Film Festival Pick: If I Was Like You

by Latoya Peterson

One of the reasons I enjoy shorts programs is the sheer variety of content that you see.  After eyeing the selections at the DC APA Film Fest this year, I decided to head over to check out the “You Thought You Had It Tough” series.  While I had originally gone for Excuse My Gangsta Ways (which I discussed over at Jezebel), there was another movie that caught my attention from the first frame: Wesley Du’s If I Was Like You.

(Warning: Massive Spoilers Ahead.  Race is woven into the plot, so I can’t easily discuss the film without revealing the major plot points of the movie.  If you have a chance to see it, I highly suggest you do so.  )

The films opens with a sign that will be the focal point of the story.

The full sign reads “If I was a nigger like you, would my son be dead?”

The rest of the story snaps between past events and the situation unfolding in the neighborhood.  Daniel, a single father, lives for his son Billy and has created a quiet life in South Central, Los Angeles.    However, Billy runs afoul of some local thugs over money, and he is found murdered on the sidewalk.

Daniel searches for answers but no one in the neighborhood is willing to speak up, for fear of retribution.  Frustrated and filled with rage, he finally erects the sign and stands on the porch with a bat, using his racist words to provoke the outrage he craved with his son’s death.

What I found most compelling about the film was the attention to detail.  This was not a simple case of racial tensions flaring.  In the beginning of the film, the African-American members of the community debated amongst themselves on how best to proceed.  Two members of the community, obviously friends with Daniel, tried to persuade him to take down the sign before things got violent.  A group of youths showed up and started making threats while Daniel stood waiting for an excuse to start swinging with a bat, and a black woman tries to reason with the crowd, pointing out how there was little to no reaction from the community to his son’s death, even though the murder occurred outside, close to where they were standing.

Eventually, a police officer shows up, the same one who had informed Daniel there wasn’t much that could be done in the case of Billy’s death.  When Daniel refuses to put down his bat, the officer pulls out his pistol.

As the film rockets toward its conclusion, the attention to detail remains strong, even including one of the gathering instigators yelling at the police officer, “Man, if he was black, he would have been shot!”

After the lights went up, the filmmakers filed down to the front of the theater for Q & A.

I was surprised to find that this short was Wesley Du’s first project, as it was skillfully acted and wonderfully concived.  Still, I had a question burning in my mind, so I put my hand up and was awarded the floor.

Addressing Wesley, I asked “Was it intentional to make the officer white? Or was that just a quirk of casting?”

Du informed me that the casting was intentional, and that while his team had gone back and forth about the race of the officer, they ultimately concluded that it would be an interesting reversal to have the white officer protecting the black people in the community.  I read the scene a little differently (more along the lines of state sponsored violence and being treated like a criminal by those supposed to protect you) but obviously, I’ll defer to the filmmaker’s intent.

Ultimately, the film was an interesting exploration of how tensions develop across racial lines.  Turning away from sensationalism, Du’s film shines by humanzing the internal conflicts within various characters, and having the courage to confront a difficult issue head on.

(If I Was Like You, Directed by: Wesley Du. Runtime: 13 min, Year: 2009. Country: USA )