debbie tucker green’s ear for eye was first staged at the Royal Court in 2018.
Three years later, tucker green’s acclaimed play has now been adapted into a film just under 90 minutes in length, and its central exploration of protest against racial injustice is as relevant as ever.
ear for eye is split into three distinct parts. Part one follows six groups of people: two parents (Sharlene Whyte and David Gyasi) trying to teach their son (Hayden Mclean) how to best present himself as a Black man in order to avoid getting in trouble with authorities; a young man (Tosin Cole) argues with an older man (Danny Sapani) about whether it is still necessary to engage in anti-racist protest or whether the work has already been completed by previous generations; an older woman (Carmen Munroe) delivers a monologue about the history of anti-racist protest; two women (Ronke Adeěkoluejo and Danielle Vitalis) argue about who has been more engaged in anti-racist protest; two parents (Nadine Marshall and Sule Rimi) argue about their methods of bringing up their deaf son (Jamal Ajala) and a group of people (Jade Anouka, Kayla Meikle, Arinzé Kene, Rochelle Rose, and Nakhane) discuss their treatment by police while engaging in anti-racist protest.
Part two encompasses a conversation between what seems to be a student (Lashana Lynch) and her professor (Demetri Goritsas) as they debate why two children shot two unarmed students at their school – can the crime be analysed without making reference to structures of power, like racism? Finally, part three features a series of short videos in which white actors with American accents read out American segregation laws, followed by white actors with British accents reading out West Indian slave codes.
Altogether, the three parts work effectively to document the ongoing lived experience of anti-racist protest and to justify this protest by highlighting the racist histories of the US and UK, as well as the ongoing legacy of racism for Black people in the twenty-first century living on both sides of the Atlantic.
I’ve always admired tucker green’s writing, but it can, admittedly, be hard to act or direct in such a way that makes its meaning clear. However, under tucker green’s directorial guidance, the supremely talented cast excellently communicates the conflict integral to each of tucker green’s scenes. Most importantly, they also effectively perform the rhythms of tucker green’s language, biting on each other’s cues and leaving pauses for air when necessary. Perhaps the best showcase of this was the duologue between Lashana Lynch and Demetri Goritsas. Reprising their roles from the original stage production, Lynch and Goritsas have the longest scene in the film and so have the most time to develop their characters’ relationship and to play with different tempos and shades of emotion as they each assert their conflicting opinions.
In some ways, it didn’t feel necessary to adapt ear for eye for the screen. It is clear that this is originally a stage play – indeed, all filming seems to have taken place in a black box studio, and the use of props or set to create a distinctive sense of place is limited. Nevertheless, there are clear benefits of adapting tucker green’s work for the screen. In part one, for example, as Sharlene Whyte instructs her son, Hayden Mclean, on how to best present himself as a Black man in a racist world, different cut scenes are inserted in which Mclean appears in various costumes. In this example, the meaning of tucker green’s words is clarified by the medium of film as we see how Mclean has to physically change himself in order to avoid being targeted by white authorities. Another effective moment included Jade Anouka talking through her experience at an anti-racist protest with four other clones of herself – again the medium of film helped to communicate her sense of confusion and anger caused by her experiences.
ear for eye is not cinema as we are used to seeing it: there is no definitive plot and the dialogue is sometimes difficult to follow. This is cinema that forces you to listen; to engage; to interrogate to understand what’s really going on. But, with its central preoccupation being the importance of anti-racist protest, this isn’t a bad thing: this is an issue which we should listen to, engage and interrogate. In an age of co-optation, tucker green brings a renewed focus on the importance of anti-racist protest and a reminder of the work still left to do.
ear for eye makes its world premiere at BFI Southbank on 16th October and exclusively the same evening on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer.