History is not my best subject. I hated it in school. In fact, I got in trouble a lot for goofing off and making fun of history. It was also so stuffy and boring and just uninteresting to me. As I’ve gotten older, and now that I have children (who I also home school), history has come back to haunt me. It has become this thorn in my side, as I attempt to try and teach something I’m having to learn myself.
Pay attention in school kids!
Anyways, there is some history that we aren’t taught, sadly, and in films like ‘The Retrieval’, we are given a chance to learn something we may have completely taken for granted. Slavery isn’t an unfamiliar subject, not in the least, and film tends to attempt to depict it in various forms time after time, but some aspects of slavery, the grittier, more awful aspects, are often avoided. Most films on the subject focus on the liberation of slavery; the eventual abolishment or the fight for freedom, but rarely does a film dwell within the realm of slavery and stay there.
In Chris Eska’s ‘The Retrieval’, there is no liberation, there is no light at the end of the tunnel, there is just that looming feeling of inevitable injustice.
‘The Retrieval’ takes place during the Civil War and centers on a young black boy working alongside his uncle for a group of white bounty hunters, earning the trust of runaway slaves and then turning them in for money. Will is thirteen and still developing a conscience, while his uncle, Marcus, has already lost his. Marcus and Will are tasked with their largest assignment, and most profitable, when they are asked to find a man named Nate and bring him back to their boss. Things are different this time, though, and when Will discovers that Nate is not a runaway slave, but actually a free man, his conscience starts to rattle him. Once Marcus is out of the picture, and the boy finds himself escorting Nate into dangerous hands (after earning his trust, based on a lie), he begins to battle his inner emotions and sense of morality as he bonds with the man.
Eska’s tale is a simple yet ambitious one, for it plunges us into a complex and controversial chapter of American history. It forces us to contemplate the actions of a confused young man, just trying to survive, and the moral dilemma he’s placed into. Slavery is such a disgusting stain on a history rich with stains, but this story focuses less on the white man’s part and more on the moral conundrum some black men and women were faced with.
He handles this subject with grace and clarity.
‘The Retrieval’ is a beautifully shot and constructed film, with some brilliant performances by the two leads. Ashton Sanders carries the weight of his youth and struggle so well, his eyes bleeding for some answers, and Tishuan Scott is a marvel as a man weighted down by his past and his decision to move forward, even though it caused him to lose everything. I was not all that taken by Keston John’s portrayal of Marcus, which felt clichéd and uninspired, but his presence is forgotten the moment he’s gone. The film is also stunning to look at, with such breathtaking scenery captured by Yasu Tanida.
If I were to fault the film anything, it would be that it tends to linger in moments, and while the film is only 92 minutes, there were many moments I felt could have been tightened to deliver a more impactful (overall) experience. In fact, I feel like all of the emotion and events captured could have been edited down to a short film and carried the same impact, maybe even more so, but that is just my personal opinion.
Still, ‘The Retrieval’ offers a look at a moment in American history we may have never given attention to, and because of that it deserves to be seen.
I give this a B+. A very strong and important film that deserves a wider audience, for sure.