Mahershala Ali has never been the lead in a motion picture. I’ll give you some time to open up his IMDb page and fact-check me on that one.
Yes, I am correct in saying that two-time Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight & Green Book) has never had a leading role in a film. Granted, he’s led a television show with the third season of True Detective and will soon be joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the vampire hunter, Blade. But up until Swan Song, Ali has always been relegated to a supporting role.
It’s an unfortunate fact that an actor of Ali’s caliber has had to wait as long as he has to get the star treatment. And it’s not a coincidence that Lupita Nyong’o, also an Academy Award winner (12 Years a Slave), is opening her new film, The 355, at the same time as Swan Song. Nyong'o's role in the female-led spy thriller is only her sixth in-person role since her 2013 Oscar win, with only two of those being lead roles (2019’s Us & Little Monsters).
It speaks to a larger, more systematic problem that these actors of color are not getting the leading roles they deserve. How many great performances and awards do these actors need to accumulate before they can get roles that match their talent? But that conversation is beyond this review’s scope and is best handled by people more qualified. So, let’s stick to the matter at hand, which is celebrating Ali’s first lead role, a fact that has sorely been lacking from the film’s limited marketing and has been left to the critics to bring to people’s attention.
Swan Song makes Ali’s first lead role a memorable one, as we get two of him for the price of one. How is this possible you ask? Well, in the near future of the movie, human cloning has become a reality. For Cameron Turner (Ali), that presents an existential dilemma. He’s dying of a terminal illness, which he hasn’t told his wife (Naomie Harris) or his 8-year-old son about. His secrecy grants him an incredibly rare opportunity.
The good Dr. Scott (Glenn Close) offers Cameron the option to clone himself, sparing his family from the pain of losing a loved one. The clone will have all of Cameron’s memories and behaviors, and be completely indistinguishable. Before the real Cameron dies, the clone will take his place and live out his life as if nothing ever happened. Only the real Cameron will know the truth.
But can a clone - even the most perfect one imaginable - seamlessly take the place of a human being?
Marking his feature directorial debut, Benjamin Cleary is game to tackle that question. But calling this Cleary’s debut is selling him a little short, as he’s already amassed acclaim for his sci-fi-infused short films, of which one of them, Stutterer, won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. Cleary doesn’t address it as a sort of Turing Test where the stakes revolve around the family finding out the truth. Instead, Cleary maneuvers around that simple gimmick and looks at both the moral and ethical stances on the issue.
The question isn’t if the clone can do what it’s supposed to do, but if it should. Is Cameron making the right decision by lying to his family to protect them? Is leaving his wife and son with a clone more of a betrayal than leaving them altogether? Those are some of the questions that Cleary doesn’t answer for the viewer. Rather, he supplies you with the tools to come to your own conclusions.
Swan Song is a slow burn with a lot going on, even if not a lot of it happens on screen. That's because, as Cleary puts you into Cameron’s shoes, all of the action takes place within your head. You’re constantly comparing his actions to the ones you think you would make. The best films bury themselves in your head while watching. You wrestle with their conflicts in the moment and continue to interact with them long after they’re over.
Part of that “in-the-moment” interaction comes from the perfectly believable near-future world that Cleary and production designer Annie Beachamp have created. The production design may be the reason why Apple bought the film, as many of the sets share the same clean and sleek design that the tech giant uses for its storefronts.
The futuristic technology within the film, such as holographic displays and headset-less virtual reality, is so seamlessly blended in that you may be disposed to forget that the technology doesn’t even exist yet. Other recent films such as Gemini Man have treated human cloning as the peak of human invention. But in Swan Song, it’s just a part of life that has naturally sprung from technological progress.
Ali has never turned in a bad performance. At worst, he’s done fair work in poor films (Alita: Battle Angel & Free State of Jones). Here, Cleary serves him well. He’s incredibly compelling in his dual roles, pulling off the complex feat of differentiating the two Cameron’s just enough so that we can tell the difference, but also imitating why the other characters can’t.
Sharing some wonderful scenes with Ali is Awkwafina, who plays a dying patient who’s already completed the cloning process. They’re both quiet and introspective characters who find solace in each other as they come to terms with the decision that they have made. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell proved that Awkwafina can dig deeper than lowbrow comedy, and her latest performance is a reminder of that fact.
The term “swan song” refers to the final performance of a public figure, such as an athlete or performer. As a title, it’s a fitting term that encapsulates much of Cameron’s journey. Luckily, the term doesn’t describe any of the talent associated with the film, as this is only the beginning of Benjamin Cleary’s promising career, and of this new phase of Mahershala Ali where his talent is front and center.