The term ‘observer effect’ is used in quantum physics to describe what happens to photons as they are being monitored. The mere act of observation causes the photons to behave and appear like particles when in fact they naturally function as waves.
Erwin Schrödinger famously illustrated this further when he posited his ‘cat in a box’ thought experiment, where a cat placed in a sealed box with a radioactive element that may kill it remains both dead and alive until it is observed to be one or the other, thus changing its state.
In The Subject (2021), directed by Lanie Zipoy, the observer effect is taking place on the streets of Harlem with Phil Waterhouse (Jason Biggs, American Pie), a white documentary filmmaker, channelling his inner Schrödinger and Malcolm Barnes (Nile Bullock), a young black man, unwittingly taking on the role of the cat. Only this time, the cat is most definitely dead.
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When does art become exploitation?
Phil has been struggling with Malcolm’s death which he caught on film. The resulting documentary, ‘The Price of Brothahood’ was a critical success, earning Phil an Emmy and plaudits from Sundance Film Festival, springboarding his career and infinitely improving his circumstances. More recently, though, Phil has come under fire for the seeming exploitation of his subjects and for his role in the run-up to Malcolm’s death.
Did he really have a part to play? Wasn’t he merely an observer to another’s tragedy? Wasn’t he just doing his job? Now Phil spends his time poring over footage and rerunning VT in a vain attempt to find any clues that may condemn or redeem him.
When we first meet Phil, pre-titles, his past has already caught up to him; it’s threatening him over the phone and knocking on his door – but that’s for later. Post-titles, it’s six weeks earlier and Phil’s girlfriend Jess (Anabelle Acosta) is desperately trying to get him to move on. She harries him into going back to work and so, nearly two years on, he’s back in Harlem working on a new network television series about the lives of young black men, rather characteristically entitled, ‘Hood’.
In truly trying to get down to the heart of The Subject (2021) we may have to ask ourselves, ‘How would I appear if the camera were turned on me?’
Phil seems sensitive to the situation of his new subject, Kwame and to the community around him. He deals with outbursts and accusations personally and adopts a manner of street-talk to help ease the proceedings along. It’s obvious that Phil isn’t a bad guy but the spectre of a white saviour complex does seem to follow him around. That’s not the only thing following him either, as soon Phil gets the feeling that he’s being watched; that the camera has been turned on him and he’s on the wrong side of the lens.
The observer and the subject: a complex relationship
In the intervening six weeks we follow Phil, along with his stalker, as he searches for answers and wrestles with his ghosts. We get a deeper insight into who he is through little flashes; a turn of the head, a widening of the eyes, a snippet of dialogue; and we watch how he shifts under the gaze of another until he almost loses himself completely.
First-time feature director, Lanie Zipoy handles the scenes maturely and proficiently, never reaching for hyperbole or sensationalism
In the turning point of the film, Phil mistakes obsession for reverence and shows himself in a way he has never shown anyone before, as all the while the observer becomes the observed. This subtle interplay and reversal of roles intelligently highlights the complex relationship between observer and subject, of artist and muse, of those holding the power and those held by it, then it asks us to find where the line lies.
By the time the third act opens (remember that knock on the door), there have been a lot of questions asked and not a lot of answers – cue Ms Leslie Barnes (Aunjanue Ellis). She arrives on the scene like a whirlwind, blasting into Phil’s secure, comfortable world and turning it upside down. She has also spent the last two years looking for answers, but from a very different viewpoint, and she’ll get what she needs even if one of them has to die for it.
Jason Biggs and Aunjanue Ellis: a final act of defiance
In this final scene, which runs for the entire length of the third act, we are privy to conversations that could only be had by these two oppositional characters: the successful white male filmmaker who made his name and his money off the back of desperate black youths, showcasing their struggles and injustices to a captivated audience of upper-class elites; and the grieving black mother, kept down by society, vilified for her tough decisions, always seen as the villain as she struggles to make ends meet in a world that doesn’t care about her, and barred from understanding what her son’s life and death were truly for.
Phil isn’t a bad guy but the spectre of a white saviour complex does seem to follow him around
It is a credit to both Jason Biggs and Aunjanue Ellis that they are able to carry off this extended scene, littered as it is with heavy themes and difficult dialogue. Ellis especially shines and shocks and provokes in her performance as someone who can’t rely on the system and has to take the law into her own hands. Elsewhere, Biggs carries the movie deftly, slowly revealing his character and exposing a worrisome depth beneath the facade of the regular everyman, while Anabelle Acosta and Carra Patterson both provide sterling support as the love interests.
A special mention should also go to Nile Bullock whose commanding screen presence offers a warmth, openness and humility to the character of Malcolm, even for the short time he is on screen. Each role has been perfectly cast and it’s obvious from the performances how much everyone cares for the source material.
Who is the ‘subject’ of the film?
First-time feature director, Lanie Zipoy handles the scenes maturely and proficiently, never reaching for hyperbole or sensationalism, nor sinking into the mire of psychology, sentimentality or politics. The narrative plays out seamlessly from different angles and time-frames, from one side of the camera to the other, allowing the story to reveal itself at its own pace without anything ever feeling shoehorned or forced. Chisa Hutchinson’s screenplay, adapted from her own stage play, hits all the right notes in terms of social dynamics whilst also managing to layer a much deeper subplot that asks us to question our own role in the pervasiveness of racial injustice: Are we just passive observers of an unchangeable situation, or does the fact that we see it happening without getting involved or doing anything make us complicit?
The Subject (2021) could easily refer to any number of things within the movie, perhaps even shifting deliberately as we begin to observe and understand each part. It is a film-makers film, discussing the philosophy and morals of pointed documentaries, as well as the narratives that always underline them. The world can change before us depending on how we view it and in truly trying to get down to the heart of The Subject (2020) we may have to ask ourselves, ‘How would I appear if the camera were turned on me?’ Are we the ones making art, the ones living it or those merely recording it, and can we ever truly be separate from the subject we choose to observe?
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Directed by: Lanie Zipoy
Written by: Chisa Hutchinson
Starring: Jason Biggs, Aunjanue Ellis, Annabelle Acosta, Nile Bullock, Carra Patterson
Did our reviewer agree?
Find out if Film Forums’ own Aiysha Jebali agreed with William Hemingway’s verdict…
Read Aiysha’s review of The Subject (2021) on UK Film Review!
Founded in 2012 by Chris Olson, UK Film Review found its niche amongst the indie filmmaking community by providing reviews of independent cinema, as well as promoting crowdfunding and kickstarters for movie projects.