As I write this, I’m thinking back to the previous thirty minutes. During that time, I took my dog for a long walk. With my AirPods firmly installed, I listened to a podcast and was probably forty percent checked out. At one point, I yelled at my dog for eating an unidentified thing on the ground. I wasn’t worried about anything, and that is where my white privilege comes into play.

If I were Black and wanted to walk my dog? Forget the AirPods, because I would have needed to have some degree of situational awareness. I would have needed to make sure my facial expressions weren’t too threatening, and I probably couldn’t have walked with my hands in my pockets. If I’d yelled at the dog, a jumpy white person could have panicked and called the cops. During that same thirty minutes, if I were Black, I would have run the risk of entering into an unpleasant situation — at best.

Two things can be true at the same time. The first is that, for the majority of POC, an interaction with a white person is an inherent risk. The second is that, for the majority of white people, being accused of racism is more traumatic to them than a racist act being inflicted upon a POC. Are those things fair? Of course not, but they are true. If I were Black, I’d feel constant unease. I’d for damn sure have a talk with my son about being non-threatening in front of police, and I’d be terrified that it ultimately wouldn’t matter. 

Now, if I were a Black woman? Well, which is worse, racism or sexism? How about both at the same time! What if you’re a Black woman and the group you’re with is walking into a situation that you just know is bad news? What if nobody listens? Movies are machines for empathy, and in the right hands, they can present a perspective that we wouldn’t ordinarily feel. Tonya Pinkins has made Red Pill, a film that’s seriously flawed but offers a perspective in film that viewers don’t get enough of.

We begin with the 2020 presidential election, just a few days away. A group of earnest liberal canvassers has come to rural Virginia to get out the vote.* They are:

  • Nick (Jake O’Flaherty, a guy who laughs at his own jokes since nobody else does.
  • Lily (Kathryn Erbe), an earnest woman who’s brought both compassion and crystals.
  • Emilia (Luba Mason), an Eastern European woman who knows a thing or two about political violence.
  • Bobby (Adesola A. Osakalumi), a man along for the ride as long as there’s time to party.
  • Rocky (Ruben Blades), a quiet realist who seems to be the shepherd of the group.

Most importantly, there’s Cassandra (Tonya Pinkins). She’s the only Black woman in the group, and when their SUV passes a roadside sign bashing, well, pretty much everybody who’s not white and native-born, she knows that taking the sign down won’t accomplish much. Like the Cassandra of myth, her words are ignored. It won’t be the last time.

You see, our group of happy warriors has rented an Airbnb in a small town. As they arrive, they pass a line of women standing outside of their respective homes. All of them wear a red shirt adorned with a strange symbol. All of them are white. This is not so much a red flag as it is a giant flashing red klieg light.

Things get weirder as they unpack. A noose is found in a barn. Strange paintings of birds are all over the place, and if the group would look a little closer, they’d see the cameras. During a conversation about politics, the concept of a red pill comes up. They’re not talking about The Matrix, unfortunately, but the idea of someone subtly infiltrating a group to cause chaos. Cassandra seems to be the only one noticing the many, many warnings, and it may be too late for them.

When Get Out was released, it hit like a bomb. A genre film — horror, no less! — that featured trenchant observations about racism felt revolutionary. You could easily see how legions of filmmakers would be inspired by it. Tonya Pinkins certainly was, and as the (deep breath) director/writer/star/production designer/costume designer/casting producer of Red Pill, the film was clearly a passion project. 

Passion is necessary, and you can certainly feel it from Pinkins as a director. An opening sequence where a pregnant black woman is held down and branded by a horde of white women works as an extremely effective mission statement. Pinkins also does good work cranking up the tension, the feeling of dread that just keeps increasing. There’s also some symbolism that I, an idiot, didn’t get. Everything Pinkins is doing is by her design. Do the multiple shots of white women drinking large bowls of urine mean something? Undoubtedly; I just don’t know what that meaning is.

In a symbolic sense, the movie works. From her perspective as the screenwriter, I get what Pinkins is saying regarding the creeping rot of white supremacy that never seems to be well and truly defeated in America. My problem is that, in a narrative sense, her screenplay doesn’t work too well. Yes, I liked that Cassandra is the only one who recognizes the signs and portents early on, and I get the metaphor that Black women understand the truth of things better than most. But one of the big problems here is that an hour and ten minutes in, the surviving characters (after mostly flailing around) decide to fight back against their attackers. And this is in an hour and twenty-six minute movie. Again, the symbolism is that white allies are slow to help until it’s too late. Storywise, the delay makes the group look like a bunch of idiots. If they look like idiots, why should we root for them?

The other serious problem is that our group of white supremacist cultists have no characters or individuality. They’re just ciphers. As Mercy, Catherine Curtin plays (I think?) the leader of this squad. I know nothing about her other than a) she’s a white supremacist and b) she’s a woman. They might as well be a crowd of zombies. There’s an enormous missed opportunity here where Mercy could have had an opportunity to articulate her own loathsome worldview in a personal context and we could have seen her curdled humanity. Creeping white supremacy is scary, but understanding the individual behind it, the person who genuinely thinks they’re doing the right thing, that would have been nightmarish. A good degree of care was taken in sketching out the protagonists, and I wish that same degree of care was spent on the antagonists.

The cast is uneven, but when they’re good, they’re very good. Ruben Blades is one of those actors that instantly makes a movie better simply by being in it. As the laid-back Rocky, he seems to know the kinds of things that take place in isolated areas, but his quiet confidence helps to reassure the group. I also enjoyed Luba Mason as the flinty Emilia, a woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, not even the fool she’s stuck hanging around with. Said fool is Jake O’Flaherty’s Nick, a deeply annoying wiseguy with the superpower of not actually being funny. Anti-comedy isn’t easy, but O’Flaherty does it well. It also bears mentioning that I was highly impressed with Tonya Pinkins’ performance as Cassandra. Consider first that she turned in a strong lead performance while also wearing a gajillion other filmmaking hats. Pinkins is also a Tony award-winner, and you can see she knows what she’s doing. There’s a scene where we see fear, rage, and helplessness flash across her face. Pinkins sells those emotions with impressive skill and honesty.

I wanted Red Pill to be a great film, one that I could return to again and again. It’s a deeply pessimistic film, and perhaps pessimism is the smart play these days. Yet it also has flaws, massive ones, and those flaws keep it from realizing its true potential. There’s enormous potential in Pinkins as a director, and as frustrating as Red Pill is, I think she’s an artistic force to be reckoned with.

*As far as I can tell, all of the canvassers are over 40 and look like normal people. Considering that the studio version of this film would have had all of the characters be hot 20-somethings, I tip my hat to Pinkins for this detail.