There’s a moment in Titus Kaphar’s “Exhibiting Forgiveness” that speaks volumes about how trauma — racial, historical, personal — can destroy a person, even as the scene barely offers an explicit word about it. Tarrell (André Holland), an artist who paints dreamy neon-rainbow-hued suburban fantasias, has reconnected with La’Ron (John Earl Jelks), the estranged father he hasn’t seen in 15 years. La’Ron, now gray and grizzled and homeless, is a recovering addict who was rarely around and, when he was, treated his son with a ruthless indifference that edged into violence. Tarrell still wants nothing to do with him, but he’s decided to interview La’Ron on camera to figure out what it was that made his father such an abusive lout.
He asks La’Ron about the first time he ever smoked crack. La’Ron tells the story, and on the surface there isn’t much drama to it; he was trying to stop someone he knew from lighting up a pipe and, on a whim, he took a hit himself. But then La’Ron recalls what that felt like, describing a euphoria unlike anything he had ever imagined. We’ve all heard addicts talk about their first drink, their first toot or injection; the outline of what he’s saying is more than familiar. Yet the veteran stage actor John Earl Jelks delivers this memory with a light in his eye, a sudden lilt in his voice, that is heartbreaking, because what La’Ron is saying between the lines is: The reason crack was so transcendent is that my life was such a prison. It’s the despair on the other side of the ecstasy that gets to us, even as we realize it’s less an excuse than a confession from the lower depths.
There are a great many movies, most of them from Hollywood, about troubled sons attempting to repair their relationships with bad dads. The outline of these tales is almost always the same. The two characters are thrown together by some inconvenient practical circumstance that forces them to deal with one another. At that point they square off, snarl and fight like dogs, admit their inner pain, bond and find the love that’s still tucked into the hate, and hug. You could say that “Exhibiting Forgiveness” follows that model. Except that in its low-key mission-of-truth way, the film is more raw, less melodramatic and sentimental, than the father/son reconciliation sagas we’re used to. “Exhibiting Forgiveness” sends you out on a note of hope, but it’s not exactly a feel-good movie. It’s a feel-the-reality movie, a drama willing to scald. That’s its quiet power.
Tarrell, from the outside, is a man who seems to have it all, and the film never undercuts the vitality of what he’s achieved. He lives, in an unnamed metropolis, in a beautifully designed home that houses his large studio (bedecked with posters from “Do the Right Thing,” “The Godfather,” and “Basquiat”), where he works hard on his canvases, a process the film lets us in on with enticing flavor and detail, the way Martin Scorsese did in “Life Lessons.” Tarrell is that rarity, a painter who’s made his own niche in the art world. He’s married to Aisha, a noted musician (played by Andra Day, so good as the title jazz legend of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”), and the two have a young son, Tre (Daniel Michael Barriere); apart from the occasional squabble about who gets to take time on their next project first, they also have a strong marriage.
But Tarrell keeps being jolted awake by something between night sweats and a seizure, and apart from this symptom of stress (Aisha urges him to see a doctor), we can read the conflict he’s nursing in Tarrell’s dour, dread-flecked face. André Holland, who played Chiron’s adult love interest in the third segment of “Moonlight,” is an actor who knows how to carve emotion out of silence. His Tarrell is fierce, haunted, and alive, yet not all there.
Tarrell has cut his derelict father out of his life, but his mother, Joyce (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), who he’s still close to, is getting ready to move out of their fateful home, triggering all kinds of memories, especially now that La’Ron, in recovery, has shown up. What Tarrell can’t let go of is the rage at his upbringing that has mutated into an existential war.
Titus Kaphar, the painter, sculptor, and installation artist (this is his feature film debut), shows us that upbringing in flashbacks that are bracing in their specificity, like a short story that can fuse with your memories of family turmoil. La’Ron was a functional crack addict who kept working, doing handyman jobs and trash hauling, in part because work was all he knew how to do, and also because he needed the money to buy drugs.
We see him take the teenage Tarrell (Ian Foreman, sporting ’90s cornrows and a look of the most profound dismay) on a job in his pickup truck, where the hauling of barrels, and the lighting of fires, culminates in an incident of primal agony: Tarrell, in a junkyard, leaps from the back of the truck, and his foot lands squarely on a board with a nail in it. The physical pain is almost minor next to the extremity of La’Ron’s reaction. He has no health insurance and doesn’t trust the white establishment, so he says to his son: Shut up and deal with it. He thinks that treating Tarrell with sadistic hardness will educate him and put “steel” in him. (That’s also his rationalization for not bothering to help him.) Tarrell limps around on that bloody wound all day, and the Christ-like symbolism of the nail piercing his foot isn’t overstated. It’s just there, showing you how everyday trauma can take on the power of personal mythology.
Can Tarrell forgive La’Ron for everything he did (and didn’t do)? The movie shows you that to go forward, he must. Yet there’s a difference between forgiveness and touchy-feely fakery, and the emotional pull of “Exhibiting Forgiveness” (one of those labored bad titles, I have to say) is the way that Tarrell comes to own the past without chaining it to the future. The culminating sequence at Tarrell’s latest gallery opening includes one false note (when Tarrell explodes at a fan of his work), yet the small hanging sculpture he makes of La’Ron — and what he does with it — is intensely moving. It captures how a lot of us may feel about our fathers: that they were there but shrouded, posing in their very flaws a challenge for how to live. Titus Kaphar created Tarrell’s art for the film, and it has a vibratory glow with a hint of something ghostly, just like Tarrell himself. To judge from “Exhibiting Forgiveness,” that artistry now extends to filmmaking.