By Elias Savada.
Harold Jackson III is a very focused, and quite talented, individual. He does just about everything in Unarmed Man, his latest feature: executive producer, producer, director, writer, director of photography. He handles all chores well, as he has done for most of his career as a DC-based filmmaker, including for the underappreciated Last Night (2014) (available on Amazon Prime), an entertaining, well-written study of awkward, romantic relationships. That film, which focused primarily on an interracial pairing over the course of a single day, features Danny Gavigan and Judi Blair, who are also prominent in Jackson’s ensemble-driven short Under the Bourbon Moon, made in 2013. If you look at his output, you’ll see actors moving in an out of his projects, obviously accustomed to his skills behind the camera.
Jackson’s films tend to examine people at a particular emotional or philosophical crossroad in their lives, and Unarmed Man is no exception. The film tackles a very real subject, the shooting of an weaponless black man by a white cop during a seemingly routine traffic stop. Gavigan tackles a much darker role here, as Officer Greg Yelich, a D.C. patrol cop who has pumped five bullets into a person he believed was a robbery suspect. The nation’s capital, on edge from this latest case of suspected racial profiling (as well as Trump in the White House), finds the local blue bloods sticking together. “Stick to the script,” one of Yelich’s black colleagues suggests. Special Agent Aaron Williamson (Shaun Woodland), working for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA, an actual entity, albeit only in Minnesota), heads the one-on-one investigation. Their meeting, which covers much of the 72-minute film, is a cautious interplay, with each man seeking out the cause of the shooting, revealing the social and cultural perceptions that created the unfortunate situation. Jackson’s dialogue is very realistic (as it was in Last Night) and is one of the most appealing aspects of the film. Gavigan and Woodland arm their characters with a wide range of emotional insecurities. Subtle chit chat one moment, angry accusations the next, their delivery provides a convincing tone to the seriousness of the issue.
Jackson’s direction offers intelligent touches to notch up the tension when needed – quicker edits, closer shots, carefully orchestrated dialogue delivery, the use of longer lenses as the film progresses, creating a sense of claustrophobia in the room where Williamson questions Yelick. He wisely limits the expected news coverage footage that showcase the bereaved girlfriend of the victim and cellphone footage taken moments after the shooting, putting the veracity of the authority’s story in doubt. Jackson peppers his film with moments that conflict with either side’s changing statements and wavering testimony about “the incident.”
Jackson recreates the officer’s account, with some interesting visual tricks, and strategically pokes holes in his story via the requisite questioning from the frustrated Williamson. Yelich’s memory becomes increasingly spotty. A “procedural issue” throws the officer’s original testimony into question, but it continues on a cordial but testy basis. The spin? It’s the suited white-collar black agent vs. the blue-collar white street cop in the hoodie. What does Unarmed Man want its audience to take away from this ripped-from-the-headlines examination of the racial divide in our country? That now, more than ever, is time to repair a fractured country. As the arguments from both sides fly during the last third of this film, it becomes all too obvious that something’s not right in Greg’s story. In White America’s story.
An increasingly somber score by Eric Terrell, used sparingly, is quite effective. Jackson uses DC’s iconic landscape carefully – particularly the backside of the Watergate complex, where the downfall of President Richard Nixon began with a celebrated break-in many decades ago. On the quite banks of the Potomac River after Greg finishes his grueling video statement, it seems that another, less celebrated American is about to suffer his own humiliating defeat.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).