On September 6th, I ventured out to West Hollywood to attend Netflix’s private screening of their latest thriller “End of the Road” at their posh Tudum theater. A few cocktails and several hors d’oeuvres later, film critics, influencers, and Netflix staff, were all whisked into the theater from the lobby to view the film. As we settled into our seats, we were greeted by Tracy Edmonds, producer, and Millicent Shelton, the film’s director.
“End of the Road” is Shelton’s first feature film directorial debut. Shelton got her start as a wardrobe production assistant on the Spike Lee film “Do the Right Thing.” She went on to direct notable TV shows, including “Everybody Hates Chris,” “Girlfriends,” “The Walking Dead,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” and “90210.”
Queen Latifah and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges emerge as the thriller’s anchors, bringing their star power to capture a skeptical viewer’s attention and garner a diverse audience. The film is part of Netflix’s efforts to bolster their programming after a reported loss of over 200,000 subscribers between April and July and lack of diversity accusations, with 300 employees laid off within the first quarter of the year including whole teams primarily comprised of women of color, like Tudum.
In this high-octane action thriller, a cross-country road trip becomes a highway to hell for Brenda (Latifah), her two kids, and her brother Reggie (Bridges). After witnessing a brutal murder, the family finds themselves in the crosshairs of a mysterious killer. Now alone in the New Mexico desert and cut off from any help, Brenda is pulled into a deadly fight to keep her family alive.
The movie opens with a view of a moving truck and the flustered Brenda, packing up the remnants of her old life and home after husband dies of cancer. Within the first scene of the movie, you’ll experience the tension of Brenda grappling with leaving her home and its memories, being financially unstable, the stress of taking care of her grieving children and her immature, man-child younger brother. Brenda finally rounds up her family, leaving Los Angeles to begin her journey to Houston and hoping to start her life over with the support of her mother.
Things take a literal turn in the movie when Brenda and her family, the Freemans, stop for gas and snacks in the Southwest, just before reaching New Mexico. As the tumbleweeds roll across the reddish dirt, the local townies’ eyes glisten with contempt for the Freemans, as they are noticeably the only Black family in sight.
Fast forward to Kelly, Brenda’s daughter, being lewdly cat-called by two white locals and the family being chased off the road by them and forced to apologize for not condoning their behavior, the plot starts to take a dark, racist, and violent twist. To many Black viewers, it’s not a surprise how quickly a seemingly pleasant family roundtrip could become a fight for survival and a matter of life and death.
The vast and arid desert lawless landscape symbolizes the family’s internal fears. They are lost, without coverage and safety from the increasingly terrifying threats that are mounting up against them, and they want to get out. There’s no authoritative figure to help; if there is, it’s corrupt. It is a common experience for many Black people living their daily lives in America and worldwide. Who do we go to for help?
Shelton intentionally made “End of the Road” a social commentary on race, financial hardship, and discussion on who deserves punishment and saving in our society; however, it reads as clumsily overdone. There are huge plot and character holes, outdated and predictable stereotypes, and ridiculous depictions of neo-Nazi and hillbilly characters throughout the film.
Painful tropes centered on Black women always saving the day, even with a Black male counterpart as a lead or supporting character, are harrowing to see on the large screen, similar to the following characters: Celie (The Color Purple), Olivia Pope (Scandal), Michonne (The Walking Dead), and Miranda Bailey (Grey’s Anatomy). Latifah’s character was tasked to take on impossible feats all on her own to save the day for everyone else.
Latifah’s character is also an insufferable do-gooder, even when it’s not necessary or safe. For instance, she was checking in on her next-door neighbor at the motel after hearing gunshots. Why didn’t she call the police? Again, Black women are saddled with the inner emotional turmoil and guilt of always “doing the right thing,” even when our lives are at stake.
Cut to Reggie, Brenda’s younger brother. Reggie is the family screw-up. He hasn’t made the best choices in his life, so now he’s complacent and branded as unreliable. Trying to prove his value to his sister and himself, he makes a selfish decision that alters the family’s trajectory, almost permanently, because of his lack of self-awareness and ability to think about the bigger picture. Black women know Reggie’s character a little too well, and it can be triggering for us to see on the big screen.
It’s sheer luck that Brenda’s clan ends up alright from the many obstacles on their way to Texas, and it’s because of her tenacity, quick decision-making skills, grit, and integrity that bring them to safety. But aren’t we tired of saving the day, especially when we have a Black man beside us to ideally even the load?
Shelton’s directing choices provide space for the film’s protagonists to grow, expand and remember the importance of family, especially during turbulent and uncertain times.
She takes it a step further with the wolves in sheep’s clothing idiom. “End of the Road” made it clear to the audience the internal struggles Black people have when trusting the police and white people in general. You never know what you’re going to get.
However, these redeemable qualities of the film are overshadowed by watching a remarkable and verified talent like Queen Latifah create such a one-dimensional and stereotypical heroine role.