From the start, as Mo Washington walks into a bar and moments later buys a stagecoach seat with an air of a free, not enslaved woman, one knows Letitia Wright is about to take audiences on a journey of strength, freedom and choices.
Five years after the end of the Civil War, a former soldier (Letitia Wright) disguises herself as a man while traveling west to lay claim on a gold mine. After thieves ambush her stagecoach, she’s unexpectedly forced to guard legendary outlaw Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell), while the surviving passengers look for help. In a battle of wills, blurring the line between captor and captive, both try to survive the harsh landscape mentally, physically and emotionally.
In his second feature, director Anthony Mandler flushes out Andrew Pagana’s screenplay addressing hardships many soldiers like Mo Washington endure, while trying to maintain their dignity and freedom. In researching the Old West, filmmakers came across a few stories of women dressed like men who joined the Buffalo Soldiers and fought alongside them in the Indian Wars of the late 1860’s. The character of Mo Washington is loosely inspired by these women and Mandler crafting the entire script with Letitia Wright in mind.
Wright is perfection as Mo. She is stoically masculine as a Buffalo Soldier, yet her female vulnerability slips out when confronted by the only other person of color she encounters – a bounty hunter portrayed by the amazingly gifted late actor Michael K. Williams. Their scene reveals Washington is at the core, to be a little girl desperately needing to lean on and believe this man who is strongly reminiscent of her Dad. It’s a memorable moment as it is the only time you will ever see her on the verge of breaking.
At the same time, when Tommy Walsh snidely remarks , “You may think you’re free, but you always be a slave to the white man,” one is quickly reminded no matter how many steps ahead a Black person may think they have taken to gain equality, we always have to work five times harder to get what we rightly deserve. Ultimately, one becomes sick and tired of being sick and tired of having little to no options. Having said that, Jaime Bell is despicable and deliciously diabolical as a Billy the Kid prototype. Their energy coupled with pent up anger between both races and characters drives the film to excellent storytelling while dropping a little historical nugget along the way.
In addition to writing the film for Wright, Pagana drafted the original spec script in 2004 after a visit to a museum in Abilene, Texas about the old west where he learned that not every county or town had a sheriff. If a criminal was captured, they would have to tie him to a tree and wait a week for the sheriff to show up.
In Surrounded, this week would prove to be the longest week of both lead characters and leading to this intersection of their lives. If I had one criticism, it would be the night scenes that are so dark, the Black actors can only be seen through their teeth and the whites of their eyes unless they happen to be sitting next to a fire that is casting light onto their faces. I know this is a petty observation, but it’s a pet peeve of mine to not have black people lit properly in an age where there is really no excuse.
Having said that Surrounded is a wonderful modern western breaking down how when cultures clash, the road to forgiveness and how understanding requires a bridge that may never get crossed.