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SBU Spring 2021 Film Series: Review of The Subject

The Subject, written by Chisa Hutchinson and directed by Lanie Zipoy, is not only an incredibly important film, but it is also an incredibly well-made film. The writing, craft, and symbolism of it are amazing. 

The Subject documents Phil as he causes his own downfall. The audience is initially led to believe that “the subject” refers to the people who Phil follows while making his documentary, but Phil is the real “subject,” since the movie documents his life for the audience of The Subject. 

Color in the movie, specifically green and red, helps drive the commentary it makes about race relations and the fragility of the white male forward. The color green is included in most of the shots in the film, and Phil often wears green himself, which is symbolic of the green lights, which Merriam-Webster defines as the “authority or permission to proceed,” he often receives in his life due to the privilege he has because he walks through life as a white male. He even gives himself many green lights out of selfishness, and his concern for others stops where he ends, which is where the color red comes into play. His disregard for others is symbolized by the color red, as Malcolm, a documentary “subject” of his, Jess, his girlfriend, Marley, his publicist, and Leslie, Malcolm’s mom, all wear red in the film. In one way or another, Phil shows them blatant disrespect via his own selfishness. Similarly, the parts of the film that incorporate a mixture of green and red reflect a still self-centered Phil, despite his attempts at trying to mask his selfishness as genuine care. In this way, green in the film can represent what Phil cares about, and red can represent those he selfishly disrespects.

The Subject also uses the loaded language of “shooting” as a double entendre throughout the film, as “shooting” can mean shooting someone with a gun or shooting a scene with a camera. The usage of “shooting” culminates in the last scene of the movie, which is the scene where Phil’s downfall really affects him. Phil’s downfall affects those around him negatively until he can no longer avoid the repercussions of his actions and is forced to face the damage he has created and the person he has become. Such is the commentary the film makes on male white privilege: a white male can exploit those around him for his own personal gain and ignore the consequences his actions have on others while reaping the benefits from those actions. 

Although The Subject is not marketed as a horror movie, it truly is one. It uses multiple genre conventions of the horror film, and its sociopolitical commentary is horrific because it reflects actual race relations in America. Some of the horror genre conventions the film incorporates are a low angle slow zoom on Phil’s house accompanied by anxiety-inspiring music, frequent usage of said anxiety-inspiring music, and several slow zooms and slow dolly shots. These effects all combine to form a sense of impending doom, which is a genre convention of horror. I found myself afraid that something bad would suddenly happen several times such that I covered my eyes in fear of what would happen next. In this way, incorporating the genre conventions of horror into this film accentuate the sociopolitical commentary on the white male, how terrifying he can be through his exploitation, and how terrifying it is that society can enable him to be so exploitative.

At its core, The Subject asks the question: who gets to tell whose story? Phil is a white male documentarian who makes documentaries about people of color and their lives. At one point in the film, one of Phil’s “subjects,” Malcolm, a Black teenage boy, asks Phil to teach him how to make movies, tell stories, and create art. Phil insists that he can’t because it simply doesn’t work that way, as Phil studied extensively and paid a lot of money for his knowledge of art and felt as though he could not pass that knowledge along. Phil says this while making money off of documenting Malcolm’s life. Who gets to tell Malcolm’s story? Phil does because Phil said so. In this way, the film suggests that Phil is a symbol for the white patriarchal parts of society that seek to oppress people of color and do not want their stories told unless the white patriarchal parts of society are the ones benefiting from it.

The Subject does a fantastic job at using the craft of film to accentuate its commentary on and criticism of race relations in America, representation, and storytelling as a whole. I could gladly go on about how incredible The Subject was, but I recommend that you just go watch it to find out how amazing it is for yourself.

Lauren Taglienti is a writer of short stories, essays, articles, novels, and plays whose work has appeared in numerous publications. She is studying English and creative writing at Stony Brook University and interns for bestselling author and filmmaker Adriana Trigiani. Lauren is an open book who thrives when she is vulnerable because that is how she conquers her fears and connects with people. Her passions include health, wellness, self-improvement, being creative, helping others, and spreading the messages of empathy and kindness.
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