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"Waves" Goes the Wrong Direction in Racial Depiction, Despite Its Intent and Beauty

Spoiler Warning


Waves (2019) follows a black family as they navigate through a period that involves tragedy, and their ability to move forward from the past that haunts them.

18-year-old Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a star wrestler who’s hoping to get a scholarship by the end of his senior year. There are two forces pulling him in opposite directions, one being his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) who pushes Tyler in wrestling, and the other being his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie.) Tyler is dealt one bad incident after the other with him tearing his right shoulder, ending his wrestling season, and finding out Alexis is both pregnant and breaking up with him. He begins drinking and cannot control himself when Alexis says she’s not getting an abortion. While drunk and high Tyler goes to a prom after party, which leads to a major argument with Alexis and he ends up punching her and she hits her head on the cement and dies. Tyler is sentenced to life in prison, and the second half of the film is focused on how his family, especially his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) is dealing with the aftermath.

Tyler eating with his family
Tyler eating with his family

One aspect of the film that cannot be faulted is the cinematography. Much of the time the colors are highly saturated, giving Florida an aesthetically pleasing look.  There will be long takes, and flashes of light that increase the intensity of the scene. This is best illustrated in the scene where Tyler kills Alexis, as the editing and cinematography builds towards something major is about to happen. It was executed perfectly, and your heartbeat gets faster as you await the inevitable incident that will not end well. Then your jaw drops as Alexis is laying on the ground bleeding from her head, and there inlines the problem.

Up to this point, there has been no issue with race not being too much of a focal point in the story. Ronald mentions to Tyler once how they must work harder than others as black men, but it’s nicely done. It becomes an issue when Tyler punches Alexis so hard she dies and he begins running from the cops. The film turns on an axis, but probably not in the way the filmmakers intended. They were trying to take another move forward in inclusivity by showing how no matter your race you can be successful. Yet, this ends up being the film where a black kid kills a white girl. If this was done at the end of the film, they could’ve made this make more sense, but it was made worse by it happening in the middle.

Emily riding her bike

There is still an hour left in the film after the killing and it mainly focuses on what Emily is going through. Yet, the audience is still thinking about the murder so what happens in the next hour doesn’t seem as important. The film wants you to move past the violent act and onto this storyline about Emily, but it is hard to get past what Tyler did.

Waves is a well shot film that uses its diverse cast well for the most part. It is crippled by the shocking moment happening half way through the film, which muddles the final hour as it is limping to the ending. The film misses the mark on the message it was trying to get across of moving forward despite a life altering incident. What is most remembered about this film is not the ending, but the misstep taken on its way there.