Our memories play a pivotal part of who we are as individuals. They inform our decisions, guide our behavior and create emotional connections with the people around us. In writer/director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour‘s Black Box, a man’s memory is lost in the tragic accident that took the life of his wife. Seeking to recover these lost memories, and determined to do whatever he must, he takes part in an experimental trial that proves to be more dangerous and sinister than he could ever imagine.
Six months prior Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) almost died in the car accident that killed his wife Rachel (Najah Bradley). Suffering from the results of a traumatic brain injury, Nolan’s memory of his past is non-existent. He struggles with doing simple daily tasks like making coffee, tying his tie, and remembering his daughter Ava (Amanda Christine)’s name. The adolescent Ava is responsible for making sure her father gets ready for work, has the materials he needs, drops her off at school on time, and sticks to their schedule. It’s his guilt that she’s the one taking care of him when he’s the parent, and fear that his forgetfulness could cause her harm and him to lose custody, that ultimately forces Nolan to take part in the somewhat dubious research on cognitive therapy his doctor is conducting.
When we meet his doctor, Lillian (Phylicia Rashad), there’s something unsettling about her. She at times seems too earnest with how she speaks to Nolan, but also dismissive of his concerns when he mentions his distress at not being able to recall anything before the accident, and frustrations about Ava. As a doctor her disinterest in Nolan’s emotional and mental state are red flags that will prove to be true later in the film. Before she admits him into the clinical trial, Lillian tells Nolan he has to undergo hypnosis to make sure he’s a suitable candidate.
Before they start, Lillian tells Nolan to use the crown of his watch as a trigger to pull him out if he becomes distressed, as he’ll be unable to communicate audibly with her. She instructs him to look at and focus on a white card with a large black cross, set up on the wall across the room, and at the same time focus on the cursor that moves across his field of vision, that is generated by her device, the Black Box. Under hypnosis Nolan is plunged into darkness with one light shining above his head. He’s in his subconscious. It’s here that the disturbing aspects of the film begin to take shape.
In his subconscious faces are blurred out, leaving him unable to identify if they’re people he might recognize in his real life, or just figments of his imagination. If the distorted faces weren’t enough to mess with anyone, Nolan also sees the contorted body of a man heading towards him and before he can trigger the crown, he’s punched and almost knocked out by the violent specter.
As he recounts what took place, Lillian once again seems disinterested in how distressed Nolan is, but he’s too shaken to catch on that this is a troubling sign from the person in whose hands he’s essentially placing his life. Despite any misgivings he might have, Nolan continues with the sessions. With each one his personality changes. He becomes more aggressive, his temper short when dealing with Ava, and he seems to develop an affinity for smoking. Ava, seeing the changes in her father, grows wary and expresses her concerns with his bestfriend, Gary (Tosin Morohunfola), a doctor at the same medical facility as Lillian’s office.
As the film enters its third act the horrifying truth of why Nolan is becoming a different person and Lillian’s connection to this behavioral change are revealed. To go into detail would spoil the twists the plot takes, but suffice it to say, though you may have suspicions, the way the revelations are made will have you sitting at the edge of your seat and shouting at the screen. Black Box is one of those films you wish you could see in a theatre because the audience reactions would be priceless.
Black Box isn’t a perfect film. There are small things that don’t quite make sense realistically, like why Nolan never hired a nanny or housekeeper to help with looking after Ava and the housework, but they’re not enough to take away from enjoying the film as a whole. The strongest parts of the film are the performances. Seeing Rashad playing a doctor with a very corrupted moral and ethical code is a treat. It’s great to see her playing a character that’s a complete 180 from the motherly figure fans have always seen her as. I would like to see more mature Black women playing these kinds of malevolent character you love to hate.
Athie’s portrayal of someone experiencing the daily frustrations of living with a neurological disability and cognitive impairments are realistic and will be relatable for anyone who goes through this (I know I did). It’s always appreciated when you can tell an actor and director are cognizant of how what they’re showing on-screen could be perceived by the audience. Though the adult actors all gave great performances, it was Amanda Christine who ultimately steals every scene she’s in. For such a young actress, Christine is able to command the viewer’s attention with her maturity and energy, and her acting never feels forced or stilted as can be the case with some child performers. I for one can’t wait to see how her career grows.
As part of the “Welcome to the Blumhouse” anthology series, Black Box fits in perfectly. The main theme of parents pushed to do whatever they feel they must for the sake of their children, continues. Both Nolan and Lillian are desperate to show their children they are the priority in their parent’s lives, but their underlying causes are still different. For Nolan the black box is the key to him finding the man he once was so that he can be someone his daughter recognizes. For Lillian, the device is the box she uses to hide a terrible secret that proves dangerous in more ways than one.
Black Box is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.