In Yara Shahidi's short-film, X, a Black child leaves home one morning to go to school. He puts on his Converse Chuck Taylors, eats cereal, goes to science class — he's a regular kid. But as he steps out into the world, we see him physically shift and evolve to match the expectations and stereotypes projected onto him by the world he lives in.
Shot predominantly on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, and with almost no dialogue, X manages to powerfully convey the spectrum of emotions experienced by people who feel marginalized within public spaces. They're a young girl trying to ward off the unwanted approach of a grown man, or a Black teenager eyed suspiciously by a convenience store owner. It's only when they feel safe in their environment that they can truly be themselves.
"It's really about what’s it’s like living in a space you don’t own," Shahidi told Refinery29 at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film screened for the first time. "I think it’s something everybody can relate to — especially as a brown person, but also as somebody who is on the internet nowadays, where you are constantly witnessing trauma of other people, being desensitized to it, and also living next to it, and with it, in a way that isn’t often addressed, and in a way that makes you grow up really quickly. And so, [X] was almost a literal adaptation of what it would be like if we grew up based on our surroundings."
Shahidi, who co-wrote the film with grown-ish writer Jordan Reddout, says that she was inspired by the 1956 French classic The Red Balloon, which shines a light on that country's socio-economic disparities by following a little boy's journey through Paris.
"I wanted something that drove you through [Los Angeles] in a similar way," said Shahidi, who starts as a freshman at Harvard this fall. The result is a beautiful 13-minute short that intersperses scenes of quiet loneliness and alienation with bursts of color and joy. Without any deep individual character development, or plot twists, Shahidi's creativity as a director is the driving narrative force.
The title, X, was originally a place-holder name for the unnamed main character. "When we were writing the draft and didn’t know what call the character, we just called them X," Shahidi explained. "But what it represented was [the fact that] I didn’t want this to seem like this was a story that was happening to this one young boy. Not to reduce a character to an algorithm, but it’s very much a variable or a stand-in for anybody. Especially now, when we witness what happens on a daily basis to kids — especially kids of color — every iteration of X is representative of everyone who goes through daily discomfort, and almost earned paranoia of not knowing what will happen to you next in your surroundings."
That's a feeling that Shahidi, who was born to an African American mother and an Iranian father, says she is very familiar with. One scene, in which a girl deals with an unsafe situation by pretending to call her friend about a fake karate class, is based on Shahidi's own experience.
"Whenever my brother and I felt uncomfortable with somebody behind us, we’d start talking about karate really loudly, as if that would ward people off," she said. "Like, ‘Oh, they know karate, back away!’ It’s those moments that I feel like each iteration of X allows us to explore. Every change is intentional. X transitions into a girl for that bus scene, because it’s a special kind of discomfort."
The film ends on an ambiguous note, something that Shahidi says was intentional, and came out of conversations with Reddout about the point they were trying to make. "We came up with the idea that we didn’t need a finite ending," she said. "It’s cool not to have a clear moral of the story, because to say that there’s a moral of the story would say that there is some sort of solution. Whereas, there isn’t a solution, and it’s more a film about awareness."
The experience of directing has been formative for Shahidi, who rose to fame as Zoey Johnson on ABC's black-ish, and stars in the Freeform spinoff based on her character's college experience. She definitely wants to try to direct a full-length feature down the line, but also believes that sitting in the director's chair has had an impact on her work as an actress.
"I realized what I really love about grown-ish is that all the cast has had some sort of experience in some other area of this industry other than being an actor," she said. "And it may be through their parents, it may be through a friend, but I feel like we all moved into this with an overarching appreciation for what everyone does. You realize that as important as you are as an actor, it’s not possible without sound. It’s not possible without wardrobe, it’s not possible without continuity, and props, and set design, and the director, and the grips. It makes the process really enjoyable when you operate as a collective, understanding that you’re one part of the machine. And so you can appreciate your part as an individual, while still appreciating everybody else."
"X" is currently available to stream across TNT's digital distribution platforms, including Roku, Amazon Firestock, Apple TV, Xbox One, and TNT's website.