Tyrel. 2018. Directed & Written by Sebastián Silva.
Starring Jason Mitchell, Christopher Abbott, Nicolas Arze, Roddy Bottum, Michael Cera, Reg E. Cathey, Ann Dowd, Philip Ettinger, Caleb Landry Jones, & Michael Zegen.
Not Rated. 86 minutes.
Disclaimer: The following article contains major spoilers
With only a year between Sebastián Silva’s Tyrel and the wonderfully perceptive Get Out from Jordan Peele there was always going to be comparisons between the two, and no doubt the vast majority of them were going to be negative. Many critics who loved Peele’s film don’t share the same excitement about what Silva has done here with his own. Not coincidence a lot of those critics are white, either.
This is an uncomfortable movie because it’s supposed to be, and has to be, too. Part of the ‘white critic reviews movie on black issues’ conundrum is many white people – and for those unaware, Father Gore’s white – seem innately incapable of stepping outside their skin to seriously view life from a different perspective. Silva’s film is all about this idea, which he grabs hold of tightly, never allowing his audience any rest.
There’s always something devious at work in the screenplay— Tyler (played to quiet perfection by Jason Mitchell) is forced to endure a barrage of microaggressions that test his patience and eventually his sanity. The audience spends 86 minutes in Tyler’s shoes. If, by the end, you can’t see the relative difference in terror between a bunch of drunk white guys and a lone black man stuck with them in the middle of the woods, you’re likely white. Doesn’t mean you’ve got to enjoy the movie. Silva goes to great lengths to replicate the psychological horror people of colour are put through often by oblivious, even well meaning whites. Therein lies the film’s greatest power.
The film opens with a stark black screen in contrast to falling snow and a clear title laid over top. A perfect visual to start a story about a black man bombarded with casual liberal racism. Tyler and his friend Johnny (Christopher Abbott) arrive at the cabin where they’re celebrating the birthday of one of the latter’s friends. One of the other friends immediately mishears Tyler’s name as Tyrel— easy enough, right? Would he have made the same mistake with a white guy? Doubtful. This moment is one of many examples where Silva exposes casual racism. Again, interesting that white critics often insist on noting the white dudes in this film aren’t portrayed as evil incarnate like in Get Out, which is the point: terror is relative to race.
Tyrel is an outright psychological horror. All its terror derives from a relative sense of danger re: race. At one point, Alan (Michael Cera) turns up toting a Trump pinata. He and Tyler get along well, simply for the fact he’s the only white guy who doesn’t act awkwardly around the only black guy at the party. Yet the Trump pinata is significant, illustrating how the man’s politics are just a game to white dudes like these, whose intentions aren’t bad – they seem to genuinely dislike Trump – but for a black man such as Tyrel the realities of Trump’s presidency, and particularly the policies he’s pushed forward, are far realer and possibly harrowing.
Tyrel does laugh at the whacking of the Trump pinata, as well as other awkward events at the party— is it real laughter? At times the look on his face speaks of a man who’s had to police himself to act a certain way around and for white people. This is where the film is especially relevant, in how it dissects the ways people of colour are often forced to watch how THEY act around white people instead of white people genuinely taking inventory of their own behaviour.
“Who said ‘faggot’?”
“I didn’t mean it in a derogatory way”
A prominent image is Tyler’s du-rag. When he sneaks away to sleep, uncomfortable with how the party’s going, he puts product in his hair then laces up his du-rag. He decides to take it off before finally sleeping. This is symptomatic of a larger problem: Tyler, like many black people, feels the Panopticon of whiteness judging him at every turn, so he polices the way he acts around white people. His conscious decision not to keep the rag on is likely made to avoid an awkward conversation in the morning. Even the least awkward white guy amongst the group, Alan, is oblivious to the du-rag’s actual function, taking it as symbolic of black gangsters – an image of blackness the media’s hugely responsible for perpetuating – when it’s actually a hair care regimen.
The du-rag is only one image of self-policing. When Tyler speaks to his girlfriend, he uses what we can assume is his genuine voice, easily noticeable when compared to how he talks while around the white guys. He actually talks differently when talking to his black friend on the phone than he does with his girlfriend, too. All this suggests there’s not only pressure to not act ‘too black’ around his new white friends, there’s also a suggestion Tyler polices himself to sound ‘blacker’ for his black friends.
Most of the heavy hitting moments for the psychological horror come when Tyler is drinking and all the white dudes are going wild. A divide between him and the others turns up early when “Stand” by R.E.M. comes on— he’s the only one who doesn’t know the song, watching as the rest of the guys sing together. This is a lighthearted moment, though R.E.M. returns later with a sinister feel. Religious portraits are tossed into the fire after everybody’s drunk. Michael Stipe and the band play “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Tyler’s disoriented worse this time not knowing the lyrics because he’s been drinking. The burning of religious iconography along with a white guy doing stereotypical Indigenous war calls, through Tyler’s eyes – a black man whose relatives could very well have had a cross burned on their lawn 50 years prior – is like witnessing a violent moment of colonialism or fascism in action.
In the end, not all hope is lost. Tyler has a chance meeting with an older black man (Reg E. Cathey in his final performance), who’s married to a white lady (the wonderful Ann Dowd), and discovers he doesn’t have to change his authentic self for anybody. Cathey’s character is a stern man, yet his brief moments with Tyler are revelatory, as he imparts silent wisdom to the younger black man between blowing notes on his bari sax. Afterwards, Tyler returns to the party he earlier fled in desperation, and he goes to bed— this time wearing his du-rag, which he doesn’t remove in the morning, either. He’s unafraid to show his blackness in the light of day. He sees the problem isn’t with him, it’s with his white friends. He doesn’t need to edit his blackness. Rather, they have to work on their ingrained racism, no matter how subtle.
Although there’s hope for Tyler, such hope doesn’t necessarily fully extend to the white dudes. At the end of the film, the group of friends gather to take a picture before leaving the cabin. Tyler offers to take it, though they insist he gets in. So he takes it like a selfie. Unlike one of the pictures above featuring the group, the picture in the last shot of the film features only a portion of Tyler’s face, from the nose up, while everybody else is entirely visible. Silva’s final visual suggests the white friends will only ever see part of the picture re: Tyler + blackness. Regardless of their good intentions there’s an underlying inability to see Tyler as a whole rather than the sum of his black parts.
Tyrel interrogates the white viewer. Black people know this story well— they’ve lived it, and continue to even in 2018. This movie’s not aimed at them. Is it any better to be a liberal who’s unaware of the damage they’re doing to the people of colour they claim are their friends/allies than to be a racist aware of what they’re doing? Maybe. Then again, maybe not, either. The point of Silva’s film, ultimately, is to point out a glaring disparity in perspectives between races that an awful lot of white people are apparently fundamentally incapable of comprehending. Here’s to hoping.