The Retrieval (⅘)
Set in the back half of the Civil War, The Retrieval follows two African Americans, a young boy Will (Ashton Saunders) and his uncle Marcus (Keston John), as they are tasked to recover a bounty on a former slave who now works for the Union army. Although themselves victims of slavery, Will and Marcus work for a group of bounty hunters roaming the war ravaged countryside and recapturing former slaves. In the first scene of the film, Will is taken in by a house on the underground railroad, and shortly after he is given shelter in a shed with other escaping slaves, he immediately provides their location to Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.), the alpha male of the slave hunters.
Burrell learns of a hefty bounty on Nate (Tishuan Scott), a former slave in the employ of the Union, and while it would be difficult for Burrell and his bounty hunters to venture north, Will and Marcus’s blackness allow them to enter Union territory. Will and Marcus find Nate digging soldiers’ graves and lure him back south by claiming his brother is sick and dying and offer to accompany him along his travels. Nate doesn’t know that his brother is already dead.
No major studio would even glance at a film like The Retrieval, which is an intimate film by design and, likely, budget. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the film for the studio to wrap their heads around is the blurring of racial lines of power and oppression. Will and Marcus are implicated within the institution of slavery despite the fact that they are also its victims, a situation that is reminiscent Edward P. Jones’s novel, The Known World, which depicts the seemingly unlikely situation of a southern black who owns black slaves. (But, of course, blacks owning black slaves is a historical fact).
I’m sympathetic to those who are uncomfortable with stories that examine ways in which blacks were used to buttress slavery, especially since even in the 21st century we have barely come to terms with white culpability in slavery. White supremacists have long pointed to black slave owners as a means to elide the simple fact that the institution of slavery was built by and for the benefit of whites. But the film attempts to address these tricky reversals. Marcus, who is presented as brash and aggressive, repeatedly refers to the outsized bounty on Nate’s head, which will be shared by him and Will. But, for extra measure, Burrell threatens the life of Marcus and his entire family if he decides he wants to stay up North.
No more than thirteen-years-old, Will easily garners the audience’s sympathies. Because of his age, Will is both more beholden to the forces of slavery and capable of escaping it, at least once the war is over. The Retrieval reminds viewers that slavery itself was beholden to the marketplace, a means to unjustly enrich others through forced labor, torture, and rape. At one point, Marcus reminds Nate of their bare economic subsistence prior to working with Burrell and his men. And Burrell, who is of course a racist himself, is able to briefly put aside his white supremacy in order to prevent one of his men from irrevocably harming the “lost property.” But because the war is nearly over, this “property” and all the violence Burrell and his men employ capturing escaped slaves is meaningless and unnecessary. The institution of slavery is lost, even if they don’t know it.
The film’s dramatic center hinges on the whether in the end Will is going to bring Nate to Burrell, a question from which the film wrings plenty of suspense, despite its subtle visual approach. The relationship between Will and Nate grows as the film progresses, and in Will, Nate sees the possibilities of a life he was never allowed to fully live. Towards the end of the film, Will convinces Nate to see his former wife (in practice if not in fact, since slaves were not allowed to legally marry). Nate had long ago meant to return and buy his wife’s freedom before circumstances got the best of him. Unsurprisingly, the reunion isn’t exactly joyous. But the scene offers a glimpse a life denied.
[From here on, there are some spoilers]
Director Chris Eska and cinematographer Yasu Tanida paint a bleak landscape drained of color. Much of the film appears bathed in morning fog, which can be equally menacing and beautiful. The film takes place in the winter of 1864, and the barren trees speak more powerfully of the Civil War’s violence than the brief glimpses of battles, but they also signify the death of antebellum America. We know that this death precedes the beginning of a necessary transformation of the nation. In the final shot of the film, Will returns to Nate’s wife and her new husband, an image that suggests that despite white supremacy’s attempt to sever black bonds, the black family survives, reassembled in unique ways.
The Retrieval was given a small release and earned only $50,000 in its theatrical run. (It’s now streaming on Netflix). But I think it’s a necessary addition to a recent spate of 21st-century films that examine slavery and the Civil War. Alongside discussions of Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave, and Django Unchained, we must make room for The Retrieval when thinking of how the present attempts to make sense of the past.