“Ivy League Drug Dealer” are probably the words those who didn’t know Rob Peace used to describe him when he was killed in 2011. Those who read his friend and college roommate Jeff Hobbs’ 2014 bestselling book “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League” about his life knew probably changed their minds afterwards.
And now with the film “Rob Peace,” directed and adapted by Chiwetel Ejiofor, — who was nominated for an Oscar for “12 Years A Slave” the year the book was published — hopefully even more people will see not just Rob Peace, but all he was up against that contributed to his murder. Ejiofor, who also plays Peace’s dad Skeet Douglas, does everything in his power to ensure that it will.
“It’s like a jungle sometimes” from the 1982 hip-hop classic “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, sets the tone for not just the film but Peace’s life. Before we meet him we hear him as he tells his own story. There is a house fire that he tells us changed everything before we later find out how. When we meet him, he is an elementary kid (Jelani Dacres) and though his father Skeet and mom Jackie Peace (Mary J. Blige) are not together, his father is a large presence in his life.
Rob, or Shaun as he is then known, is smart as a whip and praised for it. It’s a point of pride for his father. He can calculate numbers in his head with a quickness that adults may not be able to figure out with technology. “The calvary” is how one of his dad’s older friends describes him, making it clear that he will be the one to save them all. When his father is charged with crimes he says he did not commit and is later incarcerated, Rob’s childhood comes to a screeching halt. That sets the backdrop for all the outside factors that later contribute to his own demise.
Determined that her son would not end up dead or in jail, Jackie works multiple jobs saving for him to attend a private boys high school called St. Benedict. There, his brilliance is challenged and further cultivated. He meets lifelong friends in Curtis and Tavares. But, even with his heart set on becoming a scientist, he cannot leave his father behind and secretly works on his case with both success and setback.
His acceptance into Yale is far from the racial quota we’re generally told enable less qualified students of color to enter those hallowed halls. Rob (Jay Will) is, by all accounts, a genius and handles Yale with ease, even as he works multiple jobs, plays a sport and socializes. Yet, his dad’s incarceration never stops weighing on him, especially as he faces an insurmountable life challenge. Like so many other men in the hood, drug dealing is the only bank Rob knows and he turns to it. Not for the reasons society tells us that he and others do, however. They turn to it because far too often it is the only way.
Not realizing the stigma Yale and other places attach to poor kids who come from the circumstances that fuel the evening news, Rob’s roommate Hobbs (Benjamin Papac) can’t comprehend why Rob kept his father’s incarceration from him. Naya (Camila Cabello), Rob’s girlfriend, expresses kind disdain for the position his father has put him in and questions if he is worth what Rob is sacrificing for. Frequently Rob is told, even by his mother, to just go away and live his dream life.
In our society, as Ejiofor notes in his director’s statement, “We’ve been conditioned to think very particularly about the notion of place, and I believe Rob’s journey challenges us to reframe the way we have been conditioned to speak about and understand the experience of ‘escaping’ underprivileged or impoverished areas. Believing the nature of success lies in a certain kind of abandonment, that somehow not returning is equivalent to that success.” This is what “Rob Peace,” anchored by a beautiful and brilliantly layered performance by Will and impressive supporting ones by Ejiofor, Blige, and Cabello, challenges.
Trying to paint what success looked like to Rob, by freeing his father, returning to his community to help “buy up the block,” as it’s popularly phrased today, teaching science and coaching swimming at his former high school after being outed as a drug dealer at Yale ended some of his options, are all good and noble things. But when you are born poor and Black, not even a Yale degree, can help you when you stumble.
Emulation just doesn’t play out the same under the weight of a criminal infringement, or a market crash, when that face is not white and male. As “Rob Peace” powerfully illustrates in ways that even the best documentaries have failed to convey, ascension to Ivy League heights like Yale too often leave you with the same options you were given at birth—jail or death.
“Rob Peace” isn’t the story of an “Ivy League drug dealer”; it’s the story of a human being who deserved way better than what society gave him.
“Rob Peace” is a sales title at Sundance.
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