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Sundance Review : Exhibiting Forgiveness



Author, painter, and filmmaker Titus Kaphar makes his feature-directing debut in Exhibiting Forgiveness. Kaphar also pens the film's screenplay, which is a semi-autobiographical tale. Tarrell (Andre Holland) is a successful painter married to songbird Aisha (Andra Day) and raising their young son Jermaine (Daniel Michael Barriere). Highly devoted to his mother, Joyce (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), Tarrell is elated that she will soon move in with his family.


On a trip to pick her up, Tarrell discovers that Joyce has made contact with his estranged father, La'Ron (John Earl Jelks), a recovering addict. When La'Ron pays an unexpected visit to Joyce's house, it puts Tarrell in a negative head space and threatens to derail his success as an artist and a man. Over the course of the film, the father and son hope to overcome the struggle of stubbornness and learn that forgetting might be a more significant challenge than forgiving.


Titus Kaphar, a renowned painter, uses formal innovations in his paintings, sculptures, and installations to examine the history of representation. He aims to reveal the relevance of history today by dislodging it from its status as the "past." His artworks highlight the physical and dimensional nature of the canvas and materials. He achieves this by cutting, crumpling, shrouding, shredding, stitching, tarring, twisting, binding, erasing, breaking, tearing, and turning them. By reconfiguring these materials, he uncovers unspoken truths about history.


Hitting play on his debut feature film, I was elated to discover that he carries this same aesthetic from his painting to  Exhibiting Forgiveness. One of the first that caught my attention in the film was the introduction of La'ron as a broken man. Through minimal dialogue, John Earl Jelks portrays a fractured man whose sins have manifested in his son as an adult. When we first meet Tarrell, it's amid a nightmare. Holland, who has been vastly underrated for years, finally gets a chance to shine and more than brings his A game.


The director portrays Tarell as an individual who understands the necessity of balance and fairness in his life despite his agent's aggressive push for more. The subtle undertones reaffirm that his wife graciously paused her singing career to support him in chasing his dreams. It quickly becomes apparent that he values spending time with his family and allows his son to have a normal childhood, something he didn't have with his own father.


The cast shines throughout the film, with every one delivering a masterclass. While she has a small role, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor continues to validate that she's one of the best actresses working today, and Andra Day fulfills the promise she showed in the Billie Holiday biopic. At its core, the film belongs to Andre Holland and John Earl Jelks.


We learn when the two fell out during the film's third act. The most honest thing about the film is that Kaphar refuses to hint that Tarrell is beginning to absolve his father. As he delves deeper into his father's history, comprehension emerges, but it is bordering on the unattainable for us to obliterate a deep-seated trauma from our past.


I have the utmost respect for Kaphar for taking this route. Growing up without my father and not speaking with him when he passed away, I appreciate Kaphar's decision to reveal a brutally realistic view of life's repercussions instead of presenting a fairy tale resolution. 


Exhibiting Forgiveness is currently seeking distribution.


Final Grade: B+

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