It takes a special strength to laugh at pain. To sport a Sambo smile, loud and hollow, as a person burdened by stress and fear begins to crumble right before your eyes.
But, I’m skipping to the end of the movie here. Let me start at the beginning.
The 19th annual ImageNation Outdoors Festival, under the NYC Movies Under the Stars series in St. Nicholas Park in Manhattan, premiered Tony award-winning actress Tonya Pinkins’ “Red Pill,” a dystopian nightmare about white supremacy, on Friday the 13th.
Pinkins is an avid horror fan, and after being shot down by several investors, she essentially funded most of the production herself. ImageNation works to support women of color filmmakers, especially in genres such as horror where they scarcely are recognized.
The premise of the movie finds six diverse friends who are progressive canvassers in a rented house deep in “Red” country during the Halloween weekend of the 2020 election. And yes, I will go ahead and point out the red for Trumpian or Republican theme throughout the movie is certainly on the nose.
Pinkins plays the main character, Cassandra, with her boyfriend Bobby, played by Adesola Osakalumi. They accompany their friends, the buddhist Lily, played by Kathryn Erbe, battle-worn Serbian Amelia played by Luba Mason, Rubén Blades as Rocky, and the fun loving Nick, played by Jake O’Flaherty.
The opening features a pregnant and screaming Black woman surrogate, surrounded by white members of an unidentified party, as she gives birth to a white child and is branded in a heavily surveilled house.
The startling beginning then cuts to sweeping shots of saturated and colorful woods in the fall while the group of unsuspecting friends can be heard talking in the car ride up to their quintessential horror trope destination of a cabin, similar to the one the woman was in.
The voiceovers and light-heartedness undercut with impending doom are reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s infamous “Evil Dead,” a campy indie horror film with a severely small budget made in 1981 that’s since become a cult classic.
“When I made ‘Red Pill,’ I knew I was making a movie for us, for us global majority people, particularly women. And so, I was pretty clear that, you know, the values I was espousing, was not going to be mainstream,” said Pinkins at the outside premiere.
The indie film labored on topics such as politics and race while hitting the audience with themes of ritualism, cult-like conspiracy, immigration, assimilation, rape, white supremacy, slavery, death, feminism, and sociopathy lurking in the vivid reds and greens of the Virginian countryside.
The ineffable Catherine Curtin (“Orange Is the New Black,” “Stranger Things”) plays the animalistic cult/campaign leader who kills ruthlessly, referred to as the Red Pill creature in the film. The term “red pill,” in addition to being a “Matrix” reference to a person’s willingness to learn the truth, also refers to a sleeper cell agent of sorts among the friends.
“The film is very difficult, it speaks to where we are right now. And it’s very unflinching. Truth is stranger than fiction, and it was a great act of courage and bravery and the indomitable spirit of its creator to make this happen,” said Curtin.
Tension builds as friends start to disappear. Cassie, being the only Black woman, starts to notice something isn’t right.
“I feel like as a Black woman, our survival depends on being aware of what is really going on. We can’t afford to be delusional,” said Pinkins about the writing process.
Many at the screening said that they identified with Pinkins’ character feeling unheard. “It’s true and we need to have our perspectives honored,” said Shamika Cotton.
Shot by cinematographer John Hudak Jr., “Red Pill” is a visual and campy metaphor for exactly what the ‘Great Fall of 2020’ became, which is pretty astounding in concept alone since the entire project was written, shot, directed, and cut a year earlier in 2019, said Pinkins.
Astounding, and rightly creepy.
“And so in 2016, I was very clear who was going to win and whenever I spoke it people treated me with contempt and so when I had a sense of how 2020 was going to go, I didn’t bother to tell anybody. I said let me make a movie and people can say it’s far-fetched,” said Pinkins.
Pinkins said she’s hypercritical of both political parties and doesn’t appreciate America’s refusal to look at the legacy of white supremacy in the founding of the country.
Cassie’s friends are eventually picked off one by one, starting with the characters of color and any perceived allies to them. She valiantly tries to fight but is eventually beaten and dragged into modern day slavery where she is made to confront the betrayal of her friends at a “Make America White Again” campaign party. In shackles, on the floor, and laughing, the movie ends with Cassie clearly in emotional distress.
Pinkins and Osakalumi said that it is the kind of hysterical pain that saves from the surrealness and oppression of being Black in America. It’s the built-up tolerance that morphs into strength or, in an ancestor’s wildest dream, hope, they said, because even though the Black characters are in bondage, they are not dead.
“I think a great part of being an artist is not being afraid to express yourself,” said Osakalumi. “The time period the movie’s set in and we shot in, it was a space in the world where a lot of things people wanted to say they didn’t feel comfortable saying.”
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w