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Travon Free is an Oscar nominee. He wrote and directed the short film Two Distant Strangers, which was nominated in the Best Live Action Short category. After months of not being able to share their movie with the world, Netflix recently acquired the rights to distribute the film in March. Two Distant Strangers hit the streaming service on April 9 and Complex spoke to the Emmy-winning writer about the timeliness of the film, casting Joey Badass, and what it feels like to be an Oscar nominee.
Nearly a month after the nominations were announced and just weeks away from the 93rd Academy Awards, the director is still buzzing with excitement. “It’s funny, even almost a month after it happened, I’m still trying to process the whole thing. It feels surreal,” Free told Complex. “I really haven’t had a lot of time to breathe and just really take it in. I feel like I’m too close to it right now to really feel the weight of it, but I have these moments where I’ll randomly just be doing something, like taking out the trash or washing dishes, and then it’ll just pop into my head like, ‘Oh man, you’re an Oscar nominee.’”
Being nominated is an accomplishment in and of itself, but if he wins, he will make Oscar’s history as the first Black director to succeed in the category. Prior to this nomination, only four other Black filmmakers have been nominated in the Best Live Action category: David Massey for Last Breeze of Summer in 1991, Dianne Houston for Tuesday Morning Ride in 1995, and Kevin Wilson Jr.’s for My Nephew Emmett in 2017. “I mean, man look, I’m honored to be amongst the four of us who have made it this far as Black, live-action short directors. I’ve made a career of being either the first or one of two, Black people in the spaces that I’ve encountered,” he said. “I don’t know the weight that comes with being the first Black Oscar winner in a category, but I’m willing to take up that mantle because I want to bring more of us up and I want to open that door for more people, for more of us.”
“It would be a tremendous honor to be the first Black, live-action, short Oscar winner. I think it’s indicative of how much more work needs to be done. The fact that in the almost, I believe, the categories, almost as old as the Oscars itself, that there’s only been four of us, and I know there’s a lot more than four Black filmmakers who are making quality films,” he added. “I firmly believe no matter what happens, we made an incredible film that’s had an incredible impact. When you look at the quotes that we’ve gotten from some of the biggest filmmakers and Black activists in the world, from Bong Joon-ho to Harry Belafonte to Jeffrey Katzenberg, to Geoffrey Fletcher, who was the first Black Academy Award winner for adapting a screenplay. And we still find ourselves in the ‘first’ realm after 93 years of Oscars, we’re still having firsts.”
Even if it’s hard to believe that it’s been 93 years without a Black winner in the category, Free is still hopeful for what a win with this particular film would symbolize. “It can be a very historical moment on April 25, and I hope to be a part of it. I hope to make history that night. And I hope to do it because people believe we made the best movie, and I believe Two Distant Strangers is just a really incredible film. It is a token of how great short filmmaking can be, and how short filmmaking allows you the versatility to respond to real-life in a very fast way. The Oscars will be nine months from the day that I wrote the movie. That is only possible because of short films and because the Academy acknowledges short films, and I don’t take that lightly. I’m very humbled by that idea, by what that could mean.”
The 29-minute-long film centers around a Black cartoonist named Carter James (Badass) and his repeated failed attempts to get home to his dog the morning after a date. His plans to get home are thwarted by a recurring deadly encounter with a white cop that forces him to relive the same day over and over again. Picture Groundhog Day with a social justice and police brutality twist. Free started working on the film last year amid the Black Lives Matter protests following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others in the Black community, confessing that he began writing the film after attending the marches in California and seeing the violent interactions between the police officers and the protesters. “At the time, as a writer and director and just someone who considers themselves an artist, it’s our job to reflect the time that we live in, the world that we live in,” Free said. “Everyone is not entirely capable of doing that in a way that resonates with the world at large. I was experiencing what was happening last summer and was watching what was happening. I was going to the protests. I was in one of the more riotous protests last year when the police were shooting rubber bullets at people, and people were throwing things back on Fairfax in LA, and I got hit in the head with a bottle. It was scary. But it felt important.”
“I needed to say something about what I was feeling and what I believed a lot of people like me were feeling,” Free continued “It was when the thought occurred to me that having to process the emotions of these deaths over and over every time you hear about them and the cycle of trauma that it takes you through, it feels like the worst version of Groundhog Day. After I had that thought, it became just stuck in my brain, and I was like, I need to do something with this and do something with it right now because we’re living through it right now.” Free continued protesting and used that energy to write the film in five days. He teamed up with his co-director Martin Desmond Roe and together they overcame every obstacle to get the movie done in less than a year. The film might be short, but each minute counts and the repetition draws you right in from the second it starts. It’s hard to look away, even in the most jarring moments when Carter encounters the police officer (Andrew Howard), and it leads to his death. “We wanted it to grab people. We wanted to put you in Joey’s perspective, in his point of view. We wanted the film to feel like in the same way sometimes it’s hard to look away at what’s happening here. We wanted it to feel like if you looked away for a second, you might miss something. The movie does a good job of pulling you forward in a way where there’s never that reach for your popcorn, reach for your phone moment because pretty much every scene is important to the next for you to get what’s going to happen. If you turn away for two minutes, you might have to start the movie over because you would have missed something important to the plot.”
Joey Badass signed on to star in the film during a FaceTime call initiated by their mutual friend, director Jeymes Samuel. The rapper seemed like the perfect fit for the role because Free wanted Carter to come off as an approachable “everyman,” unlike the way Black men are often negatively portrayed when they have encounters with the police. Joey knocked it out of the park, especially in the hard-to-watch scenes. “We had a two-week window where [Joey] was available. It was late September, and COVID was still raging, and by the grace of God, it worked out, and we hit the window of his availability before he had to go back to New York to film Power,” the director said. “He was so into the film, into getting the character right, he cared so much about doing the job. He didn’t just show up to read lines. He actually cared about becoming the character. I remember three days in when he was like, ‘I really think I found the character. I really think I found it.’ And he did. He was definitely the right choice.”
The film also didn’t shy away from showing the most graphic and violent moments, and that had a purpose. Each day that Carter wakes up, his fate is the same even if the way he dies is different. That choice represented the reality of the various ways people have died at the hands of police, some of which we have even seen on video. “I wanted you to know that that really happened to someone. So all of the time that you do actually see him die, we’ve seen all of those things happen to people. I wanted all of those things to be grounded in reality, and for the handful of times you’re watching him die, that you know that it’s directly connected to someone whose name we know,” he said. “I remember compiling a list of just so many Black people who died and what were the circumstances of their death interacting with the police, and the list was so long and so many of them were unarmed and this happened. It’s like, this person was walking home, this person was doing this, this person was doing that. I can’t believe I have this many options for this insane thing.”
“Even though the story itself is a work of fiction, it’s based on the lives or group of people,” he continued. “So that was important to me that it’d be representative of reality because I wanted people to be like, ‘This really happens?’ If you’ve somehow managed to miss what’s been happening, I want people to see this and go, ‘Well, the police wouldn’t like breaking your door and have the wrong house.’ Oh yeah, they’ve done it multiple times. They do it a lot. And have killed people in many of those instances.
“I live in Beverly Hills and I’m probably the only Black person on my block,” Free shared. “Whenever I leave the house, it occurs to me that I don’t have to do anything to encounter the police. I literally don’t have to do anything. My car registration is paid up. There’s no reason to pull me over. At the end of the day, none of it matters. It’s a thing that feels like it’s going to find you, whether you want it to or not. That’s the unfortunate nature of it. That’s the helplessness of it, and that’s terrifying.” The fear that a police encounter can quickly turn fatal is hard for anyone who isn’t Black to relate to. Free hopes that his film helps other people understand while also serving as a way for those who can relate to feel seen. “It serves two audiences differently, right? It’s a movie about Black trauma. Someone said it really well, a critic on Twitter. She was saying to stop calling everything trauma porn or stop saying you can’t make good content that involves trauma,” he said. “There’s a difference between something that’s centered in trauma and something that is a story that involves trauma. And there are so many great shows like Michaela Coel’s show, I May Destroy You, and Lovecraft Country. All these shows involve trauma, but they’re not centering it. They don’t center the oppressor in the story who is gratuitously inducing trauma upon a person of color and to no resolution. Our story has a very specific ending for a reason.”
In one instance of the film, the officer shares a moment with Carter, and it almost feels as if they’re building a connection. Viewers get to hear his side of the story, learn about his background in a way that humanizes him, but it doesn’t change anything. “I think people need to know that machines aren’t killing Black and brown people in the streets, people are killing Black and brown people in the streets. Every cop who wakes up and puts that uniform on, no matter how much they buy into the system they’re participating from a mental fall-in-line standpoint, they’re still people who have families, who have friends, and they’re still choosing this. They’re still deciding, ‘The job that I have that tells me to look at you this way, that trains me to look at you this way, and wants me to suppress the human connection that is possible by trying to understand the community that I’m policing in a certain way.’ There are people behind that uniform, and people can make different choices,” he said. “Robots have to be told to make a different choice and they have to be given a set of commands. That is a sad and depressing reality to know that putting on a uniform and giving someone a badge and a gun can change their behavior so drastically. It can remove so much of their humanity that they start to see the world through this binary of bad guys and good guys. They’re always the good guy in their mind and we’ve started to see that that’s not true. That’s not the case. And so it was important to have Andrew’s character show you what was on the other side of his situation, even a little bit, because they aren’t 2D flat people out in the world, just killing people willy-nilly. They are thinking consciously about what they’re doing.”
The movie has only been available for viewing through limited screenings. Netflix users will now be able to watch it on April 9 and the director is looking forward to hearing the general audience’s reactions. He’s already received praise from people like Harry Belafonte, Bong Joon-ho, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and was backed by Diddy, Jesse Williams, Terrence J, and more. “We’ve been lucky to have Netflix come on board in the last three weeks and up until then, we had no idea when we were going to get to share it with the world. It feels good to know that the movie that everyone is talking about, but no one’s been able to see, is finally going to hit the streets and people can actually find it somewhere where 200 million people, plus people who share passwords, will be able to watch it,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to people’s reactions. I’m hoping that people will feel and see what we’ve been experiencing for the last four months.”
Free is already an award winning TV writer who has previously worked on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, The Daily Show, and Willmore. Filmmaking is a new path he has taken on and judging by the Oscar nomination and the acclaim he’s received, it is already paying off. “With this [film], I was taking the chance of, if people feel a certain way about this, I’m the face of it. I take on the good and the bad, no matter what happens it all falls on me. So that’s been a new experience. It’s been great that what’s falling on me is mostly praise. But it feels really, really good to step out into a new realm of creativity and filmmaking and to be off to a good start.”
Two Distant Strangers is available to stream on Netflix, and The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony will take place on Sunday, April 25 at 8:00 p.m. ET.