Boiling Pot is a film that I don’t imagine a lot of people will see unless or until Omar (director) and Ibrahim (writer) Ashmawey go on to bigger and better things. If and when they do, though, it will be easy enough for future critics to see flashes of future success in it. While it is not as accomplished and polished as Do The Right Thing, The Sixth Sense, or Reservoir Dogs–films that announced the arrival of a major new talent–it is certainly good enough to land the Ashmaweys on my “keep an eye out for what they do next” list.
The film Boiling Pot most resembles, of course, is Crash, though it is stripped (seemingly deliberately) of Paul Haggis’s too-erudite dialog. Boiling Pot is to Haggis as Haggis is to Aaron Sorkin. I don’t mean that as a jab. One of the film’s theses appears to be that racism in the Millenial landscape is a bit more bald, a bit more blunt, and a lot more unapologetic.
The film is compromised of a series of vignettes meant to illustrate escalating racism in and around a college campus. These are loosely woven together by a frame story of a police investigation into a horrible crime that is only fully revealed at the end.
The campus setting allows the film to parrot a number of different cultural rhetorics, some more cynically than others. M. Emmet Walsh is presented as campus dean who dismisses concerns of African-American students with impotent liberal evasions about not judging people without evidence and creating safe zones for dialogue. In his portrayal as well as the depiction of John Heard’s character as a racist father interrogating his daughter’s fiancee, the film’s biggest weakness is revealed. While the cast is racially and enthically diverse and there is some depiction of conflict between African-Americans and other minorities, the degree of racism characters display is more or less correlated to skin color. While racism may be more prevalent among Caucasians, it’s not limited to them. When a female African-American student angrily responds to the dean by saying “you and I both know exactly what happened here,” I was surprised the film never circled back to examine the dangers of conflating reasonable suspicion with certainty. And while college campuses, with their commitment to free speech, may well embolden some racists to be more overt, cases like the Duke Lacrosse rape allegations and Rolling Stone‘s not properly fact-checked campus accusations about a UVA fraternity party should remind us of the risks of confirmation bias when dealing with “ripped from the headlines” type stories.
Also, as the film inches towards its conclusion, it cycles between so many points of view that it never fully establishes one of its own. If you’re on the wrong [side], then progress is one of the worst things to have. Racism is rooted in violence. Fear rules us all. You cannot separate peace from freedom. Statements are peppered at us constantly, but the film never develops these ideas. The slogans end up sounding like, well, slogans, and are thus the easier to dismiss as rhetorical moves in a socio-political dance rather than genuine expressions of personal feelings.
I’ll say, too, that one keynote speech by a white racist who denies that racism is learned (“…No one tells us to feel these ways…”) feels counter to my own experience and the film’s overall arc. Perhaps it is meant to be inaccurate, the position of a racist we instinctively see as false, but since the film doesn’t ever really interrogate any of its speeches, it’s hard to tell.
Despite these criticisms, I found it hard to dismiss the film entirely. It works surprisingly well on an emotive level, conveying the frustrations of everyday people who feel impotent to do anything about the problems they see around them. I also appreciated the way the film depicted the ease with which innocent or innocuous encounters can escalate quickly towards violence.
Boiling Pot will be available on VOD beginning September 29, 2015.