What makes a person a person?...
...Is it our memories and life experiences that shape us or something more hardwired in our being? These are the underlying themes in Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr’s directorial debut Black Box, written with Wade Allain-Marcus and Stephen Herman.
Like previous titles under the Blumhouse name, Black Box is an unexpected hit.
What drives the story’s heart is the relationship between father and daughter Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) and Ava (Amanda Christine). I found myself enjoying the little moments between the pair and rooting for Nolan’s desire to remember what he had forgotten. The film’s final moments between Nolan and Ava especially tugged at the heartstrings in a similar fashion to another Blumhouse hit, Upgrade.
Athie’s performance is what drives the film. Outside of the relationship between father and daughter, we see a man trying to reassemble his life, both literally and figuratively, after losing both his wife and his memory in a tragic accident. There are moments where it's just him alone in a scene, where you get this sense that Nolan is adrift as he stares at himself in the mirror asking the question we often ask ourselves, “Who am I?”
Enter Phylicia Rashad as the doctor tasked with helping guide and aid Nolan in regaining his memories. We see little hints as to her true motives with subtle looks and gestures; a scene between the two towards the end of the film tells you everything you need to know about the relationship and power dynamic without a word being uttered.
This doctor-patient dynamic may lead some viewers to compare elements of Black Box to Get Out’s sunken place, but Osei-Kuffour manages to set his work apart. He uses light and color to craft his scenes and create a unique style and tone, particularly in scenes where Nolan traverses his memories. These scenes are often shrouded in blue hues and darkness, giving viewers the sense of being just as lost in the dark as Nolan.
It is in these memory spaces where we meet Troy James’ character, and if you have ever seen James’ contortionism as Rag Doll in The Flash or as the Jangly Man in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark then you know how jerky and twisted his movements can be. His performance here as The Backwards Man sent chills down my spine. Beyond the contortion, what makes this performance stand out as a creature/monster is the sound design of snapping and cracking bones. There’s just something about the combination of visual and sound that makes the appearances more...unnerving.
The trailer and poster for Black Box gave me a pretty good sense of what I was getting into, and I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself enthralled within the first 20 minutes.
The references to what caused Nolan’s memory loss and the science behind the film’s device for helping him regain his memories, coined “Black Box”, are a clear nod to the black boxes found in airplanes. Fortunately, the film doesn’t hold our hand with scientific jargon or feel the need to explain the tech behind it.
Overall, the premise of Black Box and the ideas it poses about memory and identity feel very much like an expanded version of something out of Black Mirror.
With this sort of directorial debut, it’s clear Osei-Kuffour has a long and interesting career in his future and I look forward to seeing what else he can do behind the lens. The same promising future is no doubt ahead for Amanda Christine. A child actor can often make or break a film or scene and Christine delivers a very nuanced turn as a child forced to grow up and be the adult for their parent. Her performance here was the standout for me, and I look forward to seeing where her acting career takes her.
Black Box is more than what it seems. The heart of the story is the love between a father and daughter, and the film delivers from every angle, from acting to directing to sound design. It's another win for Blumhouse and I can't wait to see what else they have in store for us in the future.
Black Box comes to Amazon Prime from Blumhouse on October 6th.
By Kalani Landgraf