Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Who is Amos Otis, And Why Are They Saying Those Terrible Things About Him?

So who is Amos Otis? This turns out to be a question that a new indie doesn’t exactly answer.  But writer/director/producer Greg Newberry shows the courage of his convictions in transferring his 2019 stage play to the screen. The Cincinnati-based Newberry, deeply concerned about the 2016 presidential election and its implications for the future of his country, crafted a courtroom drama in which a mysterious man stands trial for the murder of an unnamed U.S. president. The advertising copy asks: Who is Amos Otis? Presidential Assassin or Democracy’s Savior?

 Newberry’s play, which he says “wrote itself in a matter of weeks,” was staged locally, to much acclaim.  It’ss been compared by admirers to eerie futuristic dramas like The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, and was even under consideration for a Pulitzer Prize. But the goal all along was to bag a bigger audience by making the play into a low-budget but high-quality film. That happened in 2020, with cast and crew facing a pandemic along with the usual financial challenges of any non-studio production. The Amos Otis trailer was completed on January 4, 2021, a mere two days before the attack on the U.S. Capitol seemed to bear out some of the film’s more dire predictions.

 From the start, Who Is Amos Otis? is clearly in good hands. Though cast and crew are in many cases new to film, they fulfill their roles with admirable professionalism. The opening draws us in with beautiful midwestern foliage on the screen, a haunting lullaby on the soundtrack. There’s a mysterious moment in which an average-looking guy gets out of a pickup truck and releases dozens of rubber balls into the wild. What’s he up to? That question is soon answered, pulling us straight into a world that is dark and uncomfortable, especially—I’d guess—for viewers whose political views don’t match the filmmaker’s own.

 As in the play, the bulk of the film takes place in a courtroom, where the accused assassin, his hard-pressed public defender, and a sneering defense attorney all have their say at some length. An admirably composed judge presides over what promises to be a media circus: only the nearly empty courtroom reminds us that budgets were low and COVID prevented much in the way of angry crowds, flocks of journalists, and close-up action. The cast, led by stage actor Josh Katawick in the central role, plays even the script’s unlikely moments with conviction, and there are sufficient twists to keep us riveted for quite a while.

  It's no surprise, though, that after we spend some time in such close quarters, the story’s allure starts to fade. The film, at one hour and 43 minutes, is not unusually long, but there comes a point when we crave some relief from all that speechifying.  More and more issues seem to be pulled into the mix (like the whole matter of Lee Harvey Oswald), and the cantankerous prosecutor’s sparring with the judge is repetitious, at best.

 Still, Who is Amos Otis? gave me a lot to chew on. It’s heartening to see good actors like Rico Reid (the defense attorney) and Derek Snow (the judge) graduate from miniscule parts into meaty ones, and I deeply admire the let’s-put-on-a-show gumption that turned one man’s political outrage into a complex drama. This film may make some folks of a different political stripe mighty angry. I believe Greg Newberry is in fact counting on that. Outrage is one of the things that the arts are for, right? A big thank-you to Newberry for trying so hard to shake us out of our complacency.






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