dar heDirected, Written and Starring Rob Underhill

Dar He: The Lynching of Emmitt Till is an independent historical drama about the events leading up to and following the murder of a 14-year-old black boy in 1955 Mississippi. What distinguishes Dar He from other digital historical dramas is not its subject matter but the manner in which the film is carried out. All 26 speaking roles are played by actor Mike Wiley. Wiley is African American, he plays the white characters, he plays the female characters. From 14-year-old Emmitt Till to a 64-year-old preacher.

One actor playing multiple roles is something we typically see in broad comedies, Dar He plays the technique for dramatic effect. And it is for the most part rather effective; two scenes in particular stand out for their powerful dramatic resonance. Yet is this because of the way the film is executed or because of the dramatic potential inherent in the story of the murder of a 14-year-old boy? I can say two things for certain: first, Wiley is a talented performer; second, his playing multiple parts serves no visible narrative of cinematic function beyond the experimental.

Wiley is obviously a talented performer. The film takes getting used to, but once the audience gets into the grooves of the narrative, Wiley’s performance carries them the rest of the way. Dar He is (necessarily) tightly shot and edited. The only other performers appear peripherally as the back side of a face in reverse shots or as hands reaching in from off screen.

Notice how I say Wiley is a good performer, not actor. It’s not that he doesn’t act in Dar He, but that his acting style through the various characters is closer to stage acting than screen acting.

You know, they say the camera lens is so many feet away, and that you shouldn’t act past it – because it will see. Wiley acts a mile past the camera in Der He. This is probably done in order to overcome the handicap of being the same face, but playing multiple roles. Beyond mere cinematic suggestions, the change from character to character needs to be immediately apparent.  His face, his voice, his mannerisms must define each character in a way that visual differentiation cannot. And Wiley is able to pull it off with a measurable amount of success. Talented performer.

Yet I can’t call his performance a tour-de-force, and that’s a shame.

Till’s death is mercifully left off screen, as one of his murderers describes how the lynching unfolded to a radio broadcaster. This scene is one of the most powerful in the film, not because of the heinous nature of what he’s describing, but the fact that he’s describing it – admitting to it – after being found not guilty of the crime by a southern, all-white jury.

At only 70 minutes, Dar He is brief, but memorable — a portrait of detestable injustice and deplorable ignorance that took place in an America not too far removed from our present time. 50 years is almost nothing to human history, a fraction of a centimeter. The crisp and modern digital photography is a reminder of this illusion of temporal disparity.