A gripping drama thriller that unfortunately fades away instead of throwing a knockout punch. First order is a worthy political abolition of racism and the exploration of identity and heritage.
The film by director and co-writer Lázaro Ramos is set in the near future in Brazil, where the government, under the guise of giving something back to people who were expelled from their homeland centuries ago, orders the return of all citizens of African origin to their “rightful” Continent.
On its surface, it is a seemingly dystopian suspense film in which a small group of black Brazilians try to escape and hide and in some cases fight back so as not to be sent away or, worse, killed. If you dig deeper, the film encounters obvious, but still powerful, motifs like, “What does it mean to be Brazilian? Who is black Who is white “Topics that can easily be translated into topics here in the US, of course. After all, after centuries and especially in the last decades of racial mixing, a person who is black can look white, a person who is white can look black, and there are millions of “mixed blood” people whose identities are not so easily defined by traditional racial segmentation.
Ramos does a good job of turning these problems on their heads and addressing the tough questions that accompany them. The cast of the ensemble is excellent and shows a particularly charged performance by Alfred Enoch (who played Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter Series, and who is the son of white English actor William Russell and a black Brazilian doctor) and another by Seu Jorge (City of God).
But as good as most First order and as effective as it is in drawing attention to the hypocrisy of identity politics, in the third act it stumbles from a narrative perspective. The movie never locks in the way you’d expect and ends with a loud shrug and an attempt to be inspirational rather than forceful conclusion to the story. It’s a shame because there’s a good movie here. Just not great.
This film was reviewed as part of reporting for the SXSW Film Festival 2021.
Rating by Erik Samdahl, unless otherwise stated.