On now at London Film Festival, and coming to MUBI online soon, Steve Taylor-Bryant watched the short film Play it Safe...
I am not sure any short I have seen at festival has been as relevant as Play it Safe seems in today’s world. As a white, middle aged, male film reviewer I can tell you it is uncomfortable to watch, as it should be, as it needs to be to impact the people, I presume, it is aimed at. The spotlight rightly falls on Jonathan Ajayi, an actor in a college group who wants to fit in. As the short film progresses you see Jonathan becoming more uncomfortable with the prejudice he is facing, but where Play it Safe stands above other films about racism, again for me as a white man, is that it isn’t about the blatant racism that any right minded individual would find abhorrent. Instead it is the casualness of comments not meant with any hatred, the presumption that, because of skin colour, certain things would be okay and that the white members of the group do not even know that what they are saying or doing is very wrong and that Jonathan is uncomfortable. When the role of a street thug is written for Jonathan in the class play you can clearly see that the others in the group have no clue whatsoever that, by pushing Jonathan for the role, they are pushing a stereotype. When the group all have to pick a card with an animal on it and act like the creature as an exercise is when things dawn on the group as Jonathan pulls the Ape card and proceeds to act as the card demands.
I would love to tell you how Jonathan Ajayi did in this uncomfortable and often terrifying moment but the filmmaker, writer and director Mitch Kalisa, chose to blur out any time Jonathan passed the camera and instead concentrated on the white classmates and white teacher as the unconscious mistreatment of their fellow student rapidly dawned upon them. Add in the Scatman Crothers song playing over the end credits and what you get with Play it Safe is something that isn’t playing it safe at all. It is an "in your face" attempt to wake you up to the consequences of a type of racism that isn’t discussed often and seems more prevalent to me after watching the film than it did before. Play it Safe is a challenging watch, a viewing that made me extremely uncomfortable despite thinking beforehand that I was a pretty liberal and decent guy, and I film that definitely needs a larger audience. It is probably one of the most culturally important films I have watched, a film I think everyone should see, a film that should be shown in schools and workplaces throughout the land.
Play it Safe is a visceral, aesthetically and emotionally challenging film with a top drawer performance and a lasting impact.
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Image - courtesy Mitch Kalisa