As being a person of Color at a predominantly white institution is scary enough, it makes sense, then, that the dangerously dark palettes, jaunting jump scares and all the hallmarks of horror cannot truly convey the unyielding terror and trepidation which comes with being Black in a majority white college town. Yet Music, Theatre & Dance junior and Ghanaian-American writer-director-producer Andrew Otchere seeks to do just that through “Branch Out” — blending and mending our preconceived notions of such genres with a sweet sensational flair.
Produced by Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore and Black artist Cortez Hill, Otchere’s comedic-thriller short film centers three Black friends at a predominantly white college “who attend a house party with hopes of expanding their social circle but instead experience a bit of … well, let’s just call it … ‘culture shock’” — a promising premise in itself. For Black students, especially, the sociolinguistic barriers which beget constant code-switching, the staggering cultural differences in artistic taste, aesthetic values and beauty standards ultimately create distinct attitudes along cultural lines which are in ongoing opposition to dominant modes of behavior — a.k.a. whiteness. “Branch Out” brings these juxtaposing perspectives alive with an exuberant display of Black life and living. Indeed, to be Black on a college campus like the University of Michigan’s — in which only four out of every 100 people look like you — is to be persistently expected to navigate social environments that do not serve your interests, desires and needs. We’ve already seen earlier this month how crucial affinity spaces are for a community. And as seen similarly in the opening shots and scene of “Branch Out,” our protagonists — Micah (Tomias Robinson), Trey (Owen Scales), and Gabbi (Taylor Daniel) — remaining steadfast in their pre-game ritual ring us in with their dynamic chemistry, getting down before hitting the town, creating their own arena in which Blackness is celebrated without interference.
Stepping out of this space, out of the zone of comfort and into the elusive white people’s party, the crux of the piece unfolds as we bear witness to some comical interactions between our Black leads and their white peers. Most of these are catalyzed by Trey and his white girlfriend Renee’s (Clara Dossetter) desire to inter-mix their respective friend groups. Even today, interracial Black and white couples beget controversy. The disparate power dynamics along racial (and class) lines, the fetishization of Black men and women as exotic objects and the general sense of betrayal of one’s own community all come to mind when considering intimacy across race and ethnicity. As Trey’s close friends, Micah and Gabbi remain cautious of their friend’s descent into the wretched claws of whiteness, hesitant to be amiable with Renee’s friends Ella (Claire Vogel) and Sami (Ruby Sevcik), their white counterparts. While it’s nice to witness these diametrical dynamics at play, it would have been interesting to see them fleshed out in its entirety. In considering the plight of interracial Black and white relationships, there is a valid distinction to be made between discomfort as a result of racial microaggressions and (c)overt discrimination versus a mere dissatisfaction with the personality, attitude or behavior of an individual or group. At times, it was unclear whether Micah and Gabbi’s feelings towards Renee and her friends and the other white folks at the party fell into the former or latter, although admittedly there is often an intersection of both.
Of course, beyond the difficulties of social acceptance and belonging that come with being Black at a PWI, there is the ever-present threat of danger that comes with being Afrikan in America (and around the globe). Skillfully, “Branch Out,” as a testament to the thrills it seeks to serve, portrays this phenomenon powerfully in the climax in which relatively low stakes take a turn for the worse and our Black leads are placed in pernicious peril. The last few minutes are, indeed, fast-paced and exciting to watch, although, they do leave me wishing I felt a similar sense of all-encompassing danger, the thrill in the thriller, more present throughout. Yet, nonetheless, it is impressive that in a short 15 minutes, Otchere seamlessly weaves the lows and highs, blessings and curses that come with being a person of Color on a majority white campus. And notably, for a decent duration of the piece, this is done to music.
Music is a means of bringing folks together, with the songs and sounds of many artists and musicians alike having the eternal capacity to play a profound role in crafting the vibe and feel of a space. We become plucked from the real as we enter into a fantastical liminality entranced by far-reaching rhythms and sublime rhymes which reach down deep into our soul. Trekking along this trail of thought, the soundtrack of “Branch Out” features various independent artists, including music and vocal performances from Juliet Freedman, Black artists Simone Clotile, Tunde Olaniran, Buto, Abby T. and Rodney Chrome. The film certainly exceeds itself with its incorporation of Black music as a means to not only support independent artists but also further the plot.
While student-run works –– especially independent film projects –– are often constrained by a limited budget, it is clear Otchere took a multitude of creative initiatives to work around this, ultimately uplifting the Black community and culture in the process. Couple this with stellar performances all across the board from an exceptional cast and it becomes clear that “Branch Out” is truly one-of-a-kind: it is not every day we find works written, directed, produced and performed by Black folks speaking truthfully to the Black experience. Thus, it is our responsibility, en route to liberation, to actively support the works of art which do just this. If you’ve yet to do so, then, maybe you should branch out.
Branch Out will be available for streaming in the near future. Follow @branchout.shortfilm on Instagram for more updates.
MiC Columnist Karis Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.