Now Streaming: Black Box (2020) - Reviewed

 “There comes an end to all things; the most capacious measure is filled at last; 
and this brief condescension to evil finally destroyed the balance of my soul.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 gothic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a tale with which most of us have some familiarity. It is the story of a doctor who, wishing to indulge in his darker urges without consequence, develops a potion allowing for the separation of the good and evil parts of himself. Ultimately, this imbalance causes Dr. Jekyll to lose the ability to control his evil (Mr. Hyde) side, where it then consumes him. The overarching lesson being the need for balance in the inherent duality of man. 

Director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour’s first feature length film Black Box (2020) is also a tale of duality. Produced by Blumhouse Productions and Amazon Studios, the film at first glance appears to be a paranormal horror with psychological elements. In addition, Black Box has the same producers as Get Out (2017), so it is hard not to think of the Jordan Peele film when the viewer sees the hypnosis scenes in the trailer. However, Osei-Kuffour’s freshman work is something deeper and altogether different. 

Black Box begins with photographer Nolan Wright (Mamoudou Athie) sitting in his living room watching a video of the first time he held his daughter. He does not appear to have any major emotional reaction as he gazes at the images.  The film cuts to shots of various areas around the house and the audience sees Post It notes containing simple instructions like “cups go here”.  As the opening scenes unfold, it become apparent through these small clues and conversations with his young daughter (Amanda Christine) that Nolan is suffering from some selective memory loss. The audience later learns this loss is the result of a horrific car accident that killed his wife and left him briefly brain dead. 

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Neuropsychiatrist Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad) spends the early part of the film hounding Mr. Wright in an attempt to get him to participate in an experimental treatment. The motivation behind this enthusiasm is unknown, but she is particularly interested in Mr. Wright. The treatment itself involves a ‘black box’, which induces a sort of dream hypnosis, that Brooks claims has the ability to fix this type of brain damage. After multiple inconclusive tests, Nolan reluctantly agrees in a desperate attempt to regain his lost memories in order to be able to care for his daughter. Brooks tells Nolan the therapy is like a virtual reality simulation, which allows him to experience his damaged memories in real time. As the sessions get underway, Nolan’s therapy becomes unsettling because someone or something inside of these memories is trying to attack him. 

Nolan takes the audience on an investigative journey as he unfolds the pieces of the memories from his sessions. Because his traumatic brain injury causes him to be an unreliable narrator, the experience feels groundless and harrowing. The multiple inconsistencies in the stories told to Nolan by his family and doctor drive the investigation inward forcing him, and the audience, to examine Nolan’s fractured identity by venturing down a Freudian rabbit hole. As D.H. Lawrence once wrote, “The most normal people have the worst subterranean selves.”

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

In order to pull this off, Black Box demands Mamoudou Athie act as chameleon, shifting personalities throughout the film. Athie’s dynamic performance is grounded by Amanda Christie’s charm and given an ominous backdrop with Phylicia Rashad’s eerie and motherly portrayal of Dr. Brooks. Cinematographer Hilda Mercado’s utilization of handheld shots enhance the anxiety crescendo in Black Box while Osei-Kuffour’s storytelling tightly propels the narrative forward. This combination gives viewers a clean and suspenseful ride through the subconscious. 

Overall, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour’s Black Box is a cerebral and nightmarish allegory on the duality of the self. The inceptionesk tale drags you down an infinity mirror of identity where it questions humanity’s ability to choose their selfdom. When it comes right down to it, do we really know who is in there? Is it Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?  Like the lawyer in Stevenson’s novella says, “If he be Mr. Hyde…I shall be Mr. Seek.”  - 4/5

-Dawn Stronski