The Unremarkable Honesty of 'Night Shift'
What does it mean to be a black man in today’s America? What is it to try and achieve one’s dreams in a society that marginalizes your very existence? There is no shortage of recent works that attempt to answer these questions, from last year’s cultural horror Get Out that crossed racial lines into the white mainstream, to Spike Lee’s forthcoming tale of the harrowing fight against hate BlacKkKlansman to the comical examination of abandoning one’s racial identity for profit in So Sorry to Bother You. The bar has certainly been raised for directors trying to capture the plight of black men in America as movies about the racial divide have actually begun to turn a large enough profit for white producers and distributors to take notice. But even as directors like Jordan Peele and Boots Riley have been able to penetrate mainstream white audiences, an underground of black media still exists beyond the scope of many audience’s gazes.
One of the most recent projects to emerge from the black underground is Marshall Tyler’s short film Night Shift, the director’s first project since his 2007 documentary Skid Row. The 16 minute short tells a simple, relatable narrative: a man works a dead-end job, wishing for more, while his relationships crumble around him. Then do Mad Libs inserts to fill in the finer details. Need an occupation: bathroom attendant. Need an aspiration: actor. Need a cause of stress and sadness: divorce and embarrassment. And that just about fills in the entire plot of Night Shift. However, while the plot is incredibly simple and even hackneyed at points, it does provide an interesting reality into today’s scene of black cinema. This is not a highly exaggerated account of the subtle discriminations black men feel every day like Get Out, nor is it the inspiring true story of a black man fighting back against white oppression and hatred like BlacKkKlansman and it is certainly not a surreal comedy about a black man finding success in shedding his racial identity like So Sorry To Bother You. For all of its simplicity, Night Shift is honest and it is real.
The short film opens on what seems to be mundane but what is actually a crucial element of black culture: getting dressed for a night on the town. As our protagonist, Olly is fixing his tie in the mirror, we hear a voicemail playing in the background. A distraught woman pleads with Olly, saying that the “only thing holding us back is you signing those papers.” However, the dour nature of the call is put to rest by how good Olly looks, he appears to be a man without a care as he is stepping out. But before he leaves, he loads up a suitcase and puts in it, among other things, the aforementioned papers. As he gets in his car and drives away, stopping only at the liquor store to get a few packs of Newport cigarettes, the possibilities are endless for this sharp dressed man. Ultimately Olly’s fate is revealed as he enters the basement of a raucous nightclub: he is a bathroom attendant. The stereotypical Newports aren’t for him, but for his customers, and he unpacks the suitcase that doesn’t contain anything for a dramatic getaway, but instead some off-brand perfumes and a tip jar that he has already put some pity dollars in before his shift even starts.
By now any confidence and swagger that Olly has inspired are completely depleted. As rowdy clubgoers filter in and out of the bathroom, Olly has all the time in the world to ponder his current situation in life. But some interesting characters come to disrupt his deep thoughts: from a stereotypically machoesque black man defining lit, “it’s literary, it’s literacy, it’s literally lit,” to a punk kid asking Olly if he sells weed (which really makes me wonder what kind of club this is with both white punk kids and chain-addled Middle Eastern men), to a former classmate of Olly’s whose embarrassing encounter with Olly is punctuated by the sound of two people having sex in one of the stalls. The bathroom’s users provide an amusing distraction for Olly and the viewer, but ultimately it all comes back to him pondering his lot in life and how he got here.
However things begin to unravel towards the end of Night Shift when Olly’s soon to be ex-wife Tracey comes into the bathroom (because, oh yeah, she works there too) and tries to plead her case once more for him to sign the divorce papers. After she insults his masculinity by telling him to “be a man,” and eventually leaves his office (the bathroom), Olly is tempted by a clubgoer who pees all over the floor because of how Olly looked at him, and throws a crisp 20 into the puddle of urine, knowing Olly will pick it up. And he does. But all the while, Olly is making a powerful statement as he stands there and takes the man’s abuse, and later stoops down with his gloved hand to pick up his urine-soaked tip. Olly is saying that he will not stop himself to the expectations of “manhood” thrust upon black men in America. He will not be another statistic of black crime. He is truly the biggest man in the club, and this scene is a defining moment for his character.
But it’s all downhill from here, as Olly brings his still-current wife back into the bathroom. Keep in mind, the last time these two spoke to each other (that very same evening) Tracey insulted his manhood and informed him that she will be leaving the city, and him, forever. But apparently, all of that anger and frustration just melts away when Olly begins to dance and motions for her to join him, an offer she gladly accepts. The lighting turns a romantic red and they start kissing, only to be interrupted by an ill-timed bathroom patron, but not before making a tentative plan to get a drink. Then just back to Olly and his thoughts, he gets in his car, stares at the papers, and fin. Thus ending the truly unremarkable saga of Olly and his job as a bathroom attendant, a story almost too relatable to be found interesting. Can a profound statement about the complex interracial relations of America be made in 16 minutes? If Night Shift can be seen as a paradigm, then the answer is a resounding no.