Exhibiting Forgiveness (Sundance) Review

Exhibiting Forgiveness is a tragic, nuanced meditation on reconciliations, and whether or not some wounds run too deep.

PLOT: An artist (Andre Holland) must come to terms with the trauma of his youth when his father (James Earl Jelks) re-enters his life seeking forgiveness.

REVIEW: It’s easier to forgive than forget. That the well-worn but always true message of director Titus Kaphar’s powerhouse debut, Exhibiting Forgiveness. A notable artist who received the MacArthur Genius Grant in 2018 had exhibitions all over the United States and abroad, this marks his first time behind the camera, and what a debut it is.

The Knick star Andre Holland stars as Tarrell, an acclaimed black artist who’s become the toast of the art world, has a beautiful, loving wife (Audra Day) and an adoring young son. But he still wakes up in a cold sweat every morning, remembering the psychological and physical abuse his father, La’Ron (James Earl Jelks), dished out on him as a kid. This included making him work a full day mowing lawns even after he impaled his foot on a dirty nail. Now that Tarrell is thriving and happy, his father has come out of the woodwork, claiming to have “found Jesus” and to be free of the crack addiction he blames for his worst behaviour. His loving mother, Joyce (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), wants him to let his dad back in his life, but it’s not so easy for Tarrell, who can’t help but despise the man.

Indeed, Exhibiting Forgiveness is the antithesis of your typical, uplifting family drama. Too many films judge the victims of abuse too harshly for not being quick to forgive or forget, and Exhibiting Forgiveness is on Tarrell’s side throughout as some wounds, like it or not, run too deep.

Yet, the film is sensitively acted and manages to have some empathy towards everyone. No one is perfect, including Holland’s Tarrell, who repressed his anger and fear so much that it comes out at the wrong targets, including his own family, in a misguided attempt to protect them from his past. While Audra Day’s Aisha could have been a stock, “loving wife” character, she has agency of her own, with her a struggling musician looking to fulfil her own ambitions. Her support is unwavering, but she doesn’t hand Tarrell platitudes about moving on. She doesn’t know what he went through because he won’t let her in, and the film respects that.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, as Tarrell’s loving mother, also has a more complicated role than usual in the film. While a dotting, kind and religious woman, the film also questions the fact that she allowed La’Ron to abuse his son for so long. And finally, James Earl Jelks has a powerhouse role as the once fearsome La’Ron, who’s become mentally and physically mellowed with time.

One of the best things about the film is that Kaphar allows you to empathize with all involved without spoon-feeding you a reconciliation narrative that might come off as unearned. He doesn’t want you leaving the theatre with an “up” feeling because that’s not truthful to the experience of the abused. Some demons may stay buried, but they’re never, ever forgotten. Through it all, Kaphar brings a touch of the avant-garde to his movie while still dipping into a little welcome art world satire, as wealthy patrons jockey to buy Tarrell’s depictions of suffering because they’re trendy, and how he resents it but also needs to go along with it to make a living.

In many ways, I’m surprised Exhibiting Forgiveness didn’t get a big sale (yet) at Sundance, as it seems like the kind of movie an indie distributor could do a lot with come awards time. Holland has long been underrated as an actor, and this is a powerhouse showcase for him.

exhibitng forgiveness

Sundance

AMAZING

9

About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.