In his feature directorial debut, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Chiwetel Ejiofor crafted a humanizing portrait of a gifted Malawian boy who saves his village from famine by building a DIY windmill. That film — based on the true story of inventor William Kamkwamna — leaned into the conventions of inspirational movies to shape a narrative steeped in good-natured earnestness. But it also teased a portrayal of the complicated relationships between fathers and sons.
Ejiofor revisits this theme more forcefully in his latest directorial effort, Rob Peace, about a young man torn between the promise of his future and the responsibilities of his past. Adapted from Jeff Hobbs’ 2014 book The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, the film offers a sweeping and empathetic depiction of its central character. Through Peace’s story, Ejiofor explores the violent impact of the carceral state and the fraught interdependence of a father and his son. While largely predictable in its approach, Ejiofor’s film still evokes a genuine emotional response thanks to strong performances from its cast, especially lead Jay Will.
The Bottom Line
Evokes genuine emotions despite a traditional framework.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Cast: Jay Will, Mary J. Blige, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Camila Cabello, Michael Kelly, Mare Winningham
Director-screenwriter: Chiwetel Ejiofor
1 hour 59 minutes
The film opens in 1987 in Orange, New Jersey, where seven-year-old Robert DeShaun Peace (Jelani Dacres) eagerly awaits his father’s arrival. When the man everyone calls Skeet (played by Ejiofor) pulls up in his car, Rob leaps from the front steps and into his arms. There is mutual admiration between these two, and Ejiofor, who wrote the screenplay, underscores that with key moments of bonding. Rob looks up to his father, and Skeet sees his son as the future of their neighborhood.
The beginning of Rob Peace also establishes the loyalty Rob feels to his hometown. Ksenia Sereda’s intimate shots of men gathering on a stoop while listening to the radio and passing around beers paint a picture of a vibrant community. This perspective is critical to understanding the tension Rob carries for the rest of his life.
After Skeet is convicted of a double homicide, Rob’s mother, Jackie (Mary J. Blige), doubles down on saving her son. She doesn’t want Rob to end up like his father or any of the other men in Orange. The film jumps seven years to 1994. Rob (now played by Chance K. Smith) is a student at St. Benedict’s Prep School in Newark, where he excels in his classes and plays water polo. Outside of school, the gifted student reviews the details of his father’s case. Rob knows that Skeet is innocent, and he’s determined to prove it.
Two narratives unfold in Rob Peace: the story of Rob moving through increasingly elite spaces without losing his sense of self and the one of the same young man trying to save his father. As Rob (now played by Jay Will) moves from Orange to New Haven, where he matriculates at Yale University, Skeet never leaves his mind. He calls his father, visits him in prison and continues working to prove his innocence.
Will deftly balances his character’s charismatic exterior with his more wounded interior. He especially plays well against Ejiofor; some of the best scenes are the increasingly charged interactions between Rob and his father. Ejiofor’s performance highlights the toll the carceral system takes on a person; Will’s offers insight into the emotional fallout of having an incarcerated loved one.
As Skeet becomes more desperate for his freedom, he makes demands on his son to act more quickly. Rob begins to wonder about the truth of his father’s testimony, and Will grounds his character’s growing doubt in an authentic ambivalence. It would have benefited the film to make space for more of the character’s interiority, especially as the pressure to help Skeet mounts.
At Yale, Rob thrives academically and socially, drawing the attention of a professor (Mare Winningham) and the admiration of his peers. It’s at Yale that Rob meets his biographer, Hobbs (Benjamin Papac), and his eventual girlfriend, Naya (Camila Cabello). But being at the school doesn’t magically solve our protagonist’s problems. Rob still needs money to pay Skeet’s legal fees. With this, Rob Peace offers an under-explored portrait of the tension faced by Black working-class students in elite institutions. Rob is surrounded by students who don’t know his dad is in prison and don’t understand the loyalty he feels to his community.
The decision to sell weed on campus is a practical one. Unable to help Skeet with his campus jobs, Rob decides to dip his toe in this more lucrative operation. His friends warn against it: Rich white students might be able to deal on campus without fear of consequence, but Rob is poor and Black. The rules are different. Yet without many options, the young Orange native feels he must risk it.
Rob Peace moves briskly. Time jumps keep the narrative moving, with Ejiofor often opting for montages backed by poignant music (by Jeff Russo) instead of letting moments play out. These shortcuts make sense for a film trying to cover so much ground, but occasionally undercut some of the more emotionally potent scenes. They especially compress the latter half of Rob’s life, leaving us with a flattened sense of the character’s motivations as he finds himself in more financial trouble.
Still, with Rob Peace, Ejiofor has found a subject whose life story reflects some of the most unjust realities of the United States. Throughout the film, people in Rob’s life comment on his preternatural intellect and charisma. They express excitement about his future — all visions that require him to leave East Orange. But Rob didn’t see anything wrong with his community. He had no desire to leave, and part of the tragedy of Rob Peace is that few people seemed to wonder why.