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Slave Play. Not a Movie. A Play.

“Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play.,” a film by playwright Jeremy O. Harris, is an in-depth look behind the scenes of the director's controversial play of the same name. Slave Play, the 12-time Tony Award-nominated Broadway sensation, follows three interracial couples as they explore tendentious racial stereotypes and power dynamics within a kinky therapy session that involves role-playing on an imaginary plantation in Virginia. Just from the title alone, “Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play.” gives the impression that it is as provocative as the stage play itself. Unlike traditional documentaries that adhere to a strict linear narrative, Harris takes an avant-garde approach to his storytelling, making the film more of an exploration of his creative process than the stage play itself.

Within the first few minutes, he bombards the audience with review after review from critics and influencers alike. Using ripped news coverage, TikTok reels, and faceless criticisms, Harris and his editors, Peter Ohs and Teki Cruickshank, emphasize the play’s reputation before we’re even five minutes into the film, as if to say, “This is what the world is saying; what do you think?” The approach suggests that Harris is inviting the audience into the conversation. Art is subjective, and “Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play.” is no exception.

Like Orson Welles’ 1973 film “F is for Fake,” Harris doesn’t connect scenes; he connects thoughts. Harris intercuts footage from various rehearsals with different actors and the theatrical productions, often showing similar scenes side by side. Like a casting director, we see how other actors approach the same scene. Their line delivery, physical tics, and interactions with their co-stars bring a unique viewing experience to the audience. It feels like we’re watching the play be written and dissected over and over again.

The tactic gives the impression that we’re inside Harris’s mind as he watches and rewatches the film in the edit. In fact, Harris states this very sentiment as we observe him and Peter Ohs edit the film within the film. He remarks on how cinema differs from theater because there are so many choices, so many scenes, and so many performances. Despite its racial undertones, “Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play.” is as unserious as the theatrical Broadway production. Harris is in his element, captivating the audience with humorous delight and a flair for style. Both metaphorically and literally, as Harris stands out with his wardrobe compared to his supporting cast. Without uttering any exposition, it is clear Harris is our main character. We observe him; we notice how he walks and talks. But more importantly, we see how he thinks.

Harris’ perspective within the context of the film and the play serves as a metaphor for how he navigates the world as a Black person or BIPOC. He never knows which America he’ll encounter when he steps through the door, much like the audience is uncertain about the type of story they’ll experience when they watch this theatrical or silver screen production. However, this aspect of the film, while its greatest strength, is also its biggest weakness. The narrative of this experimental documentary feels incomplete, which is to be expected since Harris’s own story hasn’t concluded yet.

Despite the film’s strong opening and compelling edits, the ending leaves more to be desired. Given the clear talent Harris showcases throughout this motion picture, you come to expect more precision from the rising star. The film becomes unfocused in parts, taking too much pleasure in existing as a conversation starter rather than living up to its namesake. Its inability to sustain discussion on the topics it raises, relying purely on the novelty and shock value of slavery role-play, causes it to end on a whimper.  

Still, the film has a strong hook that immediately captivates. “Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play.” is an engaging and thought-provoking experience whose avant-garde approach to storytelling and its ability to spark meaningful conversations make it a truly enjoyable watch. 

Brandon Towns

Brandon Towns is a Chicago-based film critic who has contributed numerous reviews and essays to over the years. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Advertising with a minor in Photography from Bradley University in 2020. In 2018, he was one of three recipients of the Sundance Institute's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism.

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Slave Play. Not a Movie. A Play. movie poster

Slave Play. Not a Movie. A Play. (2024)

79 minutes

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