Feathers addresses the generational trauma and burdens of being a Black male in America
The 19-minute short explores why it feels like freedom only exists for some through the eyes of a group of children, discarded by society.
- 10 February 2020
- Jyni Ong
When A. V. Rockwell first released her short film Feathers back in 2018, the 19-minute-film was tipped for an Oscar for its sensitive depiction of young Black identity. Now available to view online, we can watch the beautiful film over and over again until our heart’s content. Though it sadly missed out on the Oscar once awards seasons dawned, the film, distributed by Fox Searchlight, moved international audiences for its portrayal of the prolonged effects of institutionalised racism.
It’s a subject that’s interested the film’s writer and director A. V. Rockwell for a long time. Born and raised in Queens, the NYU-graduate has previously been hailed with a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, and been celebrated for her previous identity-centred films including The Gospel and In Her Court. She tells It’s Nice That: “For a long time, I was fascinated by the chance to tell a story about a group of children that felt abandoned, if not discarded by society. I was curious about what could happen if they were left to their own devices and why.”
In turn, Feathers follows Elizier, an an emotionally-dejected enrollee at The Edward R. Mill School for Lost Boys. Though he is only young, he attempts to grapple with painful memories of his past while navigating a new environment with similarly-aged peers at the same time. “Coming from the land of the free,” adds the director, “I wondered how I could comment on why it feels like freedom only exists for some.” After observing how the tragic shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hand of police officers were handled, the director felt an urgent need to “address the generational traumas and burdens of being a Black male in America.”
GalleryA. V. Rockwell: Feathers
Utilising the power of cinema, the filmmaker decided her next film would explore how systemised, canonical racism impacts the development of one’s identity from a very young age. “When your country tells you in so many ways that it does not care about you and warns you that your right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness will not come without injustice to fight relentlessly, what kind of school could prepare you for that terrain?” In Feathers, A. V. depicts the freedom of imagination that comes with being a carefree child, and how some of the students might indeed be able to “discover solutions that us adults have yet to find.”
On the practical side of things, working with a bunch of kids with very little professional acting experience was challenging at times to say the least. The director loved working with the kids, and enjoyed seeing their curiosities and excitement take hold on set. Some “really got into the development of their characters,” while others were more interested in the more technical side of the production. The director herself also found challenges in the musical score in particular. By the time the production crew reached post, she felt her existing ideas for the music just didn’t fit anymore. Pushing herself creatively, she worked closely with her editor Carlos Arias to create something more fitting for the film’s tone.
Together, they came up with a three second sound effect vocalising a band setting up as the baseline. “I felt like it was truly the best metaphor for what the boys were experiencing on-screen,” says A. V. of the score. “The journey towards harmony for these instruments reflected in the boys’ own search for unity amongst each other.” Overall, the film acts as a kind of love letter to Black boys: “I want them to know how deeply they are loved and that when the world turns their back on you,” says the director, “don’t take for granted the power of coming together.”
It’s an allegory that A. V. relates to how the Black community at large also deals with pain and trauma, finally going on to say: “In-fighting only slows down the process of overcoming the issues we face in American society. Our commitment to unity must become a bigger priority: recognising the power of that shield.”
GalleryA. V. Rockwell: Feathers
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.