One of the best (and most insightful) films of the year, Nine Days, is hitting theaters over a year and a half after it first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
The film is set in a house, distant from the reality we know, where a reclusive man named Will (Winston Duke) interviews prospective candidates—personifications of human souls—for the privilege that he once had: to be born. Directed and written by Edson Oda, the film also stars Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, and Bill Skarsgård.
Duke sat down with Shadow and Act ahead of the release of Nine Days and talked about the film, what drew him to it and what it means to release the film now after the events of the past year.
"Not too often do I see Black characters, much less Black male characters, be approached from a space of internal wonderment," he explained when talking about his attraction to the project. "So the lens is always placed on our outsides and placed on our bodies and a fetishization of our bodies, fetishization of our bodies in space, fetishization of our bodies in proximity to women and our sexuality. In this movie, I didn't have a sexual relationship with any of the characters. I didn't have a sexual relationship with any of the women or men in this movie. It wasn't about how large of a person Will was. It was all about his mental space, his vulnerability or lack thereof. It was all about what's going on inside, and it contributed to a larger conversation of mental health, but not in a didactic, spoon-feeding way."
The actor compared Nine Days to films of a similar vein that are different from the way we've seen Black men and Black masculinity depicted on screen.
He added, "It was just very nuanced in that kind of conversation that said, 'What an opportunity. You don't see Black men like that. Not often, it's few and far between' You know what I mean? And in the same way, movies like Moonlight brought a new color to the spectrum of Black masculinity. I feel movies like Nine Days do the same things, where you just get to see Black masculinity represented in a different way than traditionally seen on film or onscreen. And I had to do that. I felt like the piece chose me in that way."
While Nine Days already operates from this space of wonderment and has viewers speculating on the privilege of life, another layer was added to the film when the pandemic began and it impacted people across the world. It made the film's themes that more powerful.
"We didn't see that pandemic coming, we didn't see quarantine coming, we didn't see what sometimes feels like a lost year...even though to some degree, we gained a year because we got a year of introspection," the actor said. "We got a year of time. We got a year of revolt. We got a year of protests. And what I learned was just acceptance. I learned to accept the duality of all things, the ying and the yang, but there's light and there's dark and wholeness comes from an acceptance of both. And that's a thing that Will is constantly rubbing up against in this movie, but he's really trying to push away his shadow. He's trying to push away his darkness and a lot of the souls that he's interviewing are such archetypes for different aspects of themselves that he just doesn't want to be in connection with. And he doesn't want that part of himself to be back in that world because he doesn't think that those aspects of himself can survive it. So he relies on the most pragmatic aspect of himself, and that's where he tries to make all his choices from. So I learned acceptance. I learned grace. I learned a lot of gratitude that I can experience. This movie puts it in to context that we're all our own lottery winners and [we] have the chance to be alive right now."
The result of the film coming out at a time like this is the fact that we're able to reflect on past moments and also think about what our future moments look like.
Duke explained, "It reminds us that the small moments are just as important as what we define as our 'big moments.' We tend to be very destination-oriented..in the sense of, 'Man, I can't wait for that new job. I can't wait for that marriage. I can't wait to find that love. I can't wait to graduate. I can't wait to do this, that and the other.' But you don't take as much stock of or put as much importance and credence on that first kiss, that handholding, just having brunch in close proximity to your friends, going for that long walk together in a three-man group. You forget that that's important, too, and it's small moments like that that add up to make a really big picture of large moments -- and in a year where those small moments were taken away. You couldn't go to the beach, couldn't have lunch, couldn't kiss people as easily, couldn't hug as easily, couldn't meet up, couldn't shake hands...still can't..we're fist-bumping all day."
And with all of this, the film asks something of its watchers.
"In a world where those small moments are removed, you realize how important they are. And Nine Days begs you. It begs you to just reconsider how important those small moments are [and] begs you to take into consideration how much we need them and how important they are because those small moments happen so much more often than the large ones. So you could actually be in a space of a lot more happiness if you actually pay attention to all the good, small moments that are happening to you all the time. Every time you get to hug your boy or your girl, you get a happy moment. Any time you get to hold hands, any time you get to just sit and talk in the same space, that could be something that's really beautiful because trials and tribulations are always present. But real joy is also there, too."
Watch the full interview below:
Nine Days is in theaters in NYC and LA now and will expand next week.