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Surrounded (2023)

In case you missed its April 2nd, 2023 release, Surrounded is a historical drama that chronicles the quest of a newly liberated African American navigating freedom at the end of slavery. The film, directed by Anthony Mandler and written by Justin Thomas and Andrew Pagana is set in a barren western US landscape in the aftermath of the Civil War (1861-1865), five year later to be exact. When we first meet the protagonist, Mo Washington (a slight, dark-skinned, person of few words) they are negotiating their way onto a stagecoach. The negotiation is necessary, because as a black person, the white stagecoach driver has decided to withhold passage if Mo does not hand over their gun and ride in the luggage compartment at the back of the coach. In scenes like this, that run the expanse of the film, the audience is made aware of how little had changed with the legal emancipation of the enslaved. Indeed, the racist indignities that Mo suffers run the gamut from physical assaults to psychological abuse that is meted out by the various white folks that they encounter throughout the film.

Surrounded is the tale of one person’s quest to seize freedom and a search for their future in a nation that had, until a few years prior, denied them personhood, dignity, and the right to aspire to a status and a life beyond their supposed station as chattel (moveable personal property). But that quest brings the lone Mo into contact with various white characters who are either coldly indifferent, haughty in their disdain, or outright dangerous in their racial hatred and selfishness. The question that lingers throughout the film is if Mo will survive to realize their dream and reach their destination.

The destination is question is Colorado, and as we soon find out, hidden in Mo’s bible is a deed to land purchased, remarkably, after service as a Union soldier. The bible then becomes a symbol of their spirituality and belief in a future free from the crushing poverty, abuse, and terror of slavery. As Mo expresses during a scene with bank robber and all-around bad guy Tommy Walsh (played by Jamie Bell) who has taunted, harassed, and demeaned Mo, Walsh has never had to suffer the torment of seeing his father hung from a tree for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The film does an exceptional job of exposing the precariousness of freedom for enslaved people seeking liberty. Indeed, slavery as the state of bondage seems to pursue free blacks even when emancipation had supposedly become legal at the end of the Civil War. Indeed, as our fearless leader Charmaine, often opines, when slavery ended racism went nowhere!

Surrounded presents several mysteries, one of which is the enigmatic hat-wearing Mo. Mo literally and symbolically keeps their head down, speaking few words, and interacting as little as possible with the white characters. As we slowly come to find out, Mo’s biography is riddled with tragedy, but also defined by ingenuity, courage, determination, bravery, and a defiant self-belief that repeatedly thwarts the machinations of the racist white people who sought to limit and constrict their world – past and present. But Mo’s path to the freedom they envision is not smooth. When the stagecoach is robbed by the infamous criminal Walsh, Mo, along with the two white stagecoach drivers, and the three white passengers (the two men, Wheeler and Mr. Fields, played by Jeffrey Donovan and Brett Gelman respectively, and a rather haughty woman, Ms. Borders, played by Augusta Allen-Jones), are all imperiled. As Walsh and his grubby band of criminals pillage the luggage for money and possessions to steal, the retaliation of Mr. Fields gets him shot and leads to chaos as the startled horses gallop away with the stagecoach which gets severed from its tethers by a gun shot. As the coach careens towards a cliff, Mo pursues the vehicle jumping onboard and attempting to save Ms. Borders who is still inside. In this, Surrounded displays the profound humanity of black people since Mo reacts instinctively regardless of Border’s earlier racist treatment. Tellingly, the terrified Borders refuses to take Mo’s hand to be pulled from the doomed coach. But the question the film asks us to contemplate is if the white woman’s terror was about the robbery and the state of the coach or the prospect of holding a black person’s hand. As the coach careens over the cliff, it is not just the death of white folks that it hastens, but the demise of Mo’s dream since the luggage, bible, and deed also go over the cliff. Indeed, as Mo soon finds out once able to inspect the wreckage, the deed is no longer legible, a state of affairs that reduces the generally emotionally subdued Mo to tears.

In the aftermath of the crash, Wheeler orders Mo to stay with Walsh who is ironically immobilized with shackles and chained to a tree while the others return to the nearest town to seek medical care for Mr. Fields and return with the sheriff. Arguably, the most psychologically profound elements of the film play out between Mo and Walsh when Mo is tasked with guarding the criminal. Intriguingly, up until this point in the film, Walsh is the only one who has bothered to really look at Mo and he reveals that he knows a secret. Mo is a woman! In this, the film explores a little known facet of slave escape, the cross-gender and cross-racial performances which enslaved people like William and Ellen Craft of Georgia employed to seize their freedom.

As the two spar verbally, Mo (played with quiet intensity by Letitia Wright of Black Panther fame) divulges that after she and her parents obtained their freedom, they could not leave their enslaver’s plantation fast enough. However, her description of the aftermath of slavery for her family recalled the horrors that whites spitefully inflicted on black people regardless (or perhaps because) of their newly freed status. With her parents lost to her, Mo ended up working in a camp catering to Union soldiers where her surveillance of them led to a creolized counter knowledge which allowed her to learn how to perform their identities. Soon Mo the formerly enslaved black woman became Mo the Union soldier who was able to purchase land in Colorado with her military pay. With this disclosure, the true symbolic power of Mo’s bible and the legal document hidden within it is finally revealed to the audience.

Alone in the cold, menacing landscape, Walsh begins to cunningly engage Mo. But is he simply trying to manipulate her into freeing him, or, as he states, would he like to team up with her and split the money from one of his infamous bank robberies that is buried somewhere nearby, all $40,000 worth. To do so, Walsh insists that Mo unshackle him. Having lived with the consequences of white duplicity her whole life, Mo is rightfully sceptical, despite Walsh’s tales of hardship and his claims of affiliation with indigenous people (a wife and child now dead) which he uses to position himself as a misunderstood underdog. Cleverly, he tries to assure Mo that “it’s us against them,” the “them” meaning other white folks.

But the problems keep coming for Mo as a smartly dressed black stranger, Will Clay (played by the talented Michael Kenneth Williams, also of Breaking, may he rest in peace), appears as if out of nowhere, claiming to have encountered the other stagecoach passengers in a nearby town. He is there, he explains, to offer assistance. But as Walsh exhorts Mo not to trust Clay who he suspects of being a bounty hunter, Mo seems momentarily seduced by the stranger’s appeal to their shared racial oppression. His offer to Mo? Let’s torture Walsh into giving up the location of the $120,000 from his bank robbery and split it. Hold up, $120,000?

A distraught Mo heeds Walsh’s warning too late and is physically attacked by Clay and one of his allies who has been waiting to ambush them. In a fight for her life, Mo kills the men, then confronts Walsh about his lie. But there is no time to waste as Walsh’s men soon descend for one final standoff, aiming to free him and kill Mo.

Surrounded is at once a gripping historical drama and a tightly woven psychological thriller which explores the promise and denial of freedom for African Americans at the end of the American Civil War. As the final showdown unfolds, will anyone make it out alive? Will the $120,000 remain buried? Let’s just say, you’d be a fool to count Mo out.