New Releases: American Wisper (2020) - Reviewed

Josiah Wisper is an ambitious man that seemingly had it all: multiple flourishing business ventures, a nice home in Northern New Jersey, and a beautiful family.  In June 2016, this successful African American entrepreneur’s world was shattered.  He came home from a night in the city to find his wife and three children shot to death, and his entire upper-middle class community subsequently turned on him, assuming he was the perpetrator. 

This is the real-life story that American Wisper is based upon.  Desperate to find the true killer of his family, we follow Josiah throughout the film as he dedicates himself to clear his name while racist investigators try to convict him, his surviving family members offer scant support, and his mistress complicates his life more than she already has.  Shot in a found footage style, it is an intimate thriller about a man’s search for justice.

Christian Barber plays a complex Josiah Wisper.  We see the shrewd, self-made businessman in him that brought him his wealth, yet he displays a touching vulnerability when faced with the death of his family.  Nevertheless, he is not without his flaws, which is what makes the character compelling.  Before his family is murdered, we see him engaging with his mistress, and we witness a heated argument with his wife in front of his family.  There are moments where he makes us question his innocence, but they are always negated by his efforts to seek out the truth and his tireless insistence with the investigators that he had no involvement in the murders.

While the performances are strong and the script is tight, there is a glaring issue that distracts from the plot.  Director Russ Emanuel’s choice to make the film a member of the found footage genre doesn’t always work to his advantage.  Prior to the murders, Josiah is always with his videographer Laura, who is constantly manning the camera, even in the most mundane circumstances.  It begs the question, “How self-absorbed is this man that he wants to have a 24/7 camera on him?  Does he feel like his life is really that important?”  The handheld camera footage often waters down many crucial character interactions that could have benefited from a few closeups.  Even more distracting is the choice to hide cuts with fake static glitches over the HD video footage.  As the film progresses, these “glitches” hide nothing and eventually become an overused effect that feels gimmicky.  To be fair, the found footage becomes relevant to the plot when, despite documenting virtually every moment of his life, Josiah does not have footage of the night leading up to the murders—but this does not make up for how unbefitting that stylistic choice feels as a whole.

American Wisper is an exploration of a “guilty until proven innocent” black man trying to regain the integrity he’s worked so hard to build throughout his life.  It is all too tragic as a real-life tale, but it is not an entirely satisfying movie.  While it’s a heartfelt attempt, the found footage aesthetic simply doesn’t work in its favor.

--Andrea Riley