Waves An Anti-Black Coming of Age Film

Fatima Ali Omar
Jan 23 · 7 min read

Waves comes as the third feature from Director Trey Edward Shults and follows the story of a suburban African-American family in South Florida as they go through the trials and tribulations of life. This might sound fairly innocuous and yet, the film rapidly unravels under Shults’ inability to capture his Black protagonist, Tyler Williams, realistically. Shults, who is white, fails to give his characters and by extension the film the nuance, depth or racial self-awareness that it so desperately needs.

The first half of the film is led by Kelvin Harrison Jr who plays Tyler Williams, a popular athlete training for the upcoming season under the harsh supervision of his father, played by Sterling K. Brown. The catalyst of the film is introduced when an injury puts a stop to Tyler’s chances of winning a wrestling scholarship. It’s from this moment on that Tyler’s life begins to spiral: an unexpected pregnancy with his Latinx girlfriend Alexis, played by Alexa Demie, and the crumbling relationship with his father take centre stage.

(left to right) Taylor Russell, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown

With a visual palette that evokes the likes of Moonlight (2016), also set in Florida, Shults’ film employs swirling camerawork and gorgeous cinematography to mask its own shallowness under the guise of its more accomplished counterpart. Yet unlike the former, Waves has no idea how to evoke empathy for the constantly angry Tyler. Shults is unable to contextualise Tyler’s anger or provide an interior framework to help us empathise with it. Moonlight is a deep exploration of the multifaceted, complex and tender journey that is Black masculinity and the interior lives and relationships that fill up its three protagonists lives. Waves, however, is the antithesis of this.Tyler is relegated to a mere stereotype propped up by a painfully on the nose hip-hop centered soundtrack that comes across as a desperate attempt at adding validity to Tyler’s race. Moments where his rage can be explained or contextualised became needle drops for the likes of Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar and Tyler The Creator. A particularly baffling example of this is when Alexis, Tyler’s girlfriend, tells him over text that she is planning on going through with her pregnancy. Instead of unpacking this or offering us a glimpse into how this fits into the larger family dynamic, we are instead treated to Tyler trashing his room to the overpowering and intoxicating beat of Tyler The Creator’s IFHY. Shults is clearly unable to explore any nuanced unpacking of Tyler’s rage that doesn’t present itself externally or provide an opportunity to squeeze another popular hit rap song. It seems his concern is to provide a surface level presentation of Black masculinity that leans into stereotypes and is signified by a playlist crumbling under the weight of its own desperate attempt to appeal to its Black audience. Tyler is a one note character filled with anger. Anger at his father, anger at his injury, anger at his girlfriend. Shults fails to find any constructive or empathetic way to channel Tyler’s anger, instead we see him rail against his girlfriend employing misogynistic language and eventually killing her during the climax of the first act in an alcohol fuelled rage.

(left to right) Kelvin Harrison Jr, Alexa Demie

The issue with Waves is that it comes at a time when directors such as Barry Jenkins, Dee Rees, Jordan Peele (to name a few) are portraying Black life in all the complexity, tenderness and vivid interiority we deserve, on screen. Waves’ portrayal and handling of its Black characters therefore is nothing short of lacking. The Williams family is caught in the whirlwind of Tyler’s rage and it is this that dominates and shapes their lives. We are not privy to any of the internal aspirations this family has, nor are we privy to any facet of Tyler’s personality that isn’t coloured by misogyny and violence. To centre a story around an African-American family is to take responsibility for telling this story with the nuance and racial awareness that it demands. In an interview with Deadline, Shults described the film as ‘deeply personal’ a statement which is not damning in and of itself. However, it becomes so when it is superimposed onto the life of a Black family with no nuance or understanding of the way Black men in particular have historically been portrayed on screen. Waves is not the first film to be made by a white director who only examines Black life through a simplified framework, unloading trauma onto Black and brown bodies to emotionally manipulate its audience. However, it is a particularly startling addition to the current cinematic landscape that we have started to adjust ourselves to. Now more than ever the question of who should tell Black stories is imperative to ask. More importantly why films like Waves helmed by white directors continue to be greenlit in lieu of Black filmmakers with more nuanced and empathetic ways of portraying Black life on screen.

Tyler’s misogyny is not egregious in the sense that it exists but rather due to it becoming his defining characteristic:we aren’t privy to his internal emotions much less his aspirations outside of sports and the pressure of his father. A conversation early on in the film becomes the only marker that Shults is aware of his protagonists race when Tyler’s father states they have to be ‘better than average’. Waves is simply incapable of handling the race of its protagonist because it doesn’t understand how it informs his life, instead resorting to oft repeated statements like the former to masquerade as being informed on the topic. Even then, the film holds contempt for its Black and Latinx cast, when they are not presented as violent they are being killed or punished for the simple fact of their existence.

Taylor Russell

A film of two halves, Waves leaves Tyler’s story abruptly as he is holed up in prison and, apart from a single shot towards the end of the film, we never return to his character. This is both a merciful and disappointing choice as Tyler’s story ends with incarceration and it falls on his grieving family to unpack this trauma. The latter half of Waves focuses on its white character Luke, played by Lucas Hedges. Luke begins a summer romance with Tyler’s sister Emily, played by Taylor Russell. The two embark on a roadtrip to help Luke overcome the anger he feels towards his abusive alcoholic dad and forgive him before he dies of cancer. Where Tyler was presented as an explosive, misogynistic and violent teen, Luke is given the time to build and overcome the anger he feels towards his father. Despite appearing in the middle of the film, Luke is provided with more interiority, empathy and nuance than either Tyler or his family. Scene after scene of Black trauma follows Tyler’s incarceration as his mother, played brilliantly by Renée Elise Goldsberry, begins to lose control of her business and marriage. Even then, Shults offers no respite to his Black characters, where Luke gets his sun soaked montages, the Williams marriage is unravelling and the only consistent character beat becomes tragedy. Waves does not understand the interiority of its Black characters lives, instead of attempting empathy it slides into trauma porn. Even more glaring is that Tyler is not offered the agency to personally deal with his internal demons, instead he becomes a forgotten character we never hear directly from again.

(left to right) Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell

The saving grace of this film is Taylor Russell’s quietly nuanced and emotional performance as Emily. Waves is at its best when it doesn’t attempt to understand or shallowly explore black masculinity and family dynamics. When the film focuses on forgiveness for Tyler from his family, it shines through as a tentative exploration on how to reconcile our relationship to our loved ones who’ve committed the most heinous of crimes. Even then, these moments are too fleeting to rise up from the constant barrage of pain the Williams family undergoes. It is a wonder then why the film devotes its first half to Tyler’s character when it is so opposed to directly giving him the nuance and empathy a topic like this requires. To call this film anti-black would not be an overstatement as it clumsily handles the representation of its Black teen, resorting to painting him in the hyper-violent and misogynistic stereotypes we are all too familiar with. Shults absolves himself and the audience of confronting Tyler’s humanity by locking him in a prison cell and ripping his agency away from him. Instead Waves pivots to what feels like a completely different film in the second half, that juxtaposes Black and white masculinity in naive and ultimately racist ways. Waves is not a surprising film in that it is exactly the end result you would get when a white filmmaker makes a film about a Black family despite having no understanding, context or range to confront the reality of being Black. It is simply disappointing to see it so roundly praised when its portrayal is propped up by racist stereotypes that give no thought to the possibility that there is more to Tyler than this rootless rage.

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