Having lost his wife and his memory in a tragic car accident, news photographer Nolan Wright (Mamoudou Athie) is desperate to regain a sense of normalcy for both himself and his young daughter Ava (Amanda Christine). So when brilliant neuropsychiatrist Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad) invites him to participate in an experimental treatment that might reverse his condition, he agrees.
Using a hypnosis-inducing device called the Black Box, she unearths lost memories, allowing patients to re-experience them first-hand. But the memories Nolan experiences reveal a much darker past than he anticipated. Even more terrifying is the disfigured creature that threatens to kill Nolan in his surreal dream-state. A haunting descent into one man’s shattered psyche, Black Box is a high-tech thriller that poses the question: Do we run our minds or do our minds run us?
The Koalition spoke to award-winning writer and director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s whose short films have wowed audiences about creating Black Box, a science-fiction thriller he never thought he would direct — until he read an early draft of Black Box by writer Stephen Herman.
“Most of my films have been coming-of-age pieces about relationships and family and the breaking of innocence,” says the filmmaker. “Black Box appealed to me because at its heart it’s about a family — a father and his daughter — and I felt I could really add something to that.”
Osei-Kuffour developed the script with guidance from executive producers Lisa Bruce of Blumhouse and Jay Ellis and Aaron Bergman of Black Bar Mitzvah, to create a spellbinding psychological thriller with a jolting twist.
Black Box is a cool sci-fi concept with fully-developed flawed characters that adds an emotional layer you don’t get in most horror films. Emmanuel wants audiences to invest in the characters’ journey, which ultimately raises the stakes because you care so much about what happens to these people. It presents a world in which you don’t usually get to see Black people on screen: father-daughter stories, stories of loss and the effects of grief, or stories about the lengths love will go to keep a family together.
Osei-Kuffour says a key underlying theme of Black Box is the pressure to live up to the expectations of others. “I think it’s about being good enough and pleasing your family and your friends and playing the role you’re assigned to play in society,” he explains. “Nolan is supposed to be a good father and everybody in his life expects him to be a certain person, and even when the truth about his memories is revealed, he’s under familial pressure to be a better person than he has been in the past.”
In the central role of Nolan, the amnesiac widowed father, Osei-Kuffour cast Emmy-nominated actor Mamoudou Athie, whose credits include the series Sorry for Your Loss and the deep-sea adventure Underwater, opposite Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel.
Adding to Nolan’s frustration is the fact his daughter Ava and his best friend Gary, played by Tosin Morohunfola, keep telling him about things he used to love to do, which he now has no inclination toward or talent for, observes Athie. “It’s a story about family and loss and trying to rekindle a connection,” he says. “I think literally every human in the world can identify with that.”
Desperate to regain his memory, Nolan agrees to undergo a radical therapy using the Black Box, a cutting-edge device developed by pioneering neuropsychiatrist Dr. Lillian Brooks, played by Phylicia Rashad. Rashad’s presence in Black Box enhances the film’s mystery and suspense. Seeing someone who could be described as America’s mother now in a role where her intentions are perhaps not exactly morally correct. Watching her onscreen slowly revealing the layers and desperation of her character is truly fascinating.
Although Black Box centers on an as-yet undeveloped piece of medical technology, the film is rooted in reality. “The goal was to make it feel like it’s taking place not so far in the future, that this technology could be just a day way and this is something that could happen to anybody. I think that gives the film an emotional appeal that will draw audiences in — because it’s such a relatable thing to lose someone and want them back.”
For that reason Osei-Kuffour says he didn’t want to set the film in a high-tech future. “I wasn’t trying to make a film that let on that it was science-fiction — or even that it was a thriller with some kind of twist,” he says. “So every conversation I had with the production designer, with the costume designer, with props, was always about creating a world that felt lived in, textured, and commonplace. I wanted it to feel very slice-of-life, grounded and just real.”
The director referred to two very different films when conceptualizing the look of Black Box. “I always saw this film as somewhere between Black Swan and The Pursuit of Happyness,” says Osei-Kuffour. “Black Swan in the sense that it’s very claustrophobic, very subjective. You feel what Nolan feels and you know what he knows. Pursuit of Happyness in the sense that Nolan’s daughter is a kind of heavenly presence in his life who makes him a better person.”
With its evocative storyline, nuanced characters and top-notch cast, Black Box breathes new life into a familiar genre. In addition to the emergence of a more emotional narrative, we get to see actors we think we know in kinds of roles we haven’t seen them in before. That’s what we like to do with all Black Bar Mitzvah projects, take audience preconceptions and turn them on their axis to present them in a light.
Osei-Kuffour says he’s grateful for the opportunity to make his first feature under the auspices of Black Bar Mitzvah, Blumhouse and Amazon. “I’m so very thankful they had faith in me. Prior to this I’ve made like five shorts, and Hollywood is not known to take chances on directors who haven’t proven themselves with anything longer than 15 minutes. It takes real guts to do something like that.”
To learn more about Black Box check out our full interview below.