“You Can’t Hear Me” is a spoken word film directed by Chris Folkens, and written by and starring Malcom-Jamal Warner (“The Cosby Show”), Chris Wood, and David Bianchi. The film, powerfully spoken and wonderfully scored, is both a call to arms to look around us in an America that is in a variety of ways crumbling apart, and an anthem urging a sense of togetherness and unity. The film, at only 5 minutes and 45 seconds in length, accomplishes a powerfulness of impact often reserved for full length films, and at the same time imbues all the emotions of its message in totality, leaving nothing to the wayside.
There is no plot here, but only three voices in poetic rhythm screaming into the night, begging to be heard, the shadowed visage of a lady bearing a sword and the Scales of Justice haunting the background. Spoken word – in this film poetry – is the right vehicle for this film, and Folkens knows what he’s doing with both the actors and the material, and makes no missteps here.
Cinematically, the three figures speak – or rather emphatically shout – one at a time, urging to be heard, the film showing us through stark symbolism that, sadly, they are not. Cinematographer Juan Esco moves the vision along in moving ways; each character sits on a cinderblock, hands tied, blindfolded, his blindfold lifted only for a moment as he speaks, to be replaced again when the camera cuts to another member. The message is clear – we only feel free when we feel we are being heard, and blind, deaf, and dumb when we are not. All along, Lady Justice (Angelica Chitwood) moves through the background, urging us to listen. In line with the actors’ pleas for solidarity, it’s a starkly beautiful picture.
The material is familiar, and there’s really no mistaking the writers’ nor the director’s intentions, nor the message they seek to portray. It’s modern America, Trump’s America, Folkens wishes to comment on, his film a subtextual kaleidoscope of headlines Americans wake up to on a daily basis. Deportations, wrongful deaths and arrests; racism, misogyny, and apathy towards these events highlight the film’s aim and scope. And while all the actors do a sterling job, Malcom-Jamal Warner’s face at the opening says it all: pain, tears, frustration and a glimmer of hope behind it all that he can still be heard.
The film is helped further by its unique filming style, three actors blindfold in a darkened room with only a single shining lightbulb swinging slowly above them. They sit, facing each other, screaming into the direction of one another, no single one knowing the race, creed, or religion of the other. Through their anger and fear they are one, all sharing the common bond of needing something, begging and pleading for it without expectation that they will ever receive it.
“You Can’t Hear Me,” like the poem it imitates, progresses. I said earlier the film has no plot, but that’s not the total truth. The film does progress, through vocals and emotions, and ends in a tangible, believable way. But the ending is something I will not talk about here. It’s worth the journey to get there because you actually feel what the actors are feeling, not just the emotion, but the pain that hides under that emotion. Folkens, directing three capable writers and actors takes an elusive concept and forms it into an arm you can reach out and grasp. And as the film concludes, and these three characters fade from our memory, the haunting score continues, the images stay with us, and we are left with the distinct impression we felt something.
“You Can’t Hear Me” will certainly not be for everyone. Those who feel society’s loosening coil and pain of division will feel it most starkly. But, with the film’s clear themes of racism, injustice, and division, I feel it’s important to state that this is not a racial film. It’s not a film meant to divide but to unite; not to listen but to hear. Folkens, Bianchi, Woods, and Jamal Warner give us a lesson on awareness and humility. By the end we have a markedly better idea of what these things mean. And for a film that’s not even six minutes long, that’s a wonderful accomplishment.
– by Mark Ziobro