★★★★★

A visionary crossover of the theatrical and the cinematic, ear for eye demonstrates writer-director debbie tucker green’s remarkable creative versatility and clarity of expression. Hitting the big screens of the London Film Festival and small screens of the BBC simultaneously, this fervent, eloquent work articulates the shared experiences and personal history of Black characters on both sides of the Atlantic.

Updated and re-imagined from her acclaimed 2018 stage production of the same name, green’s second feature (after 2014’s Second Coming) opens with music that starts, pauses, a record skipping into movement. The percussive beat and power of the spoken word then kicks into gear and barely lets up for a moment in part one of this tripartite film. Admittedly, it does take a moment to adjust our eyes and ears to the rhythm, rhyme, harmony and disharmony of what we are seeing and hearing. Pay attention, it says. The same message is being passed from parents (Sharlene Whyte and David Gyasi) to their son (Hayden McLean). How will the way he dresses, his mannerisms, the way he walks or talks, be interpreted by the police? There are no easy answers.

An older lady (Carmen Munroe) brings her perspective from “before.” Seasons change as autumn leaves turn to snow falling from above, but has anything else? Her repetitive rhetoric echoes and replays in the past and present tense to suggest that the answer is no. Seated in the round in a darkened stage space, a kind of chorus – of predominantly younger individuals – watches on, as we watch on, listening intently, learning from their elder. Sat on a stoop in the amber light of early evening, two men (Tosin Cole and Danny Sapani, both British actors playing American roles) argue the differences between progress and change. How long does one or the other take, and by what means must they be achieved?  

Does being at the front of a protest, in the face of your oppressor, mean you truly experience and contribute to a demonstration? Or if you stand further back – whether literally or metaphorically – does this distance allow you to see the bigger picture? This notion is echoed in parallel conversations in the UK and US and the same occurs for a woman (Rochelle Rose) and man (Arinzé Kene) wrongfully stopped, searched and humiliated by the police. These are not isolated incidents, this is structural, systemic, global. Again, there are no easy answers. And as for the film, this review will throw up more questions than it does resolutions, and that is the point.

ear for eye is a continuation of long-standing debates, the next step in a long chain of change. Each of the various monologues – visceral, delivered with venomous passion – feels organic, spontaneous, and real credit must go to every single one of the actors involved. Though these conversations may be disparate, they flow to and fro across the Atlantic, overlap and exchange in our mind as we return to them for developments and continuations of thought. Similarly, the three parts of ear for eye, which are distinct from one another, carry interlinking themes and thought processes forward. In the second, Lashana Lynch (a student) clashes with her arrogant, abrasive lecturer, played by Demetri Goritsas. Their ever-increasingly fiery exchange draws out long-standing hypocrisies and double standards. Audio and image frequently fractured, the camera, too, plays a greater role here, picking up on expression and gesture, twitches, nervous smiles and anger in eyes that would perhaps be missed in a stage production.

The final segment of the film is its most haunting, in which segregation laws from the Southern States and Slave Code from the West Indies are read aloud with cold, brutal neutrality. It is a chilling final barrage, which echoes in the present from many hundreds of years ago. However, it again exhibits that no matter the medium or the means, with the material at her disposal debbie tucker green’s clear-sighted, articulate and forceful messaging will hit you like a ton of bricks. This is a film in which the spoken word and saying what you truly mean is of the utmost significance, and ear for eye left me stunned, speechless.

Visit the BFI London Film Festival page to delve deeper into the wealth of films on show this year.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63