“You were just watching a person kill someone for eight minutes as they begged for their life, and that was just different, man,” the writer/director Travon Free says as he thinks back to the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Derek Chauvin, a white cop, in Minneapolis, Minn., which sparked nationwide protests against police brutality. “As I internalized it over those first couple of weeks after it happened, the idea for the movie came.”
The movie in question is Two Distant Strangers, a 29-minute drama written by Free and directed by him and Martin Desmond Roe, which is now nominated for the best live-action short Oscar. It powerfully uses the storytelling device of Groundhog Day to tell the story of a young Black man (actor/rapper Joey Bada$$) trying to get home to his dog after a one-night-stand, only to encounter a form of police brutality that results in his death, which sparks the cycle anew.
Each instance of police brutality in the film is modeled after a real instance of it in 21st century America, serving as a powerful reminder of just how many young Black men and women have lost their lives at the hands of police in recent years. Indeed, Academy members are filling out their Oscar ballots just days after the defense rested in the Chauvin trial; the shooting of a young Black man, Daunte Wright, by a white cop who says she meant to tase him, just a few miles away in Brooklyn Center, Minn.; and as people are trying to get to the bottom of what led a white cop to shoot and kill a Latino 13-year-old, Adam Toledo, in Chicago.
Free, an Emmy-winning writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and Roe, who previously wrote the Oscar-nominated 2012 short Buzkashi Boys, were collaborating on a romantic comedy when Floyd was killed. They quickly put those plans on hold and, over five days in July, Free wrote the 30-page script that would become Two Distant Strangers. “We just shifted gears that day,” Roe, a Brit, recalls. “For me, it was a relief almost, because everyone was searching around for meaning in that period, and Travon handed it to me on a plate. I had my purpose delivered: I have to help him make this film right now.” He adds, “We knew it had to be now — and that was the depths of the pandemic.”
With the support of Free’s friends Lawrence Bender, the producer of Pulp Fiction, and Jesse Williams, the actor/activist perhaps best known for Grey’s Anatomy, among others, the production of the film got underway in September and was completed in just five days. “We were shooting the film with maybe half the money that we needed, and hoping that it would work itself out along the way,” Free notes. That it did, and just six months later the film — which also stars Free’s girlfriend, the actress Zaria Simone — received an Oscar nomination.
“This whole process for me has been an incredible eye-opening journey into the experience of what it is to be Black in America,” acknowledges Roe. Adds Free, who has been running the writers room of one TV show and writing another while simultaneously navigating a virtual awards season, “It’s been really great to see the response to this film, no matter what color the person is.”