Introducing Jay Will, Sundance’s Breakout Star Of Rob Peace

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance.
“When healthy cells flourish, cancer cells can’t,” These words are uttered by DeShaun Robert Peace in Rob Peace, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s second feature film as both writer and director (which debuted this week at The Sundance Film Festival). The statement becomes a revelatory prophecy of the inevitable tragedy of this young man’s ill-fated life. Adapted from the biography The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs (Peace’s real-life roommate at Yale University), Ejiofor helms a fairly by-the-numbers biopic, never straying too far from convention, but still manages to weave together a full and lush tapestry befitting of the magnitude of a story like this.
Ominously, the film opens with the image of a literal house on fire, the house belonging to Peace’s father, Skeet, played by Ejiofor himself. It doesn’t take a thorough read of Hobbs’ book or previous knowledge of Peace’s life’s story to understand the message that is being relayed to the audience here: this is the story of an entire world on fire — one that is so omnipresent and pervasive that the flames licking at your ankles don’t just threaten to merely burn you, but rather engulf you, subsuming you and everything you love into them. From there, we’re guided through 1980s East Orange, New Jersey from the vantage point of a young, seven-year-old DeShaun (played by Jelani Dacres) tagging along with his father. Immediately, we can see that DeShaun is caught between his parents, Skeet and Jackie (a poignant and uncharacteristically stoic Mary J. Blige), as she looks on skeptically as Skeet arrives to pick up DeShaun. Immediately, it’s clear that there are divides here. There is pain here. There is history here. As we ride along with father and son, DeShaun’s intellect — surpassing far beyond his seven years — shines. His father quizzes him with math questions that would dizzy the average adult, let alone child, and DeShaun answers with ease as he beams up at his father. There is adoration here. Upon arrival at their destination, Skeet jokingly accuses DeShaun of farting in the car, making him exit the car and walk up the street; once the child is far enough away, we watch as Skeet extracts a gun from the glove compartment and pockets it. There is danger here. 
The following scenes are purposefully shrouded in mystery and obfuscation, as a series of events lead to Skeet being charged and convicted for a double murder of two women. It seems like Ejiofor made the choice to use this inconclusiveness as a way to ground the audience in the same reality as DeShaun, as he spends the majority of his adolescence and young adult life grappling with the truths of his father’s case, while still never giving up the fight to free him. Jackie, with the desperation only a mother can understand, tells DeShaun to go by his middle name —  Robert —  to distance himself from his father’s reputation as a convicted murderer. The mystery surrounding his dad’s case also serves as a stark counter to Rob’s (né DeShaun) penchant for the absoluteness of science. 

Rob Peace knew intimately that the systems bearing down on him were too big, too rich, and too white to fail. He was never trying to save the whole world — he was trying to save his world.

“Science helped me navigate the challenges I faced, Rob says. “Science is organized.” His academic genius for the subject appears to be fuelled by his ravenous need for solutions in his personal life. Ejiofor quickly ushers us through Rob’s adolescence (perfectly played by the coy and charming Chance K. Smith) as he attends St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, with Jackie working multiple jobs to cover the costly tuition and relentless bills. As his academic skill only increases, Rob is a young man dedicated to the people around him: his father, his mother, and his friends. St. Benedict’s motto, “What hurts my brother, hurts me”, becomes his North Star, guiding him through life, heeding the message with an acuity and ferocity that will break your heart. Teenaged Rob does exceedingly well in school, rakes leaves for his neighbors, works three jobs to help with bills, and leaves food out on the table for his mom when she comes home from work. All the while, ceaselessly fighting for his father’s release and eventually finding a loophole that grants Skeet post-conviction relief, releasing him from jail pending an appeal from the state 
Unsurprisingly, Rob (now an adult, and portrayed masterfully by breakout star Jay Will) is accepted into Yale where we watch his star continue to ascend. School and friends come easy to him. He quickly amasses a diverse group of friends from classes and joins the all-white waterpolo team,  getting into the kind of benign mischief that is typically only afforded to white students from affluent families and neighborhoods. But we know different, don’t we? Black folks can sense that we are barreling down a path that should be paved with only success and triumph, but will likely be marred by challenges at best, and tragedy at worst. It’s at Yale that we see the most overt glimpses of racism in the film —  like when a white student, suspicious that Rob isn’t a Yale student, doesn’t want to let him through a gate on campus. A friend later warns him, “If you’re gonna walk around Yale being Black, you gotta keep that I.D. on you.” It’s ironic, then, that this kind of old guard Ivy League-branded racism seems to bother Rob the least. Growing up in East Orange, witnessing the violent imbalances of capitalism and the criminal justice system and how they could eat away at a life, our protagonist understands that his fight is much bigger than some trust fund kid on campus. His pursuit, like that of the scientist, a studier of the world’s biological systems, hits at a cellular level. What makes things function the way they do? And how do the most vulnerable of us cope with the answers we find?  
Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images.
Chiwetel Ejiofor and cast of 'Rob Peace' at Sundance 2024
Keenly aware that those around him wouldn’t understand where he comes from, Rob is closed off about his own life, cloaking himself in the same mystery that has trailed him since childhood. He doesn’t tell friends or a new love interest, Naya (Camila Cabello), about his father or that he’s now back in prison following the state’s successful appeal. It becomes clear that the story Ejiofor is trying to tell is one that demonstrates how dangerous gaps in our lives can become and what comes with the pressure the comes with attempting to bridge those gaps   — between mother and father, between father and son, between rich and poor, between white and Black —  is enough to break anyone. “You bring people together, ” Rob’s roommate tells him. Rob replies: “I’m trying to find all the divergent areas of my life and pull them together and find balance.” Ejiofor is asking the audience: who holds together the person who’s holding everyone else together? 
When Skeet is diagnosed with brain cancer and requires costly medication, Rob plunges himself into a marijuana-selling business. Rob gains access to lab equipment thanks to a white professor who takes a liking to him, develops his own strain, and enlists the help of his closest friends to sell weed on campus to raise enough funds for his father. There is danger here. We know how this ends. We know what comes next. And we know what happens to the vulnerable, bright eyed and bushy-tailed naive kids who try to save the world. But Rob Peace isn’t that story. Rob knew intimately that the systems bearing down on him were too big, too rich, and too white to fail. He was never trying to save the whole world — he was trying to save his world. And though he eventually succumbed to the fates of the terrors that make up those systems, it was less about his naiveté and more about the damnation that awaits Black boys who grow too big for the world.

Ejiofor is asking the audience: who holds together the person who’s holding everyone else together? 

gloria alamrew
During the Sundance Q&A following the premiere — where the film received a tender and emotional standing ovation  — Ejiofor explained that the story of Rob is important because he was a person who found himself at the tragic intersection of poverty, racism, housing justice, the criminal justice system, and education inequity and was desperately trying to fight against it all. Jay Will was visibly emotional while reflecting on the experience of playing Rob. “The process of it all was really just a reflection of my own life,” he says. “I came from the hood and went to Juilliard. This weighs heavy on my heart because Rob was a real person. This was a life.“ In the Sundance theater, listening to Will, the moment felt weighty. Plus, the real Jackie Peace was in the audience and her presence only added to the gravity of what we were all feeling — that the world failed her son.  
Following the premiere, while waiting for an Uber, I overheard a white couple discussing the film and very casually remark, “What a waste of potential” about Rob’s life. I had to laugh at not only how absurd and disrespectful a comment like this was, but it was also incredible how poignantly the comment distilled the dissonance between the lived experiences of Black and white folks in America. 
Rob Peace isn’t a perfect film. There are scenes that feel clunky, I wasn’t particularly enamored with Cabello’s performance, and the last act rushes over large sections of time and plot to propel the story forward.. But it isn’t a film about wasted potential. This is a film about what happens when a young, Black kid from East Orange, New Jersey falls victim to a world that never wanted him to fulfill his potential in the first place. Whether it was taking care of his mother, fighting for his father while struggling to reconcile the truth, being a Black genius in the Ivy League, or just feeling like there’s always something waiting around the corner to push him backwards, Rob persisted beyond the limits of everyone else’s imagination and redrew the borders of what it meant to uphold, protect, preserve your people and community when that same care isn’t being offered to you. Rob Peace is ultimately a film about life; the struggle for it, which lives we value, and when and where it gets to thrive. Rob studied cancer in the hopes of one day curing it in our bodies but also in our spirits and communities; to bring all of us — including himself — out of the chaos that haunted him and into a balanced, more just world. Rob made, and kept, a lot of promises in his short life, trusting implicitly in what his father said to him when he was just seven years old: “You look out for people, DeShaun, and they look out for you.” It is a deep shame that the world couldn’t keep that same promise to Rob. 
Rob Peace premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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