Review: ‘Still Here’ (2020), starring Johnny Whitworth, Maurice McRae and Zazie Beetz

September 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

Maurice McRae in “Still Here” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Still Here” (2020)

Directed by Vlad Feier

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Still Here” has a racially diverse cast (African American and white) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A journalist takes it upon himself to investigate the case of a missing 10-year-old girl because he thinks the police aren’t doing enough in the investigation.

Culture Audience: “Still Here” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind watching predictable B-movies with mediocre acting and a lot of badly written scenes.

Johnny Whitworth and Leopold Manswell in “Still Here” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

The dramatic film “Still Here” desperately tries to look like it’s got a higher social conscience than the average B-movie, but the results are phony, awkward and downright dumb. “Still Here” also wants to have its cake and eat it too: It portrays the New York Police Department as racist and corrupt, but the movie’s entire concept is based on the over-used, racially condescending trope that black people are helpless until a “white savior” comes along to solve their problems.

Directed by Vlad Feier (who co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Gutter), the entire movie reeks of being made by filmmakers who don’t know how to accurately depict contemporary New York City and the African Americans who live there. It looks like the filmmakers of “Still Here” have mostly gotten their stereotypical ideas from what they’ve seen in movies and TV shows. And this inaccuracy is what often happens when people from certain communities are written and directed in a problematic way by people who don’t come from those communities.

The movie’s basic plot is that a working-class African American family is reeling from the mysterious disappearance of a 10-year-old girl in the family. The police don’t seem to care, but a crusading white journalist decides to do his own investigation, and he’s the only one who can get things done and save the day. It’s as simple-minded and formulaic as it sounds.

“Still Here” begins with distraught father Michael Watson (played by Maurice McRae) putting up missing-person flyers about his 10-year-old daughter Monique (played by Zariah Singletary) in the New York City neighborhood where they live. At this point in the story, Monique has been missing for eight days, and Michael is getting increasingly stressed-out because the police haven’t made any progress in the investigation.

Michael, who works as a mechanic, is also seen in a support group for parents of missing children. There’s a scene of him in a group meeting, where he’s clearly agitated. The movie has Michael’s voiceovers during the meeting, so people can hear his inner thoughts, such as “What am I doing here?” As some members of the support group drone on about their depressing situations, Michael can’t take it any more. He abruptly gets up in the middle of the meeting and announces, “This ain’t right,” before storming out.

While Michael is canvassing the neighborhood, looking for Monique and distributing the missing-person flyers, Michael’s wife Tiffany (played by Afton Williamson) has had an opposite but equally distressed reaction: She’s become so depressed that she can barely leave the apartment where she and Michael live with their teenage son Andre (played by Jared Kemp), who has stopped going to school because Monique’s disappearance has caused Andre to have panic attacks. Tiffany doesn’t do much in this movie, except cry near a candle-lit, living-room shrine that’s dedicated to Monique and plead with Michael not to lose his temper when he gets angry over how the investigation is being handled by authorities.

Because “Still Here” lazily throws in as many negative African American clichés as possible in the movie, the Watson family lives in public housing. Whether you want to call it “the projects” or “the ‘hood,” it’s still a ghetto stereotype. “Still Here” repeatedly uses the Watson family’s social class as a way to make these African Americans look as pitiful as possible, so that when the “savior” comes along, he can look even more like a noble do-gooder.

And who is the “hero” of the story who thinks he can solve this missing person’s case all by himself? It’s Christian Baker (played by Johnny Whitworth), a somewhat cocky journalist who works for the fictional New York City daily newspaper The Chronicle. When viewers first see Christian, he tells his editor boss Jerry Hoffman (played by Larry Pine) that he doesn’t want to cover a charity event because it’s not hard news.

Christian obviously thinks that doing easy puff pieces are beneath him and he’s bored with the assignments that he’s been getting lately. Jerry tells Christian: “You haven’t been delivering for too long. You’re walking a thin line here, sport.” But lo and behold, Jerry has an idea for an assignment that Christian would be willing to do.

Jerry tells Christian about the disappearance of Monique Watson: “The cops aren’t pursuing it. You know how it is: Poor black family in a poor black neighborhood … Cops aren’t interested. They don’t give a fuck. And why should they? They don’t get medals for that.”

Christian eagerly takes the assignment. And this is where “Still Here” really goes downhill, because the movie wants people think that even though Christian makes a lot of stupid mistakes, he’s still a fantastic investigator. In the real world, he would be considered grossly incompetent and lacking in basic common sense. It should also be noted that Christian, who likes to wear scarves and designer coats, is always dressed as if he’s about to have drinks at a trendy cocktail lounge, instead of going to some of the run-down seedy areas where he has to go during the course of his “investigation.”

There are so many things wrong with how the movie shows Christian doing his “investigating.” For starters, Christian wants to go to the Watson family home unannounced to talk to Monique’s parents, but he doesn’t know where they live. Instead of researching this information, like any good journalist would do (and the information would be very easy to find by using The Chronicle’s address-finding resources), he decides to go to the neighborhood where the Watson family lives, with the hope that someone can tell him which building is the one where the family resides. Christian walks around a cluster of housing projects, and then asks a group of four young African American men hanging around outside the buildings if they know where the Watson family lives.

The guy who appears to be the leader of the group is named Reggie Green (played by Leopold Manswell), and he can immediately tell that Christian isn’t street-smart at all and takes full advantage of Christian’s ignorance. Reggie basically tells Christian that the only way that he’ll tell Christian where the Watson family lives is if Christian pays him. Christian gives Reggie $100, just so Reggie can point to the building where the Watson family lives.

Christian goes to the building and looks at the mailboxes to find out which one is for the Watsons’ apartment. And because this is an apartment in “the ghetto,” of course the elevators don’t work, so Christian has to walk up to the fourth-floor apartment by using the stairs. His unannounced visit is a disaster.

Michael answers the door. Christian introduces himself and tells Michael that he’s from The Chronicle and wants to help with the investigation into Monique’s disappearance. (Christian doesn’t show any identification, by the way.) Michael gives this reply before slamming the door in Christian’s face: “You want to help? Then get the fuck out of here!”

After Christian gets this rude awakening that being a white journalist doesn’t automatically mean that he’ll be welcomed with open arms in certain neighborhoods, he goes back outside and tries to get some more information from Reggie, who’s hanging out in the same place with his friends. Reggie has noticed that Christian is wearing an expensive watch, so it’s no surprise that Reggie tells Christian that he won’t reveal any more information until Christian gives Reggie the watch, which Christian reluctantly and foolishly does.

Reggie then tells Christian something that’s pure gossip and speculation: He says that a taxi driver who lives in the same cluster of buildings used to park in a certain area every day at a certain time of day, but the taxi driver wasn’t parked there on the day that Monique disappeared and the taxi driver hasn’t been seen since. Reggie says that he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence.

And what does Christian do with this speculation? He finds out the name of the taxi driver and tells his editor boss Jerry that this taxi driver is probably the “suspect” that the police have overlooked. It’s one of the movie’s many unrealistic moments, because the taxi driver isn’t a “suspect.” He’s not even a “person of interest,” because there’s no proof that this taxi driver had any contact with Monique.

Christian thinks that the only way for the police to jumpstart the investigation into Monique’s disappearance is if the police are shamed into it by a news report that says that the police overlooked a “suspect.” His irresponsible boss Jerry agrees. And so, the next day, The Chronicle runs a front-page article, written by Christian, with the headline “Taxi Driver, Yann Abellard, Overlooked by Investigators in Monique Watson’s Disappearance.” Christian is both smug and excited about this article.

This inflammatory and very unethical article, which could ruin an innocent man’s reputation, sets off a chain of events, during which “Still Here” tries to hammer over viewers’ heads the ideas that all New York City police officers are corrupt and/or racist and that Christian is the only journalist who can find out what happened to Monique. One of the movie’s disturbing scenes is when taxi driver Yann Abellard (played by Baboucarr Camara) is brought in for brutal questioning by the NYPD. He’s an African immigrant who’s scared out of his mind, and he vehemently proclaims that he’s innocent.

Although the interrogation methods are over-the-top, it’s one of the few times in the movie where there is some realism. The scene shows what can happen when someone is brought in for questioning by police and that person doesn’t know enough about their rights to ask for a lawyer, which (by American law) would put a stop to the questioning. At various times in the movie, there are other people who fall under suspicion about Monique’s disappearance, including her brother Andre and a neighbor in his 20s named Marcus Mitchell (played by Justiin A. Davis), who lives on the same floor as the Watson family.

Michael is highly suspicious of Christian, because he thinks that Christian just wants to exploit the family’s pain and not help them. However, Michael’s wife Tiffany is more willing to listen to what Christian has to say. Christian eventually wins over the family’s trust when he tells them that he doesn’t like how the NYPD has been handling the case and he can do a better job than the police have been doing in investigating Monique’s disappearance.

As for the corrupt and racist NYPD cops, there’s a scene where the case’s chief investigator Captain Hardwick (played by Steven Hauck) tells a white subordinate cop what he thinks about the media attention over the case: “I’m not losing my job because some black little bitch got lost on the way home.” Captain Hardwick essentially tells his underlings to find and arrest a suspect, even if there’s no real evidence against that person.

The two subordinates who’ve been tasked with most of the investigation are black cop Anthony Evans (played by Danny Johnson) and white cop Greg Spaulding (played by Jeremy Holm), who have very different views on how they should handle the case. Anthony has no problems carrying out their boss’ orders to find and arrest a suspect, regardless if there’s no evidence. Greg is more reluctant, and he feels guilty about possibly targeting someone who might be innocent.

It’s implied that Anthony is willing to go as far as frame someone for the crime. And the fact that it will probably be a fellow African American doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. “Ain’t no shame in the game,” Anthony tells Greg, in one of the movie’s many cringeworthy lines. It speaks volumes that the filmmakers wanted to make the African American cop a bigger villain than his white colleague.

Zazie Beetz shares top billing in this movie, probably because she has a red-hot career right now, but her headlining status for this movie is misleading. Her fans and other viewers should be warned that Beetz only has one scene in “Still Here,” which has her on screen for about five minutes. She plays Keysha, an ex-girlfriend of Marcus. This movie can’t get enough of pointing out the cultural differences that Christian experiences as a white “fish out of water” in a predominantly African American “ghetto.” There’s a scene where Reggie tells Christian that Keysha might have some information, and Christian has trouble pronouncing her name.

The actors in this movie don’t do anything particularly outstanding. McCrae is given a few scenes where he convincingly expresses anguish as the father of a missing child whom the police don’t seem to care about, while Wentworth doesn’t seem to have a lot emotionally invested in his drab role as Christian. The movie shows almost nothing about what kind of person Christian is when he’s not working, except a random scene of him dancing suggestively with a woman at a nightclub. This nightclub scene’s only purpose is to establish that Christian is sexually interested in women, so that viewers know that Christian is the prototypical good-looking, straight white male who usually gets to be the hero in movies like this one.

“Still Here” is not the worst movie you could ever see. It’s just an incredibly lazy and culturally tone-deaf film that offers nothing that’s impressively creative. In the real world of New York City newspaper journalism, a dolt like Christian wouldn’t last on a crime beat, let alone be given front-page assignments, because he’s just so bungling and willfully ignorant of how crime investigations work. The next time that “Still Here” director Feier makes a movie, let’s hope he makes an attempt to tell the story in a more authentic way.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Still Here” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020, and on digital and VOD on September 1, 2020.