On Wednesday, Netflix released its new psychological thriller, “The Strays,” which follows a woman as her perfect life slowly deteriorates into madness. But rather than review the movie on normal standards – writing, acting, cinematography and score – there’s a lot more thematically at stake that needs to be discussed.
A good psychological thriller presents twists throughout the plot that never feel outlandish. With delicately placed clues, interesting shots and special effects, we the audience are meant to feel like we are witnessing the characters’ delusions. Cheryl, our protagonist, is a fair-skinned Afro-British woman who left her past behind to live in a small wealthy town far from London. With her white husband and their equally white passing children, she lives a lavish life as a theology professor and a deputy headmistress at an upscale private school.
On the surface level, it seems like a fairly understandable plot. A Black woman of fairer complexion seeks to hide her roots while mingling amongst the white upper class, using her husband as an elevation of her status symbol. It is not just implied but shown that Cheryl, who goes by the name of Neve to her Caucasian compatriots, was disgusted with her own skin and the treatment she had received as a Black woman in London. In a drastic attempt to change her status, she dons a wig and a posh accent to further separate her from her urban past. This cleansing of any resemblance of Black culture is only exacerbated by her children’s growing interest in Black culture.
Very rarely do we as Americans take time to consider how our issues mirror those across the world in Europe. Racism within the UK takes on many different forms, but the universal truth is that BIPOC are always made to feel uncomfortable in their skin. Bleaching is even a popular skin-lightening technique used by those of darker complexion to make their skin lighter. It is no secret in the Black community that lighter-skinned men and women receive far more preferential treatment than their dark-skinned counterparts. While this same trend extends to the Asian and African continents, it is most popular amongst BIPOC living in predominantly white regions.
“The Strays” seeks to look at this dichotomy in the extreme, asking what would happen if you went so far as to appear white that you could even “blend in.” Progressive and conservative people on all sides would argue that Black women of all shades are popular in Western culture, focusing on the success of Beyoncé and Oprah as the two pillars on which all arguments seem to stand. But when your example of a universally-beloved Black woman is the fairer-skinned Beyoncé, who’s had increasingly blonde hair throughout her career, versus Oprah, a day-time talk show host who was told she wasn’t pretty enough for television, it only proves colorism is alive and well. Most people probably don’t even notice that Beyoncé is 1) wearing a wig, 2) straightening her hair and 3) is blonde on purpose because that’s what markets the largest population internationally.
Without giving away too much of the plot, “The Strays” creates a feeling of unnerve that makes my skin crawl on a deeply personal level. As you watch this family slowly lose its nerve as secret after secret is revealed, each scream in anguish earns its place at the table. At no point is a sense of stability ever restored, as both sides struggle to come to grips with their place within society and each other’s lives. Cheryl’s masquerade as a faux-Caucasian woman à la Rashida Jones is beyond impressive, and each antidepressant she pops only lends to the feeling that she’s a hairpin trigger away from ending it all.
But throughout the film’s relatively short runtime, I couldn’t help but feel that these themes would be lost for someone who has never experienced colorism. I can remember as a Black man having arguments about who’s darker than who, the idea of light-skin privilege and those who were made to feel ashamed of their darker skin. Yes, all Black lives matter, but how could a culture of orange peel spray tans and skin cancer-inducing tanning beds understand? When do we get to the conversation of some Black lives mattering more than others?
This movie is not as analog as “Get Out,” which broke ground for its exploration of interracial relationships mixed with horror. It instead trades in the “us versus them” mentality that we’ve been conditioned to for more of an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join them” narrative. This shift serves the movie well because for once we’re treated to something outside of our American norms in exchange for a British perspective. There’s far more I could discuss on the production of the film along with the pacing, but I think that’s better suited for the back seat.
“The Strays” will probably never reach the cult status of “Get Out” or any other cult films that followed in its footsteps and that’s what I love about it. This film explores the idea of what it takes to be privileged and where sacrifice ends and self-harm begins. If we are willing to throw away our identity and families to live the ideal life, undoubtedly the imposter syndrome will catch up with us.
Yep spot on!!! Reading your review….I feel I know you. You nailed it.
The poor reviews I read on this movie and the explanations of the plot elsewhere made me realize the reviewers never experienced colorism or racism and thus they are actually part of the movie (which they also wouldn’t get). This movie is extremely complicated yet very simple. It was eerie to me how stepford the reviews were and the entire premise of the movie lost upon them due to their position in society being the same as the white society that rejected Carl and Dione and created that abandoning monster mother of theirs. The entire story is not about Cheryl “and her desire to reach goals” and erasing past to do so. It is actually an indictment of society and its structural racism and how such affects mental health and feelings of survival.
Id like to underscore that Beyonce is more accepted the whiter she becomes, yes. Also, she is part of the entertainment community which is an accepted way for blacks to become rich and famous. Jumping around on stage serving up good feelings. However black professionals such as doctors, lawyers, interior designers, scientists, etc.are blocked much more stringently and aggressively. PLUS, this movie is coming out of the UK apparently. It would be harder to bring this out of America where we love to hush hush any and all of this that we can get away with.
The weave and wig scratching was just so spot on literally and figuratively–so appropriate and perfect!