Sundance Review: ‘Exhibiting Forgiveness’

André Holland Tries To Break The Cycle Of Generational Trauma In Titus Kaphar's Remarkable Father-Son Drama

The movies misunderstand forgiveness all of the time. It’s intentional on Hollywood’s part. To achieve the proper happy ending, forgiveness needs to be earned and absolute. But that’s not reality. In real life, forgiveness is messy, and complicated, and rarely ends with two people walking off happily into the sunset, the past erased from history. Artist Titus Kaphar’s feature directing debut, the remarkable Exhibiting Forgiveness, understands how complicated it truly can be as he explores generational trauma and forgiveness between a son and his estranged father.

Pulling from his own troubled relationship with his father, Kaphar crafts a film that is, let’s be honest, a really tough watch. And I mean that in the best possible sense. This is a movie that pulls no punches emotionally, and it will be triggering for a lot of people, myself included. There are lines of dialogue in this movie that are nearly identical to things I have said to people in my own family seeking to get back into my good graces. Suffice it to say, Exhibiting Forgiveness is a masterclass in authenticity and people should be prepared to go through some shit while watching it. In the press & industry screening I attended, some clearly weren’t ready, and fled when it became too much.

The wonderful André Holland plays Tarrell, an artist plagued by memories of abuses suffered at the hands of his crack-addicted father, La’Ron (John Earl Jelks, a revelation). These memories manifest themselves as night terrors, which frighten his singer-songwriter wife Aisha (Andra Day) and their young son. He channels much of his anger and pain into a his paintings, attempting to heal those wounds on canvas. But it isn’t enough; even with all of this success, Tarrell can’t move forward from the past. It just keeps dragging him down.

And then there’s Tarrell’s mother, Joyce, played by the great Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. Joyce is supposed to be moving from the home she’s always known and in with her son’s family, but she’s reluctant. She doesn’t see the past the same way she does, choosing to remember the good times rather than focusing solely on the trauma. This is something Tarrell simply can’t understand.

When La’Ron reenters their lives after a violent incident nearly gets him killed, Tarrell and Joyce are at odds over how to respond. Clean and sober now for the first time in a long time, La’Ron wants to try and make amends, but Tarrell can’t see past the man his father was, and for good reason. Both La’Ron and Joyce are people of deep faith. Joyce uses it to explain her forgiveness of the man she once loved and perhaps still does. But La’Ron uses it to ease his own tortured soul, and proving that he is still just as selfish as he used to be, he continues to try and defend his past actions. We see some of it flashback, when La’Ron would work a young Tarrell (played by Ian Foreman) to the bone, all day without breaks, injuries be damned. And then use the money for his next score.

Kaphar passes no judgments on La’Ron, either, when it would be so easy to do it. La’Ron was raised by a father, another man of faith, who showed his love through brutality. And La’Ron thinks that because he worked hard all of his life, it must’ve worked. He acknowledges that drugs ruined his relationship to his wife and son, but watching Tarrell succeed has made him think the harsh treatment was worth it and obviously effective. Tarrell is understandably livid at this notion, having grown up in a state of fear, having watched his mother be abused physically at this man’s hands. The deep-rooted fear within Tarrell is that he might pass this legacy of abuse on to his son, and he has made it his mission to never be the same as La’Ron.

There are no easy answers here that Kaphar provides. For a first-time filmmaker and one with an artist background, Kaphar’s film is simply constructed and graceful, allowing the wealth of talented actors to fully embrace their roles. Especially here at Sundance, numerous movies find the filmmaker relieving their burdens through storytelling, but they all start to look and feel the same. Exhibiting Forgiveness feels like a story that only Kaphar could tell with this kind of specificity. This is a film that comes from someone who understands that forgiveness is rarely about the person asking for it.



Exhibiting Forgiveness
Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
sundance-review-exhibiting-forgivenessThe movies misunderstand forgiveness all of the time. It's intentional on Hollywood's part. To achieve the proper happy ending, forgiveness needs to be earned and absolute. But that's not reality. In real life, forgiveness is messy, and complicated, and rarely ends with two people...