What is safety for black families in America?

Palpable tension permeates Nnamdi Asomugha’s unsettling feature debut The knife. This is evident in the opening sequence, in which Chris (Asomugha), a young black father, returns to his family after a long day at work. As he sneaks into his daughters’ room to say goodnight, the tension persists. He’s still there when he snuggles up next to his wife, Alex (How to escape murder And Chemistry lessons star Aja Naomi King), in bed.

The first disturbances – a knob turning, the creaking of a door – ease the tension a little. Chris, an intermittent insomniac, wakes from his sleep, grabs a pocket knife and goes downstairs to investigate the noise. In the kitchen, he meets an old white woman who is rummaging through the drawers. What happens next is unclear. Asomugha, working with editor Dana Congdon, abruptly cuts from this moment to the next: the woman’s body on the floor, Chris breathing rapidly, his wife looking stunned, his daughters frightened. As a black family in America, they have few avenues for recourse.

The knife

The essential

Disturbing and visceral.

Place: Tribeca Film Festival (American narrative competition)
Cast: Nnamdi Asomugha, Melissa Leo, Aja Naomi King, Manny Jacinto, Amari Price, Aiden Price
Director: Nnamdi Asomugha
Screenwriters: Deaf Meat, Mark Duplass

1 hour 19 minutes

Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, The knife explores what choice and safety look like for Black people in America. Asomugha, who co-wrote the screenplay with its executive producer Mark Duplass, approaches these familiar themes with visceral frankness. It includes scenes, particularly near the end, that underline with a chilling tone how quickly a life can unravel. Although Asomugha sometimes capitulates to clichéd narrative choices or visual tropes, The knife maintains an incredibly nauseating level of anxiety.

When Chris calls an ambulance, authorities in Towson County, presumably in Maryland, send a cavalcade of police instead. Their patrol cars and vans surround the modest suburban home. The officers took the old woman to the hospital, cordoned off the scene with yellow tape and searched the house for evidence. An officer, played by Manny Jacinto, looks at Chris suspiciously while Detective Carlsen (Melissa Leo), an older woman with a wary and restful gaze, begins to take testimony from other family members.

The knife is at its maximum during these interrogative scenes, when the police presence destabilizes Chris’s home. It becomes an unstable and dangerous site, filled with accusatory objects. The painkillers Chris takes for his back become evidence of nefarious activity. The kitchen, where the inciting action took place, is transformed into a sinister reminder of an existence irrevocably changed.

The detective’s conversation…

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