across the Tracks is a powerful film, quietly portrayed yet truly unforgettable in a myriad of ways from images to words to its performances. For more information on the film, visit its website linked to in the credits.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic