Play It Safe


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Play It Safe
"Jonathjan Ajayi is superb."

When people with little experience of being on the receiving end of prejudice try to understand it, they tend to imagine outright aggression or exclusion. What they miss is the way that little things – sometimes things done without any thought or conscious ill intention – can build up to make even supposedly safe environments feel hostile. They miss how exhausting it is. Mitch Kalisa’s cleverly constructed Oscar-qualifying short explores the way racism manifests in the performing arts whilst using acting – and brilliant direction – to call it out.

Jonathjan Ajayi is superb as Jonathan, a young acting student and the only black man in his class, who is pressured by two of his white classmate – who have the backing of his tutor – to accept the crudely written role of a petty criminal in their latest work. Do they realise how stereotypical it is, how insulting they are being when they say he’d be the perfect fit for it? Perhaps, perhaps not – but they seem pretty comfortable in the belief that it’s not something they need trouble themselves to think about.

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Matters come to a head during an acting exercise when each student draws a card out of a hat with the name of an animal written on it – the animal they are required to play. In terms of racist caricatures, Jonathan’s could not be more unfortunate. The tutor herself flinches at the sight of it, suddenly alert to issues she seemed to miss before. But Jonathan is a good student, and has taken her earlier advice. he is not going to play it safe.

There are any number of films out there about how it feels to be a victim of racism. This is a film which addresses racists themselves. For the last two minutes, as Jonathan delivers his performance, the cameras focuses almost exclusively on the faces of the white characters – especially the writers of that awful script. We see Ajayi blurred in close-up or partly hidden behind other characters, see his fists or his shoulders or portions of his head, hear the sounds he makes and get a sense of their resonance in the wood-floored studio. His presence looms large in the imagination. We see his observers squirm.

A daring piece of work (with a daring choice of music for the closing credits), Play it Safe takes an all too familiar power dynamic and, whilst exposing it in the raw, also subverts it in a way that offers deep satisfaction to those who have been in Jonathan’s shoes. Ajayi signposts himself as a talent to watch out for, and with a BIFA nomination now under its belt, this is a small film which could make it very big indeed.

Reviewed on: 04 Nov 2021
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Play It Safe packshot
Coaxed into playing a racial typecast in a fellow student's play, Jonathan is faced to either challenge prejudice or play it safe.

Director: Mitch Kalisa

Writer: Mitch Kalisa

Starring: Jonathan Ajayi, Heather Alexander, Charlie O'Connor, Kate Ovenden, Louis Richards

Year: 2021

Runtime: 13 minutes

Country: UK


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