[Tribeca 2021 Review] 'No Running' is a Fresh Take on the Alien Abduction Story that Centers Racism at the Heart of It
There is no denying that racism in America is systemic…
…Everywhere you look today, areas heavily populated by people of color are being targeted with voter suppression, police are murdering unarmed black men, and Florida just passed a ban on schools teaching critical race theory. What are you so afraid of, Ron DeSantis, you scummy toad? Yet so many white Americans will still say we don’t have a problem, and it’s one of many reasons why films like director Delmar Washington’s No Running are so important.
Written by Tucker Morgan and having just premiered at Tribeca, No Running follows black high school student Jaylen (Skylan Brooks), who has recently moved to the mostly white country town, Mount Arrow, where strange happenings are said to have occurred. Just as Jaylen is beginning to get comfortable and form a relationship with fellow student Amira (Clark Backo), she is taken by a blue light. The story is already hard enough to believe, but in a town where racism runs rampant, there are many who would sooner pin Amira’s disappearance on Jaylen than listen to a word of what he has to say.
(Note: I want to preface this review with the fact that I am white, and therefore, it’s completely understandable if you’d rather stop reading now and seek out voices discussing the film from a more understanding point of view. In fact, you should do that, because it’s vital to hear from voices that can speak from a perspective that matters when it comes to topics like this. If you do continue reading though, thank you for giving me the chance to discuss a very difficult yet important subject.)
No Running is a fresh take on the alien abduction story that centers racism at the heart of it. It's a difficult, hard to watch, incredibly personal film that hits like a chestburster to the stomach repeatedly. What it isn't is the intriguing sci-fi mystery that you might otherwise expect.
When we first meet Jaylen, he’s been in a car accident. Police sirens approaching. White cops being aggressive with him rather than helping him. Visions of being underwater flashing through his mind over and over, emblematic of the drowning feeling he’ll find himself in for the rest of the film. The story then moves to three days prior, before his life has been turned upside down, and we find Jaylen struggling to adjust to the alien world of an all-white town. Through the first act of the film, Washington puts us directly in the shoes of a young black kid in racist America, and to no surprise, it’s extremely uncomfortable. Jaylen is picked on by teachers and the principal. The Sheriff (Shane West) takes an immediate disliking to him for no other reason than the color of his skin. And Jaylen even has to sit through a racist as hell class video with a Colonel Sanders look-alike discussing segregation and how blacks weren’t initially civilized enough, with all of the other students staring at him.
It’s as if Jaylen is the alien to these white people, and he’s made to feel that way constantly. In other words, Jaylen's experience is maddening.
Brooks brings an incredible amount of empathy and sincerity to the role, made more tragic by the fact that he's just a kid. Other performances in No Running sometimes feel a bit awkward, but part of that is because Washington and Morgan seem to be striving for something that feels less “filmic” and more real. These characters are having conversations that are uncomfortable. That are difficult. No Running is grounded in truth, letting the fantastic fall to the side and focusing on how one tragic event can so quickly turn a black kid's life to horror with everyone wanting to pin it on him, regardless of evidence. The fact that the film involves a potential alien abduction is irrelevant.
But that’s also where No Running is going to lose some viewers.
No Running is heavy on its theme, and much more intent on examining the discrimination a person of color encounters in the face of white people looking for someone to blame than anything else. The mystery behind Amira’s disappearance isn’t so much a mystery, but an inciting incident. No Running has a classic small town mystery vibe, with Jaylen heading to places such as the library for an old-fashioned research montage and others I won’t spoil—all of which feature fantastic production design from Flora Ortega—but No Running is more about Jaylen’s journey than the answers he’s seeking.
Outside of one brief, horrific nightmare, the terror of No Running doesn’t come from the supernatural, but the all too real horror of hatred. Washington’s film is more often uncomfortable than it is nail-biting, but moments of suspense later on are exactly that, with Jaylen having to face an angry town seeking its own idea of justice. No Running is not a horror film, not exactly, but it’s that very thought that makes it so plainly chilling. We’ve seen white men in movies claiming alien encounters and being laughed off, but the awful reality which Washington and Morgan are posing here is that when a black guy has a wild story like that to tell, he gets a different reaction, coupled with the threat of violence.
No Running isn’t the most exciting film, and its central mystery struggles mightily to maintain interest, but that doesn’t take away from just how vital and meaningful this film is otherwise. It is not the responsibility of any minority to make myself or any other white person understand their perspective, but films like No Running are a reflection of one of a slew of reasons for why diversity matters in art. Stories like this aren’t made for me, but they do give someone like me the chance to put myself in another person’s shoes and, at least for a little bit, see things from their point of view. So little is more valuable than that.
Art is beautiful, because it allows us that ability to empathize through the sharing of life experiences. No Running is a thoughtful film with an empathetic soul that deserves to be seen. So, don’t run from No Running. Run towards it.
By Matt Konopka