I’ve just watched The Long Goodbye (Aneil Karia and Riz Ahmed, 2020), which won the 2022 Oscar for best short film. Ouch! Brutal. Very powerful. A savage gut-punch of British-Asian paranoia, resentment and hurt. It ends with Riz Ahmed delivering the most thrilling performance poem I have ever seen, straight to camera. That monologue is a truly exhilarating experience. It’s a brilliant example of artistic creation: intense, passionate expression, comunicating a profound psycho-social message that might genuinely change minds for the better.
The viewer is made receptive to that final message by the increasing horror of the story that precedes it. The warmth and happiness of a crowded British-Asian household, as they prepare for a celebration, is enhanced by the intimacy of a hand-held camera that weaves its way through them, following Riz Ahmed’s character as he plays with his little nephew, bickers with his siblings, helps set up. It’s such a lovely portrait of normal, British family life that you just know it’s all going to go wrong, which it duly does, as black vans full of armed and balaclava-wearing racists pull up outside. They are supervised by weary looking police officers who do not intervene.
The film conveys the sense of alienation and threat felt by some, in contemporary Britain. It’s a deeply disturbing attempt to render society’s divisions and tensions in a visible, concrete form. The fear of organised racist violence endorsed by the state is depicted as actual organised racist violence endorsed by the state.
As a result, this short is troubling in a way that the film makers may not have intended. The Academy awards are American as, presumably, are most of its prize jury. Racial tension in America is clearly endemic, virulent, and highly, highly toxic, especially between people of colour and the police. The catastrophic rifts in American society have become increasingly visible, as more and more videos of police brutality and summary execution have emerged.
Academy jurors may have taken for granted, then, that The Long Goodbye, in its depiction of distress, rage and hatred between racial groups, is expressing an essential emotional truth of British society, rather than an expression of British-Asian fears for the future.
But it isn’t like that, in Britain. It truly isn’t. I am not British-Asian, but I walk these same streets, and I see how different people interact. An event like this has never occurred in modern Britain. Not yet.