Justin Kenyon wants to make you uncomfortable — by not talking about politics.
With his debut short film, Illegal, the Dallas-based actor and writer hopes a simple concept will spur complex dialogue about racial profiling, criminal justice, and immigration policy, regardless of your persuasion on the political spectrum.
“We want to be a catalyst to spark the very necessary conversations, and provide a safe space,” Kenyon said. “Instead of antagonizing one viewpoint or another, we wanted to be sympathetic.”
The 24-minute film, which was shot locally, takes place almost entirely inside of a jury room, where six arbiters from varied cultural backgrounds deliberate the fate of an undocumented Mexican immigrant who could be facing deportation after a dispute at a convenience store. How will race impact their decision regarding his guilt or innocence?
“Each one of the characters brings a point of view, and has a valid point,” said director Edgar Arreola. “You’re the one who has to decide and make up your own mind.”
Kenyon, who wrote the screenplay and plays one of the six roles, graduated from the University of North Texas in 2017. He got the idea for the short from Andrew Trusevich, a Plano attorney who is an executive producer on the project.
Thirty drafts later, Kenyon coordinated with Arreola, a Dallas actor who was looking to get behind the camera for the first time. The film was shot in five days last summer, with an entirely local cast and crew.
“The film has always been relevant,” Arreola said. “We haven’t gotten to a point where we’ve resolved our problems.”
After some of its scheduled festival screenings were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the filmmakers decided to release the short film for free online. Early reaction has been positive from audiences across many cultural backgrounds, Arreola said.
Kenyon hopes Illegal will break down stereotypes while discussing hot-button issues and not taking sides. Part of that ambitious strategy involves helping people identify subconscious biases and systemic prejudices — to open viewers’ minds without attacking their beliefs.
“We wanted to make a nonpartisan dialogue and not make it political. A lot of what is labeled as political is really just moral questions,” Kenyon said. “We hope it inspires some change.”