The Duke: Based on the Memoir “I’m the Duke” by J.P. Duke (Max Barbakow 2016): USA

Reviewed by Elizabeth Gain.  Viewed at Metro 4 theater in Santa Barbara.

The Santa Barbara Shorts #1 screening contained a gloriously surprising finale.  In a category populated by student films, The Duke stood out as a professional production.  The director, Max Barbakow, is a Santa Barbara native, and the film was a final project made by students in the MFA program at American Film Institute in Hollywood.  All aspects of the production value made it shine, but the story also offered a unique and hilarious perspective on head injuries in the NFL world.  

In the opening sequence of this short comedy, the camera sits face-to-face with “The Duke,” a burly, bald pro-athlete in rock-star sunglasses.  He radiates football swag while two interrogators try to get him to make some sense with questions about his day.  Now, I am not informed enough about football to identify any real NFL players, so I believed I was watching an actual NFL star playing himself (think LeBron James in Trainwreck).  I didn’t understand why he seemed so confused, and the interrogation didn’t lead anywhere, but the story soon jumped to a coherent narrative flashback.

The day in question is Super Bowl Sunday, and The Duke is having a barbecue at home.  Always wearing a football jersey and speaking in constant motivational speech, The Duke is nurtured by his very pregnant wife, who obviously adores him, and he her.  One might think Super Bowl Sunday would be a great day for a football player, however The Duke shows signs of anxiety.  There are obstacles to tackle in his own backyard, and he is confused about why he isn’t playing football.  He imagines his future prospects, while everyone accommodates him in a non-football world.  Eventually he takes action (football action!), and the story reveals how he ended up in the interrogation room.

“The Duke” is actually a talented actor named Lamonica Garrett, and his acting and presence, along with a very clever screenplay, are the keys to the success of this film.  The comedy comes from his portrayal of a larger-than-life football player who is also a vulnerable and fragile human being.  In many scenes, you are reminded of his football head injuries by the inappropriateness of his behavior, but you are also touched by his overwhelming drive to use his massive strength and ability to create domestic harmony with his wife (charmingly portrayed by Catherine Urbanek).  The impeccable cinematography, production and sound design seamlessly connect you with The Duke’s single-minded enthusiasm and his feelings of being out of control.

It is this way that the film humanizes a serious affliction suffered by most pro-football players — chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  The movie says it is based on the memoir “I’m The Duke” by J.P. Duke.  I could find nothing about J.P. Duke, but I assume he is a real NFL player.  It is a cinematic feat that this story has been realized as a screwball comedy.  The up-and-coming filmmakers led me to sympathize with his character as a big man with a big heart living with traumatic brain injuries.  I don’t usually enjoy watching or participating in the culture of football, yet I love The Duke.  It is an enjoyable story for all.

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