‘Surrounded’: Letitia Wright makes an impact as a freedwoman finally seen

Black Civil War vet faces off with a thief in stark and unforgiving Western.

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Mo (Letitia Wright) stares down Tommy (Jamie Bell), the bank robber she’s guarding, in “Surrounded.”

MGM

In present day we often hear the term “I see you” invoked as a compliment, a sign of recognition and appreciation: I understand what you’re doing. I respect the person you are. I SEE YOU.

For a long time in director Anthony Mandler’s stark and unforgiving and bloody Western “Surrounded,” nobody sees Moses “Mo” Washington, a freedwoman and former Buffalo Soldier who is traveling West in post-Civil War America to stake her claim to a gold mine for which she possesses the deed. Whether Mo is ordering coffee in a raucous tavern or hitching a ride on a stagecoach or enduring the dismissive treatment of a racist woman of means, she is not seen. She claims to be a young man, and she keeps her hat tilted low over her visage, and everyone just believes her because they’re not really looking at her anyway. Yes, she is free, but she is a Black woman in 1870 America, so she is also invisible.

Letitia Wright, best known for her portrayal of Shuri in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, delivers arguably the most powerful and impactful work of her career as Mo, a former slave who fought for her country in the Civil War as part of an African American regiment and has experienced a world of cruelty and violence. Clutching a Bible that contains the deed to a gold mine out West, Mo boards a stagecoach — but she’s told she has to sit in the back, on the footboard. Inside the stagecoach is a rancher named Wheeler (Jeffrey Donovan), a liquor salesman named Mr. Fields (Brett Gelman) and the stuffy Mrs. Borders (Augusta-Allen Jones), who is mortified this Black person is even along the for the ride.

‘Surrounded’

Untitled

MGM presents a film directed by Anthony Mandler and written by Andrew Pagana and Justin Thomas. Rated R (for violence and language). Running time: 101 minutes. Available Tuesday on demand.

With cinematographer Max Goldman making great use of the New Mexico locales, including the oft-used Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu (“Silverado,” “No Country For Old Men,” “3:10 to Yuma,” et al.), this lone stagecoach in the middle of nowhere is practically advertising to be ambushed — and sure enough, it’s not long before the notorious bank robber Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell) and his band of thievin’ scoundrels come roaring in to relieve the passengers of their belongings.

Things quickly go sideways, shots are fired, the horses are separated from the stagecoach, the stagecoach goes flying over a cliff — and when the dust has settled, Tommy Walsh has been captured and chained to a tree. The survivors decide they’ll go for help and leave Mo in charge of keeping watch over Tommy, knowing full well that Tommy still has a bunch of henchmen out there somewhere, and they’ll be coming to save their leader and kill anyone who tries to stop them.

For a long stretch, “Surrounded” is essentially a two-hander, with the cunning Tommy trying to establish a bond with Mo, claiming they have a lot more in common than Mo might think. (Tommy notes it’s obvious Mo is a woman; he could see that from the moment he laid eyes on her. Those idiots she was riding with couldn’t see that because she’s less than a person to them.)

Wright and Bell make for a formidable pairing; even though Tommy is a killer, the more we earn about him, the more we (and Mo) at least understand him. Meanwhile, Mo has to drag Tommy with her through the unforgiving terrain, because that Bible containing her deed went down with the stagecoach, and she has to retrieve it, or she’ll have nothing.Tommy is telling stories of a fortune in cash that’s buried nearby and how he’ll split it with Mo if she’ll agree to let him go, but how can she trust him?

That same question arises when a mysterious, well-dressed stranger named Will (Michael K. Williams) shows up in the dead of night, offering assistance and lodging to Mo. He’s here to help — or is he? Michael K. Williams has just this one scene in his final film role, but what an amazing showcase it turns out to be. He effortlessly commands the moment and within seconds establishes a character who appears so complex and intriguing, he could have been the subject of his own movie.

This is the second feature film for Anthony Mandler, who made his bones directing music videos for Rihanna, Beyoncé, Eminem, Shakira, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and the list goes on, before directing the intense and moving legal drama “Monster” in 2018. With “Surrounded,” Mandler solidifies his standing as a talented and versatile filmmaker, with Letitia Wright and Jamie Bell burning up the screen as two wounded and fiercely independent adversaries who both realize they’re in this thing together, and the outcome is most likely going to be a bloody mess.

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