The Last Shift is a didactic look at race in America

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The Last Shift is a didactic look at race in America
I’m not sure why so many (white) filmmakers feel that the best way to explore issues of race and racial injustice in the United States is to showcase an unlikely friendship between a white guy and a black guy. (The trope has, for reasons we can imagine, not really extended to female friendships – though you can sometimes fudge it a little bit à la Driving Miss Daisy.) Obviously, these are the kinds of friendships that can and do happen in real life, but to suggest that all we need to do to wipe out hundreds of years of exploitation and injustice is to bond over some common ground is some absolute Mickey Mouse shit. Andrew Cohn’s The Last Shift isn’t exactly Green Book in that respect; what it suggests about race relations (or, at the very least, the relation between this specific white guy and this specific black guy) is somewhat thornier than “we’re not so different, you and I,” but the way it approaches that sometimes feels indistinguishable.

Stanley (Richard Jenkins) has spent the last 38 years working the graveyard shift at Oscar’s Chicken and Fish, a dumpy fast-food restaurant that seems to serve very little chicken and absolutely no fish. Perpetually single and possessing a single friend (Ed O’Neill), Stanley is nearing the end of his tenure at Oscar’s. He plans to quit and move to Florida to be closer to his mother, whom his rich brother has stuck in a home that Stan deems too much of a shithole. Stan is set to be replaced by Javon (Shane Paul McGhie), a 20-something Black man who has just been released from jail for defacing a monument and resisting arrest. Javon has a political conscience and the desire to be a writer, but his newborn baby with a girlfriend (Birgundi Baker) who doesn’t seem to have much patience for antics (coupled with his recent incarceration) seems to have slowed his roll. Predictably, the two don’t hit it off immediately — both are somewhat wary of what the other represents, even if their job places them on equal footing.

The characters are the thing that work best in The Last Shift. Though the film has a certain quirky sheen reminiscent of the work of Alexander Payne (who apparently briefly considered directing; he retains an executive producer credit), it holds back where other imitators have gone hog wild. Both Stan and Javon feel like fully formed people rather than sitcomish creations revealed through their interactions. What bonds Stan and Javon is poverty. Though society sees them as very different, almost opposite figures, their livelihood depends in both cases on flipping burgers. Stan has lived his entire life thinking that if he dedicates himself to something, it will pay off. It has paid off in stiff joints, a room in a decrepit rooming house and perfect ingredient-stacking skills. On the other hand, Javon has (correctly) surmised that the game is rigged against young men like him, but he’s gone beyond accepting it into letting it poison the lives of people around him and remaining completely uninterested in his role as a partner and a father. 

It’s an interesting sparring match that unfortunately takes a couple of turns into didactic, hot-button waters that don’t exactly work. For at least half of its runtime, The Last Shift is a genially shaggy workplace comedy in a pleasant but unoriginal Sundance-y mode — a movie that appears to be going nowhere in particular, but one that also doesn’t seem in a hurry to get there. Once The Last Shift begins tackling its issues head-on, it does so in the most unsubtle and confrontational soundbite way possible, like a couple of Twitter bots programmed to spew notions of privilege and systemic racism from opposite sides at each other. Now, I’ll contend that this isn’t the easiest task in the world to pull off under the best of circumstances. It seems like a fool’s errand to assume you’re going to appropriately tackle the hundreds of years of oppression and white privilege upon which American society is built in a 90-minute movie, and I cannot accuse Andrew Cohn of attempting such a thing. But the turn that The Last Shift takes is rather jarring and definitive, taking it from a film about issues to A Film About Issues. 

This is where, I think, the film falls into Green Book territory. As good as Jenkins and McGhie are, they become beholden to a script that wants to make grander, sweeping statements about race in America. It’s not as goofy as Green Book in that respect, but once characters start trotting out stuff like, “You know, that trial ruined those guys’ lives,” whatever subtlety The Last Shift may have cultivated flies out the window. Mind you, I don’t think that a film about racism and systemic oppression owes us subtlety (Spike Lee does fine without it), but this particular rework of the extremely tired odd-couple comedy is done no favours with its didactic dialogue and broad-side-of-a-barn approach to sensitive, unsolvable issues.

Granted, The Last Shift does not purport to “solve racism” or any kind of corny shorthand you might assign to it. It stops well short of being a white saviour narrative, but exactly where and when it stops doesn’t necessarily do it any favours, either. It’s a nice, shaggy workplace comedy with excellent performances by its two leads, but beyond that, The Last Shift says very little that hasn’t been said better elsewhere. ■The Last Shift opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Sept. 25. Watch the trailer here:

The Last Shift by Andrew Cohn starring Richard Jenkins and Shane Paul McGhie

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