South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival –Play It Safe (2021), written and directed by Mitch Kalisa does not, in fact, play it safe, and instead produces an unflinching, and unapologetic short film that deals with the topic of racial profiling, but instead of setting it within something like a law enforcement drama, it is set within the normally safe space of an acting class. Shining a light on passive racism, Mitch Kalisa’s Play It Safe made its premiere in the 2021 SXSW Online lineup of narrative short films.
It may be hard for majority groups of people to understand that minority populations are ascribed stereotypes from birth which they must spend their entire life, valuable time and energy, fighting against. Whatever one representative of a minority group does is typically then considered to be an inherent quality or characteristic of the rest of the group. The African American population has many negative stereotypes to work against, and none are quite as offensive as African American behaviors and physical aesthetics being conflated with that of apes.
Play It Safe follows Jonathan (Jonathan Ajayi) a Black student in an acting class who is liked among his classmates, however, he finds them sometimes insensitive to type-casting him in gangster roles. One day after being cornered by his classmates and teacher to accept another thuggish role, to add insult to injury, he has the misfortune of pulling the “ape” card during an improv exercise. With the challenge of the exercise being to “take up more space” and to not play it safe, Jonathan accepts this challenge head-on, committing to the uncomfortable role and surprising both himself and his classmates.
The video quality of this short film is interesting, it looks to be purposefully grainy, like film typically used in the 1980s. While the film quality may be a step above a home movie at times, Play It Safe is definitely a cut above the rest in all other areas. Jonathan Ajayi in his protagonist role was excellent; vulnerable but powerful, giving the most hard-hitting parts of his performance without even uttering a word, but instead, the guttural howls of both an ape-man as well as a man consistently treated as an ape. It is a true ‘are you not entertained’ moment that is very moving and emotionally gripping, driven home by the gritty and raw writing and directorial style of Mitch Kalisa.
What do you do when your art is supposed to reflect life but the parts that are written for you in order to express yourself are only stereotypical and don’t capture the entirety of your identity? According to Play It Safe, you take charge of the conversation about your identity and show the absurdity of these stereotypes, the error of society having instated them, and challenge prejudice head-on, no matter how uncomfortable the conversation may be.
Play It Safe reviewed as part of our South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival coverage.
8 out of 10