Updated: Aug 19
A young door-to-door salesman finds that getting his first sale is the least of his worries.
Considering how thinly veiled the race issues are in this film, Civil is actually quite subtle. Focusing on Deshawn (Bryson Thomas), a young and unconfident knife salesman, we are introduced to the demoralising world of door-to-door sales. The demoralising nature of the job is doubled when you realise that not only do people not want to buy from you, but they seemingly have no problem buying from your colleagues. This all plays into Deshawn’s lack of confidence, arguably heightened even more so by the fact that he is the only African American on his sales team.
A notable aspect of this film is that the issue of race or Deshawn being African American is never directly addressed at any point…nor does it need to be. Civil highlights all of the signifiers that our society has learned to recognise, from the condescension disguised as encouragement to the sudden use of phrases around African Americans by their white peers like “Where you at?” which they do not use with each other, to the ironically genuine yet obviously offensive statement of acceptance “You’re one of the good ones”. However, the film stops beating around the bush when Deshawn finally manages to get over the threshold of prospective customer Marshall's (Walt Sloan) front door and into the house only to find himself staring directly at Marshall’s Confederate flag.
This film could have easily made itself about a face-off between ideologies, highlighting all of the reprehensible beliefs and actions that the Confederacy stood for. Instead writer and director Stephen Takashima wisely opts to make the story about Deshawn and his personal growth. The meek and submissive character, barely able to speak when he is introduced at the start of the film is put into a situation where he has to find his own voice and identify who is and who is not on his side.
The moments following Deshawn entering Marshall's house go out of their way to highlight the threat awaiting our protagonist, keeping us marginally ahead of Deshawn as Marshall's character is slowly revealed. Takashima does well to reveal certain aspects of the scenario and not others, telegraphing the areas of the story required for building tension but hiding enough to avoid giving away where the narrative is going. Ryan Marth’s military band score, infused with an air of the portentous, goes a long way to underscoring the atmosphere that Takashima creates.
There are a great deal of elements present in this film that help to frame the space in which many debates occur in contemporary society, from marginalising some groups to completely shutting down opposing viewpoints. With so many polarising factors in everyday discourse, the on-the-nose move of centring the main body of conflict under the most obviously contentious symbol in modern America is also ironically a stroke of genius. Removing all of the false faces and pretence that result in micro aggressions and dog whistle politics, the audience is forced to confront the characters in the film on the most honest terms possible. As a result, we are given an eye-opening experience, not in terms of how we should regard symbols and meanings, but who we really are when put under pressure and how the symbols we flock to represent us as individuals.
In a time where we are confronted by the darker histories of iconography that has been a part of our cultural identity from time immemorial, Civil is a refreshingly plain-spoken story that reminds us of the importance of deciding who we are before deciding what (if any) side we are on.
Studio: Stephen Takashima | Year: 2018 | Genre: Drama | Duration: 17 Mins | Suitability: Mature
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