oscar winning short two distant strangers
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Entertainment

‘Two Distant Strangers’ Won an Oscar. Then Came Messy Plagiarism Allegations

The claims have provoked difficult conversations about creative originality, and who has the right to tell stories of racial trauma and violence.
May 11, 2021, 3:38pm

A Black man wakes up, gets out of bed, and goes outside to begin his day. He gets stopped by a white police officer, who kills him following a brief altercation. He wakes up back in bed, goes out, and relives the police encounter all over again. And then again. And again. Each time, he tries a new way to survive the encounter with the cop. But no matter what he does, the cop kills him. He’s trapped in a deadly loop. 

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That’s the basic premise of Two Distant Strangers, a Netflix short film written and co-directed by a filmmaker named Travon Free. The 32-minute film, which stars Joey Bada$$ as the character caught in the time loop, won an Oscar last month for Best Live Action Short Film. 

It’s also the premise of Groundhog Day for a Black Man, a similar four-minute short created and directed by a filmmaker named Cynthia Kao in 2016. And unproven claims that the Netflix film borrowed Kao’s concept without credit—claims inspired, though not stated outright, by Kao herself in a viral TikTok video—have provoked difficult conversations about race, creative originality, and who has the right to tell, or claim ownership over, such stories.

Free has maintained that he had no knowledge of Kao’s film when he wrote Two Distant Strangers. And now, after Kao’s video comparing the two films went viral and sparked intense public scrutiny towards both works, Kao, who is not Black, temporarily privatized her TikTok video and has acknowledged that it would be wrong for her to profit from a film about Black trauma. In an interview with VICE, the filmmaker declined to answer whether she currently (or ever) believed that Two Distant Strangers had lifted her idea.

Like Two Distant Strangers, Kao’s film uses a fantastical time loop device as a commentary on the ever-repeating nature of police killing Black people. But it’s shorter and more comical in tone, with cheeky allusions to the 1993 comedy that inspired its name. (The main character is woken by an alarm clock blaring Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” each time the loop restarts.) 

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Kao told VICE she was inspired by Groundhog Day, which is one of her favorite movies. But the impetus for her film was a more serious discussion. “We were seeing videos of police shootings,” Kao said. “Some people were saying, ‘Oh, if they just did this, or they just did that, then they wouldn’t have gotten shot.’ And yet I didn’t believe that. The video was a response to say: ‘There’s no right way to behave.’” 

Groundhog Day for a Black Man was posted on YouTube and Facebook in 2016 and received a positive reception, eventually winning an award at the NBC Short Film Festival the following year. But it found new life in 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protests, when the viral video factory NowThis News asked permission to repost the film on their social channels. By then, stories about time loops seemed to be having a cultural resurgence, from the 2019 show Russian Doll to the 2020 movie Palm Springs. Groundhog Day for a Black Man amassed more than 200,000 views.

But Free hadn’t seen it, he wrote last week in a Washington Post opinion piece, when he began writing his own film a few months later. (Free declined to be interviewed for this article; his co-director, Martin Desmond Roe, did not respond to requests for comment.) By his own account, Two Distant Strangers was inspired by a traumatic incident in his own life, when police entered his home with guns drawn and made him kneel on the floor, not realizing they had the wrong address. “[I]t is absurd that Kao would accuse me of stealing her story when my film is based on my own trauma,” Free wrote.

Compared to Groundhog Day for a Black Man, Free’s film boasts a larger budget and a heavier tone. The protagonist, a graphic designer named Carter, is accosted on foot rather than during a traffic stop, and the camera lingers on the violence inflicted on him by the cop (Andrew Howard). During one of his many deaths, Carter whispers “I can’t breathe”—an overt reference to Floyd’s death. The film ends with a scroll listing Black Americans killed by the police.

After Two Distant Strangers was acquired by Netflix and nominated for an Oscar in March, accusations began to swirl that Free—or NowThis, which was listed as a production partner—had lifted Kao’s concept without credit. Burl Moseley, the actor who starred in Groundhog Day for a Black Man, tweeted: “Yo, @netflix @nowthisnews what's up?! Pay BIPOC artists for their work, don't just rip it.” (In an email, Moseley told VICE he had “very mixed” opinions of Two Distant Strangers: “The spirit of it feels very similar to Groundhog Day for a Black Man. I viewed it mostly as a remix of the concept.”) Meanwhile, in the YouTube comments of Kao’s film, one person wrote: “Netflix just stole this idea for a short-film and got nominated for an Oscar for it lmao,” to which Kao replied: “LOL I saw that.” 

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These claims exploded into full view after Two Distant Strangers won an Oscar. In late April, Kao posted a TikTok video in which she pointed out the striking similarities, stopping just short of overtly alleging plagiarism. The dual involvement of NowThis—which had both shared Kao’s film on social media and been credited as a production company for Two Distant Strangers—was a central thread in the video. “This hit me when I saw, in the opening credits: ‘In association with NowThis,’” Kao stated in the TikTok, adding that she was “not making any assumptions.”

Moseley shares those suspicions. “I will say it leaves me with some questions,” Moseley told VICE. “If, in fact, it wasn't deliberate, why didn't someone at NowThis say, ‘Hey, we may have a conflict of interest here seeing how we just shared a short with a similar concept?’” 

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Yet NowThis’s loose connection to both films may well be a genuine coincidence. In a statement, a NowThis spokesperson told VICE, “Two Distant Strangers was independently conceived and in production for months before NowThis became involved in the film so any connection is out of the question. NowThis is committed to highlighting injustices including racism and police brutality.” Free also wrote that NowThis “had no creative influence on the project” and only became involved after filming was done.

What Two Distant Strangers and Groundhog Day for a Black Man do share is an unabashed debt to Groundhog Day. Danny Rubin, the writer of that 1993 film, said he was unaware of this recent controversy, and hadn’t seen either short. But he said he was “delighted by all of the permutations” of his film’s concept. 

“I don’t know who saw what first or who knew what when, but Groundhog Day has obviously arisen as a popular reference point wherever someone encounters a frustrating repetition, so it wouldn’t surprise me that more than one person would have arrived at a Groundhog Day approach to exploring America’s relationship with Black men,” Rubin wrote in an email. “To the maker of the first film, it most certainly would feel like being ripped off; however, two filmmakers independently coming up with this seems a more likely choice to me than stealing.

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“I think Groundhog Day showed a lot of people how repetition of days can be used as a powerful dramatic tool because, even though the premise is magical, it still somehow resonates deeply with our actual lives,” Rubin added. “It certainly would have the potential to shed light on serious topics. Of course, it is still up to the skill of the filmmaker to pull it off.” 

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In his Washington Post piece, Travon Free noted that other works, such as Ali LeRoi’s 2019 film The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, have also used the time loop device to explore the repetitive nature of police violence. “I was excited and interested by each,” Free wrote. “But it never occurred to me that anyone would claim ownership of the Groundhog Day device.” 

Kao hadn’t exactly claimed ownership—not explicitly, at least. But she had seeded suspicions of plagiarism. And regardless of the veracity of those suggestions, her TikTok video spiraled into a viral phenomenon, amassing 800,000 likes and being signal-boosted by prominent figures such as YouTuber Def Noodles and Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery, who tweeted: “This seems like something ⁦@nowthisnews⁩ needs to respond to.” Several lawyers commented on the TikTok and encouraged Kao to sue. Hundreds of Twitter users began tweeting at Netflix and NowThis, accusing them of stealing her idea. 

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In the comments beneath that TikTok video, however, a different conversation was taking place—one that examined Kao’s position as a non-Black artist creating a film centered around Black trauma. “Not you silencing Black voices because you’ve been called in about wanting to profit off of our trauma,” TikTok user Gabriella Carter wrote. “You should reflect & apologize.” 

In a separate video, a TikTok user known as Drama Lady pointed out that the idea of applying a Groundhog Day metaphor to police brutality preceded Kao’s film and dated back to a 2015 essay by the writer Luvvie Ajayi Jones. (In a subsequent TikTok, Kao said it was “disingenuous” to suggest that that article had the same concept as her film.) “People are mad at her because she’s looking to profit off of Black trauma on an idea that’s not even hers,” Drama Lady said in the clip.

Kao told VICE that she had seen those discussions and had been reflecting on them. She stressed that while writing Groundhog Day for a Black Man, she had consulted and collaborated with the two Black actors in the film, which Moseley confirmed to be true. (Kao was credited as the film’s sole writer and director.)

Yet Kao declined to discuss Two Distant Strangers at all. Asked whether she believed that the film, or NowThis, had taken her idea, she answered: “No comment.” Asked what she had thought of Two Distant Strangers, she repeated: “No comment.” She also declined to answer whether she had been in touch with the creators of that film, whether she planned any further action regarding the similarities, or whether her position had changed since she first posted her TikTok a little more than a week ago. 

“It's been a whirlwind,” Kao simply answered. (At the time of the interview, Kao had privatized that TikTok video so it could not be viewed. She has since made it public again, and declined to say why.)

Kao did, however, say that she had decided to demonetize Groundhog Day for a Black Man so that she would no longer profit from the film on YouTube. She made that decision on Wednesday, she said, after reading some discussions on her TikTok video. “It’s opened my eyes to just… how that could be insensitive,” Kao said.

When asked if she could explain how that conversation had changed her thinking, Kao paused to gather her thoughts. “I've kind of come to the realization that Black trauma films are usually for non-Black audiences,” Kao said. “And it can be, you know, insensitive and exploitative, especially for a non-Black person to do that.”

She added, “I kinda realized that it wasn't my story to tell.”