The black squares were not the first sign of the anxiety, but they were the most obvious. What began as a symbol of solidarity from music industry artists and executives quickly mushroomed into an unwieldier movement. In the days following #BlackOutTuesday, these boxes cropped up on pages all over Instagram.
The restrictive conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic had made it more difficult to ignore the manifestations of state violence — from inept pandemic plans to police brutality. Americans were itching to act. What exactly that entailed was tricky. For those not already tapped into community networks or unable to attend in-person demonstrations, social media became the most accessible way to support causes. But these online gestures became, for many, an easy form of political engagement instead of a gateway to robust organizing.
A Lot of Nothing
Interesting set pieces in search of a thesis.
Mo McRae satirizes this type of internet activism in A Lot of Nothing. Premiering at SXSW, the jagged directorial debut follows Vanessa (Cleopatra Coleman) and James (Y’lan Noel), an upper-middle-class Black couple who feel compelled “to do something” after hearing about another fatal police shooting on the evening news. The unsurprising report — unarmed kid, ruthless cop, death — jolts them out of complacency and reminds them of America’s routine violence. Using the conventions of recent social thrillers (Get Out, the upcoming Master) and satirical elements (à la Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You), A Lot of Nothing probes Vanessa and James’s reaction to the incident, their motivation to act and the steps they take to make a difference.
Perhaps the latter claim is too strong for this upwardly mobile couple ensconced in their wealth. Vanessa and James, who both work in corporate offices (some vague mix of finance and law), own Teslas and recently have gut-renovated their palatial home, seem more determined to prove the depth of their outrage and regain control of their lives. It’s Vanessa, a biracial woman, who decides that she and James need to do something when they realize the accused cop, Brian (This Is Us’ Justin Hartley), is their neighbor. James, a darker-skinned man who Vanessa insinuates has been inured to violence, suggests they write a strongly worded Facebook post.
James and Vanessa never publish their screed. Instead, the conversation about what to post — to write “hate ass, n***er hating cop” or to opt for an MLK quote — riles up the couple. They decide to think big: What if they go next door and talk to the cop? And then even bigger: What if James brings his gun and “goes gangster” on Brian? Fantasizing about this confrontation shifts the mood. Vanessa is visibly turned on by James rehearsing his speech to Brian. The couple has passionate sex.
It’s a spicy start, a sign of McRae’s boldness as a director. But McRae, who cowrote A Lot of Nothing with Sarah Kelly Kaplan, seems to bump up against the question of where to go next. The film struggles to maintain the verve of this opening sequence (which nails a specific anxiety of liberal middle-class Black people), subsequently becoming a series of set pieces — some more energetic than others — in search of a thesis.
When James and Vanessa wake up to a blaring alarm, it’s clear the luster of the previous night has faded. The reality of their existence — the cracks in their marriage, their depressed attitude about work — settles in. The tonal dissonance of a brief interaction between the two, in which Vanessa asks James what she should make for “his brother and his baby mama,” is jarring. While Noel is perfectly fine as the aspirational Black man in denial about the social limits of wealth, Coleman’s performance is more difficult to pin down. Is her exaggeratedly infantile tone the film’s attempt at satire, or are we meant to see Vanessa as untrustworthy and more sinister?
What A Lot of Nothing does make clear is the cost of Vanessa and James’ upward mobility. Their days at work are a pile-on of microaggressions. There is a brief moment when the film moves away from the clichéd elements of these interactions — inappropriate gestures of intimacy by white people, intimations that they are unlike “other” Black people — to probe something deeper. During a company meeting, James interrupts the only nonwhite woman at the table to steer the conversation in a direction that undermines her and favors him. Vanessa receives similar treatment at her office, and this subtle moment hints at the knotty intersections of race, class and gender.
The film goes from race study to straight thriller when an interaction between Vanessa and police officer Brian leads the former to kidnap the latter at gunpoint. She insists that she just wants to have a conversation about why he killed an unarmed kid. A Lot of Nothing’s horror aspirations, signaled through its foreboding cinematography and score, become more obvious at this point.
Yet the bold turn of events makes one wonder why Vanessa, with her white mother and anxieties around race, isn’t the film’s primary focus. Her disdainful attitude toward James’ brother Jamal (Shamier Anderson) and his fiancé Candy (Lex Scott Davis), her desperation to act and her disapproval of her husband offer a solid foundation via which McRae could have consolidated and deepened his ideas about race, class and gender.
It’s Vanessa whom I found myself focusing on when Jamal and Candy arrive for dinner and discover a hostage scene instead. It’s her face I studied during a confrontation with Candy about their differences. Is Vanessa’s high-wire kidnapping act an attempt at agency in her failing marriage? What does she want to prove — to Brian, to James, to herself?
These questions remain as A Lot of Nothing careens to a shock-value ending that’s more perturbing than exciting. The points the film sets out to raise — about activism, police brutality and the function of race in society — ultimately, and unfortunately, get lost in the twists and turns of James and Vanessa’s hair-raising story.