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A Black salesman gets his first customer, then sees a Confederate flag on the wall. | Civil

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Published on 07 Jul 2021 / In Film & Animation

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Civil is used with permission from Stephen Takashima. Copyright (2018) Stephen Takashima. Learn more at http://omele.to/2UDo2C6 and http://omele.to/2FeNgkM.

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Deshawn, a Black door-to-door salesman, is canvassing a neighborhood, trying to rack up his first sale. But he's struggling to even keep doors open long enough to deliver his message.

But then, as his training supervisor shepherds him to another house, he gets his first nibble of interest from a man named Marshall... only to spot a Confederate flag on the wall of this potential client.

Writer-director Stephen Takashima's short drama tackles a hot-button topic, unfurling a character-centered story that not only weaves a quiet sense of dread and tension in its storytelling but illuminates the different emotional responses evoked by a controversial symbol.

The craftsmanship is solid, and the writing is similarly well-structured, building its discomfort with care and precision. As Deshawn gets invited inside a man's house to demonstrate his product, he becomes increasingly tense in the presence of a Confederate flag, leading to a small collision of ideas.

The writing gives the pro-flag POV an even-handed articulation, portraying Marshall in an understated performance by actor Walt Sloan, who balances notes of wariness and defensiveness with genuine attempts to relate in some way with Deshawn.

But it also takes considerate care to portray "Shawn's" inner experience, offering a window into the small yet sharp slights he receives from the assumptions that others make due to the color of his skin. Actor Bryson Thomas deftly evokes both Deshawn's discomfort with the racism he faces with his desire to make a sale -- and then, later, to not provoke a conflict. Watching him both suppress his clear discomfort -- and swallow his real feelings -- is difficult and even quietly unnerving as the story goes on.

Even when offered the opportunity to "discuss" his opinion, Deshawn recognizes that the "table" that he's invited to isn't genuinely balanced, equal or even open to his perspective. In fact, as his interaction with Marshall goes on, it feels potentially dangerous, and the able camerawork and screen direction do admirable work in slowly ratcheting up the tension in a quiet, organic way -- not through the machinations of plot, but through the clash of ideas, emotions and character.

"Civil" is a short drama meant to provoke discussions about the historical legacies that America has around race, and it does so through film's ability not just to put viewers in the footsteps of others, but by dramatizing how history and ideology bubble up in our everyday lives and interactions. With its skill in evoking unease and discomfort, it draws audience interest throughout, but the film's main attraction and achievement isn't a thriller-like denouement, but a deeper, more intimate understanding of what it means to be Black in an America still wrestling with its troubled legacies.

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A Black salesman gets his first customer, then sees a Confederate flag on the wall. | Civil
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