Director Suggests Netflix’s Oscar-Winning Police Brutality Film ‘Two Distant Strangers’ Copied Her Idea
In a viral TikTok, Cynthia Kao expressed surprise that NowThis was involved with “Two Distant Strangers”—given how they’d promoted her own 2016 short film with the same premise.
While 2020 will historically be remembered as the year a catastrophic and deadly worldwide pandemic took hold, it will also serve as a time when America faced a long-overdue reckoning over racial injustice, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.
Nationwide protests broke out over the murders of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of police, bringing a conversation about police brutality, racial stereotyping, and systematic racism to the fore.
That’s why it came as no surprise that the powerful short film Two Distant Strangers won an Academy Award at this year’s Oscars. The 30-minute movie, which is now streaming on Netflix, told the story of a young Black man (rapper Joey Bada$$) being forced to relive the day he’s killed by a white police officer over and over again, employing different tactics to avoid the wrath of a man who’s supposed to protect him.
The film was a direct response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and so many others, writer and co-director Travon Free explained to REVOLT in March. He was tired of repeatedly “seeing stories about Black people who were being killed by the police over and over again, and having to relive the outrage, and the sadness, and the grief, and then the acceptance of those events over and over again.”
“One particular day it just kind of occurred to me… that sparked the idea of [what does that] look like on paper—on film?”
But a similar story had already been told by filmmaker Cynthia Kao—who has since made a viral TikTok video about how media company NowThis News reached out to her about sharing her film on its social media pages, only to learn months later that it was involved in making Two Distant Strangers.
Kao, who previously worked as a writer on TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything, told The Daily Beast via Twitter DM that her “jaw dropped” when she saw NowThis in the film’s opening credits, adding that she’d “love to know what happened.”
However, she declined to comment on whether she had reached out to NowThis, or if anyone from the company or Two Distant Strangers had reached out to her.
Kao’s short film Groundhog Day for a Black Man was released on YouTube in December 2016, and went on to win Outstanding Comedy and the Critics’ Choice Award at the NBCUniversal Short Film Festival in 2017.
Sharing the same premise as the Oscar-winning film, a young Black man is trying to get to his mother’s house for her birthday, yet every day is fatally shot by a white police officer. Offering a dry, comedic take on the grim subject matter, no matter what the man does—including walking to his destination and dressing up in a silly costume to avoid matching a generic description of a “Black man”—he is killed, and forced to face the same day over and over again.
The Twilight Zone also toyed with a similar concept in 2019 but from the vantage point of a Black mother who tries to prevent her son from being killed by a police officer, using a handheld video recorder to rewind time.
Kao explained in her TikTok that she received an email in late May 2020, shortly after Floyd’s murder, from a NowThis News producer. “We had recently seen your short film titled Groundhog Day for a Black Man and found it very powerful,” the email which Kao posted online read.
“We would like to amplify it and share the message with our audience. Could we use the video in a video report? We would of course credit you on screen and give full credit to the production team listed in the YouTube description in the credits at the end of the video. We are happy to link any social media pages as well.”
Kao agreed and her video was posted on NowThis’ Facebook and Twitter pages, garnering thousands of likes and shares. But then a few months later, Kao saw NowThis’ involvement with Two Distant Strangers. “This hit me when I saw in the opening credits, ‘In association with NowThis,’” she said. “I don’t know what happened, I’m not making any assumptions.”
Her video has now been viewed nearly three million times and fans have taken to NowThis’ social-media pages to demand further explanation and for Kao to be given credit if the organization used her short as inspiration for the project.
NowThis said in a statement to The Daily Beast, “Two Distant Strangers was independently conceived and in final 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. It’s unfortunate that the repeated nature of these experiences are a reality for Black Americans.”
Since the release of the film, NowThis has promoted Two Distant Strangers a number of times on its platform, including having one of its hosts interview Free in February, as well as an exclusive interview with Free in March timed to the Oscars, noting at the end of the video that NowThis is a co-producer of the film.
Actor Burl Moseley, who starred in the short, told The Daily Beast he also found Two Distant Strangers “ridiculously similar” to Kao’s short.
“If it is a coincidence, it is spectacular,” he said. “I don’t want to come to any assumptions or anything like that. But they sent our directors an email, asking if they could share the short, which they did. Then they made their own short that was incredibly similar. It leaves me with some questions.”
Moseley, who also appeared in Happiest Season and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, said he believes NowThis owes Kao an explanation. “It’s shocking when something like that happens,” he said.
The Daily Beast also reached out to Free and his co-director Martin Desmond Roe for comment.