André Holland in Titus Kaphar’s Debut – The Hollywood Reporter contentnexus4u

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Titus Kaphar’s directorial debut feature, Exhibiting Forgiveness, is a tender story of fathers and sons, bolstered by an arresting performance by its lead, André Holland.

He plays a blooming painter plagued by nightmares of his past. We meet Tarrell as he’s gasping for air after a violent dream. Images flash across the screen: a burning flame, a soot-covered pile of garbage, blood, darkness. When his terrors get particularly bad, Tarrell retreats to his home studio. The room, with its high ceilings tiled by skylights, cocoons him like a mother embracing a child. In one particularly gorgeous sequence, Tarrell, bathed in the relaxed glow of filtered sun, prepares for a day of work. He throws a record on while drinking his morning coffee, swivels in his office chair to pass time, washes his brushes, changes into his uniform, hangs a canvas and procrastinates as all artists do.

Exhibiting Forgiveness

The Bottom Line

A harmonious match of actor and director.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Cast: André Holland, Andra Day, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jaime Ray Newman, John Earl Jelks
Director-screenwriter: Titus Kaphar

1 hour 57 minutes

Kaphar, a MacArthur Genius award-winning painter, is a portraitist of Black life. In his most striking paintings, the artist mars his canvas. Kaphar cuts out whole figures or obscures them under thin layers of white paint. Sometimes, he’ll outline these erasures with a black marker, transforming characters into ghostly silhouettes.

With Exhibiting Forgiveness, the artist turns to film to further his interest in haunting, almost surrealist, representations of Black American life. His debut is about an explosive reconciliation between Tarrell and his father, La’Ron (the wonderful John Earl Jelks), a process initiated by a nostalgic mother (an always stellar Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) determined to repair her family’s emotional life. Kaphar, who also wrote the screenplay, draws many fine, if familiar, conclusions about the corrosive nature of generational trauma. The film considers this theme with a similar compassion to Miles Warren’s 2023 feature Bruiser, in which a young man finds himself caught in the middle of a calcified resentment between his father and a family friend. Both movies explore the traps of hypermasculinity and the inherited violence of silence.

Exhibiting Forgiveness kicks into gear with a visit from Tarrell’s shrill gallery representative, Janine (Jaime Ray Newman). She boasts about a review of his recent show and fawns over Tarrell’s unfinished works, against the artist’s gentle protestations. She wonders if this portends a future exhibition, but Tarrell can’t think about that. He’s distracted by his anxiety about an upcoming trip back home.

Tarrell wants to move his mother Joyce (Ellis-Taylor) closer to where he, his wife Aisha (Andra Day) and their son Jermaine (Daniel Michael Barriere) live. Kaphar’s screenplay is spare and, in an attempt to enhance its surrealist bent and make the story more allegorical, the film avoids details we start to crave. We don’t know where Tarrell calls or called home, but we know he’s created a sanctuary to guard himself from memories of his violent childhood. He wants his mother to join him in this bubble, but from a phone call they have later that day, we can tell she is reluctant. 

The paintings Tarrell has been working on — snapshots of boys trying to jump a fence, scenes of someone mowing a lawn — are pulled from his nightmares. They help the tortured artist cope. Later, as he drives around his hometown heading toward his mother’s house, we recognize the wood-paneled exteriors and brick foundations. The town feels uncanny and Tarrell experiences it in an almost fugue state. Brief apparitions follow especially charged encounters. There are minor continuity issues when the film adheres to the fragmented structure of memory, particularly in the scenes stitched together to reveal the full context of Tarrell’s nightmare. 

But there are more strengths than weaknesses in Exhibiting Forgiveness, especially when it comes to the performances, which hook us to the emotional grooves of Tarrell’s family. Holland has a gentle disposition, defined by toothy grins and concentrated gazes that make even the shameless bashful. Moonlight introduced many of us to his talents. In Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning coming-of-age story, he brings an electric, bordering on erotic, edge to his portrayal of Kevin, Chiron’s first love. The intimacy of the pair’s reunions is in Holland’s charged expressions: the furrowed brows as he carefully plates a meal; the wide eyes after cracking a joke; the coy smile bookending a knowing stare. 

We saw Holland again in The Knick, a short-lived show in which he played a chronically underestimated doctor with grace. He returned to the big screen with High Flying Bird, which found him assuming the role of a coarse and fast-talking sports agent, and switched it up in Passing as a demure and too-easily mystified spouse.

In Exhibiting Forgiveness, Holland expands on the qualities he brought to Kevin in Moonlight. Tarrell is determined to raise his son more softly. He doesn’t want to steel Jermaine against the world, like his own father did to him. Kaphar includes many scenes between Tarrell and Jermaine, loving moments in which the father makes breakfast for his son or teaches the kid how to self-soothe through breathing exercises. The contrast between these interactions and later ones between Tarrell and La’Ron is stark. Holland’s paternal decency hardens into a studied politeness. His expressions — eyes devoid of kindness, lips pursed as he considers not just what he will say to his father but how — tell a parallel story of a hurting inner child. 

Kaphar and his cinematographer Lachlan Milne’s (Minari) choice to lean into meditative close-ups lends Exhibiting Forgiveness a quiet intimacy and invites an appreciation for the subtleties in Holland’s performance. When Tarrell interviews his father — a disastrous attempt to fast-track whatever his mother hopes will happen — the painfulness of the experience comes from the way Holland rounds his shoulders, avoids the older man’s gaze and twists his mouth to signal impatience. 

Kaphar’s compositions can be breathtaking. The director likes to highlight the most delicate parts of his scenes. Take, for example, when Tarrell and his mother argue about the Bible while watching a pickup game at the park. Kaphar, at first, takes a wide view of the concrete court populated by Black men. Then, he moves in and slows down, focusing on a moment when the hands of two players cross, for a second looking like they are clasped. How often do we see representations of this kind of intimacy?

Exhibiting Forgiveness is preoccupied by questions of love and attachment, and there’s pleasure in witnessing Kaphar’s exploration, even when it stumbles. The director opens the film with a quote from James Baldwin, a consummate advocate for love and expert in strained paternal relations. It’s about how the ties between fathers and sons extend beyond the biological. But as I revisited Baldwin’s words in “The Devil Finds Work,” I couldn’t help but sense a connection to Kaphar’s film in another quote. “He formed me, and he raised me, and he did not let me starve,” Baldwin writes of his own father, with whom he had a frightening relationship, “and he gave me something, however harshly, and however little I wanted it, which prepared me for an impending horror which he could not prevent.”

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