Review: ‘Black Box’ (2020), starring Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine, Tosin Morohunfola, Charmaine Bingwa and Troy James

October 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mamoudou Athie and Phylicia Rashad in “Black Box” (Photo by Alan Markfield/Amazon Studios)

“Black Box” (2020)

Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi/horror movie “Black Box” has a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widowed father suffers from amnesia because of the car accident that killed his wife, and he undergoes a radical scientific experiment to try to recover his memories.

Culture Audience: “Black Box” will appeal primarily to people who like horror movies that blend science fiction with family drama and have unexpected twists.

Amanda Christine and Mamoudou Athie in “Black Box” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/Amazon Studios)

At first glance, the sci-fi/horror film “Black Box” seems to be a story about how unchecked scientific experiments can wreak havoc on someone’s life. But beneath all the creepy and mind-bending scenes is a story about yearning for chances to start over and renew relationships with loved ones. Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., “Black Box” has some familiar influences (the 1990 film “Total Recall” immediately comes to mind), but the movie has its own unique elements that make it a worthwhile offering for people who like horror movies where a lot of terror can exist in someone’s mind.

“Black Box” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Amazon Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. The movie is the feature-film debut of Osei-Kuffour, who co-wrote the “Black Box” screenplay with Stephen Herman. It’s not a straightforward movie that is supposed to be told chronologically. Instead, viewers have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, just like fragmented memories that could become whole.

In “Black Box,” Nolan Wright (played by Mamoudou Athie) is a 33-year-old photographer and widowed father who is struggling physically, financially and emotionally. He is recovering from a car accident that killed his wife Rachel six months ago and left him in a coma. When he emerged from the coma, he found out that he has amnesia, and he is now coping with feelings for guilt over Rachel’s death and the stress of not remembering a great deal of his life.

Because of his injuries and ongoing recovery, Nolan hasn’t been able to work, and the bills are piling up. There’s a wall in Nolan’s living room that looks like it was punched in anger, and it’s later revealed in the movie that he punched the wall because he got frustrated over being hounded by bill collectors. This type of violence goes against Nolan’s mild-mannered nature. He’s also a kind and attentive father.

Nolan’s lively and very precocious daughter Ava (played by Amanda Christine), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, has become the “lady” of their household. She helps Nolan get ready in the morning, makes meals and helps him remember things, since Nolan as short-term and long-term memory loss. Nolan worries that the big chunks of his life that he doesn’t remember are memories that he’ll never get back.

In the beginning of the movie, Nolan is ready to go back to work at the magazine job he used to have before the car accident. He has a meeting with his former boss Cathy (played by Gretchen Koerner), who also used to be the supervisor for Nolan’s late wife Rachel. But Cathy tells him some bad news: She can’t rehire Nolan because her publisher boss doesn’t think that Nolan’s current work doesn’t reach the same quality level as his past work.

Nolan’s best friend is a doctor named Gary (played by Tosin Morohunfola), who offers to lend Nolan money to help pay Nolan’s bills, but Nolan is politely declines to accept this offer. Nolan tells Gary about being rejected by his former job, and Gary comforts Nolan by telling him, “You don’t need to change your career, Nolan. You just need to remember who you are.”

While Nolan is visiting Gary at the hospital where Gary works, Gary recommends that Nolan try undergoing some of the experimental memory treatments conducted by Dr. Lillian Brooks (played by Phylicia Rashad), who is considered a somewhat controversial visionary because not all of her experiments have been government-approved. And it just so happens that a video of Dr. Brooks giving an instructional lecture to an audience is playing in the waiting room where Nolan is sitting.

Feeling he’s got nothing to lose, Nolan makes an appointment with Dr. Brooks, who knows Nolan’s personal and medical history and decides he’s a good candidate for her Black Box memory recovery experiments. Dr. Brooks tells Nolan that the Black Box converts memories into an “immersive virtual experience, like a dream.” Therefore, when Nolan gets a Black Box treatment, he will have a virtual recreation of his memories.

Dr. Brooks puts Nolan under hypnosis, where he sees himself in a house with different rooms. Before he goes into the trance, Dr. Brooks tells him that the first room he will be in is a “safe room.” There are no safes in this room, but it’s supposed to represent the safest room in the house and the room that Nolan has to be in if he wants to emerge safely from the hypnosis.

Nolan can go from room to room by pushing down on the crown of an imaginary analog watch. However, he cannot open the doors in the safe room. If he wants to leave the safe room, he has to use the watch. And what Nolan sees when he goes under hypnosis would be enough for most people to completely call off the Black Box experiment.

While under hypnosis, Nolan has flashes of memories, but the other people in these memories have their faces blurred out and the rooms are usually very shadowy or dark. One vivid memory that Nolan relives is his wedding ceremony in the church where it took place. But what’s supposed to be happy memory turns into a nightmare.

An unwelcome guest emerges from a church pew. It’s an unknown humanoid creature that can contort limbs at sickening angles. The menacing creature is called Backwards Man (played by Troy James), and every time it moves, you can hear the sound of bones cracking. Just like everyone else in these visions, the face of Backwards Man is obscured. Every time Backwards Man sees Nolan, the creature rushes to attack Nolan, who then has to quickly find a way back to the safe room so that he can come out from the hypnosis.

The first time that Nolan has this terrifying experience, he’s hesitant to go back under hypnosis again. But his desire to recover his memories outweighs any fear that he has, so he goes back under hypnosis again. Another vision that he sees is of a bruised and crying woman in a kitchen. It appears that someone in the home has beaten her and she’s afraid of that person.

Nolan has never seen this woman before, but he later finds out that her name is Miranda (played by Charmaine Bingwa), and she doesn’t live very far from Nolan. He also sees in his visions that Miranda has a crying baby in another room. And once again, Backwards Man suddenly appears to try to attack Nolan.

Nolan begins to wonder if the visions he’s seeing are really memories or delusions. He asks Gary if he’s ever had a history of abusing women. Gary tells Nolan absolutely not and says that Nolan and Rachel were an ideal, loving couple. Gary only remembers bits and pieces of his marriage to Rachel, so he has to take Gary’s word for it. (There’s no mention in the story if Nolan has any other relatives. If he does, he doesn’t communicate with them and vice versa.)

The mysteries of Nolan’s strange Black Box visions are explained by the end of the film. Throughout the movie, “Black Box” writer/director Osei-Kuffour achieves a delicate balance between the Nolan who’s trying to keep things together in the “real world” to be a responsible parent and the Nolan who keeps getting pulled back into the dark and murky world of the Black Box memory experiments. Nolan isn’t quite sure what’s being done to his mind but he’s willing to risk everything just to get back his memories.

But the darker world of these memory experiments spills over into Nolan’s real world, as he has nightmares and blackouts that affect his ability to function as normally as he would like. For example, one day he forgets to pick up Ava from school (it’s not the first time it’s happened), and the concerned teacher who brings Ava home threatens to report Nolan to child protective services if it happens again.

As Nolan, Athie does an admirable job of portraying someone who’s torn between these two worlds, while Christine shows a lot of talent as a child who’s perceptive beyond the level of most children her age. Nolan and Ava’s father/daughter relationship is adorable and realistic. Rashad portrays Dr. Brooks as someone who is passionate about her work, but the movie doesn’t really go into details about other patients whom Dr. Brooks has treated. The only work with patients that Dr. Brooks is shown doing in the movie is her Black Box sessions with Nolan.

The Backwards Man in “Black Box” brings some chills, but this contortionist creature looks too human and familiar for it to become a horror villain that people will be talking about for years. (When the face of Backwards Man is finally revealed, it’s no surprise.) Ultimately, the message of “Black Box” is that no matter how advanced technology becomes and how many material possessions people can have, people’s human connections and memories have intangible value and are treasured the most.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “Black Box” on October 6, 2020.