debbie tucker green’s ear for eye moves from the stage to the screen and retains its fierce voice through its rightly uncomfortable look at racism in the UK and the US.
It can be difficult to put words behind a piece of work as powerful as ear to eye. debbie tucker green’s – who spells her name and much of her work in lower-case – latest isn’t simply here to stir up emotions, rather, it’s a loud and important call for real change in terms of how Black people are treated in Britain and America. Works of art such as ear for eye are ones which should truly influence society, rather than merely provoke a superficial audience reaction. In order to bring the themes of racism to wider audiences, tucker green bravely takes her successful 2018 play into the filmic medium, and to great effect, further enhancing her already urgent and blistering piece of work.
ear for eye is split into three distinct parts: the first is a host of scenes with recurring characters, who discuss with one another and monologue about their experiences as a Black person in Britain and America. A father, once involved in the civil rights movement, talks to his son, who is urgently and passionately seeking change in the present, whilst two young women discuss their differing involvement in protests, right down to the hashtags on one of their denim jackets. The scenes are engaging in terms of their dialogue, which clearly leans into its stage play origins, and the minimal production design – the black backdrop is punctuated by stripped back lighting and infrequent but effective effects such as leaves or snow falling – keeps the focus on the characters and words. tucker green does just about enough to distinguish ear for eye from its stage origins but even when it falters and jars in its filmic form, there’s still an unflinchingly brave commitment to the stories being told.
The ensemble cast are terrific – Tosin Cole (Stars Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) in particular shines in Part One and again in the concluding scene – but the true standout is Lashana Lynch (Captain Marvel, No Time To Die). Along with Demetri Goritsas (Black Mirror, Everest) – notably the only white person in these first two parts – she has the most to work with out of anyone, with the two actors sparring and locking horns in the riveting second part of ear for eye. Lynch plays the undermined woman brilliantly, constantly being interrupted by Goritsas and told she is wrong, her hands locked in permanent fidget to showcase her anxiety. Lynch gives her character a steely determination amidst all the rebuttals and putdowns. Part Two is an uncomfortable showcase of both white and male dominance, with a blunt realism laying the problems of societies around the world bare for all to see.
ear for eye is strikingly relevant, perhaps most obviously in two scenes which involve a young man talking to his parents, who order him how to stand, where to look, where to put his hands, and so on, in order to try and avoid attention or trouble from police. There is an uncomfortable and deliberate frustration to both scenes: that is, whatever the son does, the parents tell him how that action will be interpreted badly by officers. If he stands with his hands by his side, then he is giving them attitude. If he looks away and stays silent, he is hiding something. It’s a tortuous look at the daily life of so many Black people, where doing nothing can somehow be interpreted as doing everything by a body of law which should be there to protect people.
It is understandable why tucker green has brought her successful play of the same name to the screen (both big and small), but the transition isn’t always seamless. ear for eye feels like a theatre performance being filmed at times, as opposed to something created fresh from the same material. tucker green keeps things basic, for the most part, and perhaps anything flashier or filmic would detract from the strong themes. Ultimately, ear for eye is based more around its text than anything else, and perhaps simply staging the play again from 2018 and filming these performances – with no hints or attempts at creating a film – would have been a more fluid way to bring these stories to a wider audience.
Perhaps the hardest and most uncomfortable part, for a white person at least, is the third and final one. White people of all ages – filmed in black and white – sit and read slavery laws and other racial legislation from the 1800s and 1900s. It’s the most stripped-back of the parts, with no camera movement and the people on screen not actors, just citizens reading short sentences. None of them were involved in these laws or perhaps even alive at the time of their enforcement, but the white guilt is staggering. tucker green implores white people to face their collective part in historical racism and how it has benefitted them and to recognise, as it still bleeds into today’s society, that discrimination based on race is something everyone must fight against. ear for eye does not preach or lecture; it speaks with hard facts only.
Either as a piece of theatre or a film, ear for eye’s power never falters. tucker green’s writing is nothing short of sensational, despite a few lapses into the melodramatic, and her racial, societal and political themes touch on the past and the present with a bravery rarely seen on screen. She touches less on the future because that is less clear, and there must be a hope and more importantly a significant effort from everyone in society for real change. ear for eye doesn’t hold our hands as it makes us face the tough history of humanity, the terrifying state of the present day or the uncertain future; instead, it quietly implores us, shows us, that the direction we are heading must alter, and alter now.
ear for eye premiered at the London Film Festival on 16-17 October, 2021.