Exhibiting Forgiveness

Exhibiting Forgiveness
Exhibiting Forgiveness
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Titus Kaphar’s “Exhibiting Forgiveness” contains a moment that speaks volumes about the destructiveness of trauma in an individual, be it racial, historical or personal. The scene simply does not explicitly address this issue. La’Ron (John Earl Jelks) is an artist who paints dreamy neon-rainbow-hued suburban fantasies. He has seen his estranged father La’Ron after fifteen years of not seeing him. La’Ron is currently homeless and his hair is all grey and shaggy now but he was once a drug addict who barely stayed around, when he did he ruthlessly mistreated his child often times even with force. Tarrell still wants nothing to do with him, but he’s decided to interview La’Ron on camera to figure out what it was that made his father such an abusive lout.

He asks La’Ron about the first time he ever smoked crack. The tale La’Ron recounts does not seem very dramatic at first; he was stopping someone from lighting up a pipe and just took one hit himself for fun. But then La’Ron recalls what that felt like, describing a euphoria unlike anything he had ever imagined. We’ve all heard addicts talk about their first drink, their first hit or shot; what he’s saying is more than familiar because these are things people have gone through before or heard of from other people who have done them. However, veteran stage actor John Earl Jelks performs memory as if lit up inside by it – there’s something in his voice that disappears after one second – and this breaks your heart because below what La’Ron says we can hear: My life was the most terrible prison so crack must have been amazing! It’s really the despair beyond the bliss that breaks us, even as we realize it functions somewhat as both excuse and confession.

 A great many movies – mostly from Hollywood – show troubled sons seeking redemption from their bad fathers. These stories are virtually the same. They meet due to some practical problems that compel them to deal with each other. Then beasts of prey turn into puppies, show their own pain and hurt, connected by one common thing and there is still love in them too, they hug. Thus “Exhibiting Forgiveness” is a typical example of these stories. But it is not so much about melodrama or sentimentality which we usually find in father-son reconciliations as such; it’s rather more raw and less dramatic than that in its low-key mission-of-truth manner. It leaves you hopeful but isn’t really a feel-good movie “Exhibiting Forgiveness”. It’s an unpretentious film that prides itself on its actuality where all the feelings are palpable for sure and which intends to scorch the audience. This is its quiet strength.

 There are many Hollywood movies about wayward sons trying to reconnect with bad fathers. The plot of these films always follows almost the same pattern: two characters are forced together by circumstances such as accidental encounters or so-called devil’s plans, after which they start fighting like animals before discovering inner pain holding hands with each other and reuniting in love even though disguised by hate – all followed by hugs. One can say “Exhibiting Forgiveness” conforms to this paradigm. However, unlike usual father-son reconciliation sagas, this motion picture has a less melodramatic and sentimental tone although it strives on telling truth quietly than any other film I have ever seen . Although “Exhibiting Forgiveness” ends on a positive note, it does not necessarily represent a feel-good film per se but a real-feel movie that burns deep within us if we let it happen to us . That is what makes it strong enough silently.

From the outer side, Tarrell seems to be a man who has it all together, and the film does not diminish the vibrancy of his achievements. The picture takes place in an unnamed metropolis where he lives in a stunningly designed home with his expansive studio (adorned with posters from “Do the Right Thing,” “The Godfather,” and “Basquiat”) where he feverishly works on his canvases as depicted by this film with rich zest and detail comparable to what Martin Scorsese did in “Life Lessons.” A rare painter in the art world with Tarrell’s own niche carved out for him. The other woman is Aisha, a famous musician (played by Andra Day who was excellent as Billie Holiday in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”), and they have a son called Tre (Daniel Michael Barriere); outside of their intermittent wrangle over whose next project will take precedence in terms of time allocation, their love bond is also strong.

But something between night sweats and an epileptic attack keeps waking Tarrell up from sleep every time, apart from that (Aisha tells him to go see a doctor), stress symptom we can read into Tarrel’s gloomy look of anxiety. André Holland who played Moonlight’s third segment adult lover-boy Chiron is an actor who knows how to squeeze emotions out of silence. In addition to being fierce, tormented yet lifeless but not all there.

Tarrell has cut off his neglectful father from his life but Joyce (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), his mother with whom he keeps close contacts has decided she’ll soon leave her fateful house causing some memories come back especially since La’Ron has showed up at present while recovering. Outrage at the conditions under which he grew up into existence-war remains unquenched within him.

Titus Kaphar is also known as a painter, sculptor and installation artist (this is his first feature film), who in flashbacks that are at once specific and bracing does not fail to show us their upbringing which could be a short story merging with your recollections of an entire family drama. La’Ron was working as a crack addict who would also do side jobs such as repairs or trash removal because he just didn’t have much else to do but needed the cash to buy drugs.

In one scene, we see him take a teenage Tarrell (Ian Foreman with ‘90s cornrows and an expression of profoundest dismay) on a job in his truck where together they haul barrels, light fires until it culminates in an act of primordial agony: In a junkyard Tarrell jumps off the back of the truck only for his foot to land squarely on board with a nail sticking out. The physical pain pales beside La’Ron’s reaction; he has no insurance and doesn’t trust white people, therefore: Shut up and deal with it! His plan, by treating Tarrell terribly sadistically is not only to toughen him up but put “steel” into him too. (This is what he uses as excuse for failing to help him.) With this horrible wound Tarrell limped around all day long, while there’s no exaggeration in comparing the symbolism around Christ’s crucifixion through nails piercing his feet. It’s just there letting you know how everyday trauma can become personal mythology.

Can Tarrell ever forgive La’Ron for everything he had done (or not done)? The film suggests that this should happen if he wants to move ahead. However, forgiveness and touchy-feely fakery are two different things and the emotional appeal of “Exhibiting Forgiveness” (one in a series of those strained bad titles, I must say) is how Tarrell takes ownership of his personal history without imprisoning it in the present. But there’s one false note during Tarrell’s latest gallery opening: when he goes off at a fan of his work. Yet, it had an intense impact on me when I saw the little hanging sculpture that Tarrell makes of La’Ron — and what he does with it. It reminds me of so many fathers who were there but not really there, shrouded figures whose faults themselves pose a problem about how one should live. Titus Kaphar made all the artwork shown as being that belonging to Tarrell which has got some kind of a ringing light along with an almost eerie feel somewhat like Tarrell himself. From “Exhibiting Forgiveness”, we can tell that this art also extends to film making.

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