This review is a part of our 2024 Tribeca Festival coverage.

After a long day of construction, Chris (played by first-time director Nnamdi Asomugha) finishes the bathroom backsplash and unwinds with his music and headphones. He goes outside, where he drinks a beer (hesitant at first) and goes home to his wife Alex (Aja Naomi King) and his three children. One of the tools Asomugha exhibits a comfort level within his directorial debut, “The Knife,” is escalation—even better to establish enough of it to sustain heightened anxiety within this 79-minute feature. Everything seems fine at first. Chris is almost done renovating his daughter Kendra’s room (Amari Alexis Price). His second daughter Ryley (Aiden Gabrielle Price) notes that he smells like beer and that her mom wouldn’t like that. It’s a hanging modifier to consider later on in the narrative. Otherwise, Chris and Alex feel like a natural married couple embarking on this new frontier of making the home they always wanted into what they envisioned. There’s a sense of relief and beauty for this Black family to achieve that without knowing any backstory.

As they sleep, there’s a bump in another room, loud noises, and a turn of a door knob. Chris wakes up to investigate with a pocket knife and discovers a disheveled white woman, disoriented and frozen. Chris tries to talk to her but feels the weight of implications if things get out of hand. At the same time, we see the knife placed on the counter. The moments that happen after are obscured from the audience entirely. Things go from Alex’s point of view with her children only to discover Chris in a state of shock and the woman lying on the floor unconscious. What exactly happened? Did the woman attack Chris, and he try to defend himself? Did Chris attack her first? Could it be that they know one another? In the frantic, fragile nature of how things unfold, Asomugha throws the audience into a frenzy the adults are feeling. There’s a call to 9-1-1, but a quick discussion on how this would look considering the racial dynamics of whose house it is and who the implied victim is supposed to be. 

To add to the confusion, Chris can’t precisely recall what happened because everything happened so fast. Thus, an effective measure is the audience trying to understand through the eyes of other characters involved in the story. At the beginning of ‘The Knife,’ Chris’s voice-over talks about the relationship between choices and consequences. In what may or may not have transpired, Chris probably had protecting his family at the forefront of his mind. The film seeks to refine that relationship and asks who gets to suffer the consequences, depending on the choices, considering the decision may be because the person is in peril. Will a Black family receive the benefit of the doubt in a situation like this? Soon after, paramedics and police come and seal off the area in which the incident happened. Detective Carlsen (Melissa Leo) arrives soon after and begins her line of questioning. It tows a line of being curious and invasive—there’s a heavy inference of thinking that this family is somehow guilty right off the bat, even going as far as noting that the lady is the victim. When “The Knife” is not concerned with visually reminding the audience of devices shown previously, it settles into something captivating. 

Things come to an apex when the investigation turns its eye to Kendra and Riley. While the story itself doesn’t make a concrete statement about it, the superb acting of all parties involved can spell out the theme of how Black families (and kids in particular) are looked upon in the system.  You can feel like Asomugha and co-writer Mark Duplass have a lot to say and feel the pressure of the time to get it all out. Once ‘The Knife’ concludes, it’s more than a situation of misfortune. Instead, it feels like a piece of the American dream taken by forces outside this family’s control and shielded from any mode of impartiality.

Main Photo Credit: TOBIN YELLAND