Last week was the 2021 Academy Awards. Though Nomadland dominated both the awards and the post-award discussion, the Netflix film Two Distant Strangers took home the award for best live action short film and had its profile raised significantly as well.
Two Distant Strangers is a film about a black man who is killed in a police interaction with a white officer and is forced to repeat that day, each time trying different tactics and approaches to avoid what is seemingly an inevitable outcome.
Though the win helped bring a great deal of new attention to the film, at least some of that attention was unwanted.
Director Cynthia Kao took to social media highlight similarities between Two Distant Strangers and her 2016 short film Groundhog Day for a Black Man. In her film, much like Two Distant Strangers, a black man is killed in a police interaction with a white officer and is forced to repeat that morning, trying desperately to break the cycle.
To make matters more complicated, in the summer of 2020, amidst the Black Lives Matter protests, the news organization NowThis approached Koa about amplifying her film. They posted the video to their Facebook and Twitter pages and helped draw a great deal of attention to Groundhog Day for a Black Man.
However, NowThis is listed in the credits of Two Distant Strangers as someone the film was “In association with.”
NowThis, for their part, denies any wrongdoing claiming in a statement to What’s on Netflix, “Two Distant Strangers was in final production for months before NowThis became involved,” and that they played no part in the conceiving and original creation of the film.
Still, it’s an amazing coincidence. Two films with such similar concepts both having involvement from NowThis. For Kao’s part, she says that she doesn’t know what happened and “isn’t making any assumptions.” But this has many people wondering, was this Oscar winner a plagiarism?
To find out, we must examine the films themselves.
Two Films with Similar Premise, but Different Executions
The two films start with a very similar premise, using the “Groundhog Day” trope to examine the issue of police violence toward black people.
However, outside of the overarching premise, the two films are actually very different. Two Distant Strangers is a 30-minute short film that features much more backstory and character development of both the protagonist and the police officer. Groundhog Day for a Black Man, on the other hand, is a four-minute short film that focuses almost entirely on the interactions themselves.
However, the biggest difference between the two films is the tone. Though both are dealing with an extremely serious issue, Groundhog Day for a Black Man is more comedic in nature, with the protagonist trying increasingly wacky things to avoid being killed.
Two Distant Strangers, on the other hand, is much grittier and is presented as a serious drama. The violence in Two Distant Strangers is much more gritty and realistic. Though both films are trying to make an important point, they do so in very different ways.
The only real similarity is the premise itself. However, as the title to Kao’s film makes clear, that is a commonly used trope known as the Groundhog Day Loop. Though named after the 1993 film Groundhog Day, it’s been a part of filmmaking for a long time, going back over a century.
What the two films have in common is that they applied that established trop to police interactions that turned deadly for black people. As powerful as that idea is, it’s also not impossible that two filmmakers came up with it separately, especially in the aftermath of the summer 2020 protests.
But even if it is a work of plagiarism, it’s likely not one that much can be done about. Copyright doesn’t extend to ideas and concepts and the two works are very different outside of their broad concept. Even if it can be definitely shown that this is a plagiarism, this is an area where plagiarism and copyright do not overlap.
In short, it’s unlikely that this will become a legal case, but rather, will be left to the fans of both works to debate and discuss for some time to come.
If we accept that NowThis is telling the truth that they only became involved with Two Distant Strangers very late in the process, then it’s possible and even probable that the film was developed without awareness of Groundhog Day for a Black Man.
Sometimes, as we previously discussed with Dennis the Menace, two people can and do independently come up with very similar ideas.
However, even if we can show that this film was inspired Kao’s work or even an attempt to take the concept in a different direction, there’s not much that can be done about it from a copyright standpoint. The films, other than their broad concept, are very different works in just about every other regard.
Still, it’s very interesting to watch these films back-to-back. It’s interesting to see and explore how two different filmmakers can use similar concepts to send similar messages in radically different ways. Even if it isn’t a great plagiarism story, it is a great examination of how creativity works and about filmmaking as a genre.