An Emmy Nominated producer with a penchant for truth-telling and universally-tinged, intimate stories, D.C.-based filmmaker Harold Jackson III's Unarmed Man has all that and more in telling the unnerving story of Greg Yelich (Danny Gavigan), a D.C. patrol cop who has just pumped five bullets into an unarmed black man he believed to be a robbery suspect.
"Familiar story," you're probably saying to yourself.
Maybe, if you're being honest with yourself, you're even saying "I see enough of that on the news. I don't need to see that in a film," then maybe you're not even finishing the end of this review in favor of wondering about my opinions of the Disney live-action remake of Aladdin starring that really funny guy, ya know, Will Smith.
I get it. Really. Truthfully, I was squirming about 30 seconds into Unarmed Man and it never really stopped.
With an amped up D.C. on edge and the ensuing protests, Jackson amps up the tension early in Unarmed Man and you can't help but feel that tension even when Jackson takes the action and moves it from the street into the quiet confines of a nearly barren office left to be filled with Jackson's always honest dialogue and the cultural perceptions and normalcies of two men, a white blue-collar street cop and a black white-collar investigator, Aaron Williamson (Shaun Woodland), tasked with discovering the truth.
Past the opening sequences of Unarmed Man, much of the film plays out away from the events that unfolded and immersed within the minds of those left to somehow try to make sense of it all.
Truthfully, I could keep on waxing eloquently about Unarmed Man. I could talk about its pointed, precise dialogue and its even more pointed, precise silences.
But, the truths contained within Unarmed Man don't really call for waxing eloquently.
Everything about Jackson's filmmaking calls out for something more that simply waxing eloquently or serving up thoughts or ideas or beliefs that go nowhere or don't lead to something else.
Talk is cheap. Yet, we talk and talk and talk and talk.
There is, of course, lots of talk that goes on in this 72-minute motion picture. Jackson's dialogue tells truth and pierces silences, yet it also leaves space for the actors to breathe and to infuse their characters with finer nuances and unspoken truths. Gavigan, a veteran of Jackson's films, creates a character who draws us in and makes us think and feel and squirm. From opening scenes where our own cultural perspectives will help to define our perceptions, Gavigan quietly toys with us and, if we're being really painfully honest, we're inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt even as his "stick to the script" story starts to unravel. It's a tremendous performance, sensitive and nuanced in quiet ways that toy with the viewer and create an even deeper impact as the film winds down.
Shaun Woodland's turn as Aaron Williamson is similarly impactful. He's a man initially defined by his dignity and composure, a grounded professional yet a role player in a system he knows to be decidedly dysfunctional and favoring of its own. He's a man whose cultural perspectives are more quietly played out, yet it's culture and it's there and it's evident and Woodland brings it all out in ways that are quietly yet undeniably mesmerizing. Woodland's is a more classically soulful performance, a performance dipped in humanity yet never completely bathed in it.
Eric Terrell's sparingly present original score is, indeed, emotionally sparse and increasingly melancholy as the story in Unarmed Man unfolds. Jackson's own editing and lensing for the film weaves together unnerving close-ups with quick edits and intentionally paced dialogue to create a sense of authentic, honest interplay. This conversation feels very, very real and it's Jackson's own filmmaking work that helps to make that happen.
Unarmed Man may seem at its core to be yet another familiar story, yet it's a familiar story told in a less familiar way as Jackson avoids histrionics and high drama in favor of black-and-white truths that serve to reveal a system that is far more white than black with seemingly little desire to change. In some ways, truly dramatic ways, Unarmed Man is a more difficult film to watch precisely because of how Jackson approaches making the film. Rage, even authentic and well deserved rage, is for many people easier to tune out and turn off. This kind of storytelling is more difficult to turn off - it's the kind of storytelling that creeps into your bones and shifts your psyche' and holds you accountable.
For more information on Unarmed Man, visit the film's Facebook page linked to in the credits.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic