Bag Man is the 2014 short film co-written and directed by brothers Jonathan and Josh Baker that’s the basis for their new feature film Kin. It stuck with me far longer than I thought it would, especially given its compact 15-minute runtime. Its dialogue is sparse, its visuals are familiar, and the larger story it hints at is left purposefully unclear.
In the days since I first watched Bag Man in anticipation for Kin, I’ve gone back to it over and over again, each time feeling as though I’ve both come away with something new and grown less certain about what the filmmakers were trying to say.
Bag Man is a slice of life about an unnamed boy (played by Judah Bellamy) from Harlem being raised by his overworked single mother (Raushanah Simmons). The pair have a dynamic the film doesn’t get into deeply on-screen, but you can glean the general gist of what their daily lives are like from the brief, one-sided conversation his mother has with him from across the apartment.
She’s getting ready for work and expects him to be out of the bed already preparing to head to school. She’s worried he’ll be late again, something that’s happened in the past, but the absence of the boy’s father, a member of the military, is something weighing even heavier on them.
It’s unclear whether the boy’s father has died or simply been deployed again, but there’s an atmosphere of loss within the apartment that feels as though it takes up enough space to make neither of them really want to be there.
As the boy makes his way to the closest subway station with a large bag in tow, you see that he knows his way around the city and is more than used to navigating it on his own. He brushes off a street hustler (Pablo Gonzalez) who knows he isn’t on his way to school, and the boy settles in for a train ride into upstate, though not too far, New York.
It’s here where Bag Man’s story takes a major, though surprisingly smooth turn, as it becomes clear just what the boy has been doing while cutting class.
Every day while standing somewhere in the fields of Manitou, New York, the boy spends hours setting up rows of inanimate objects — cans in this instance — which you’re led to believe he then shoots with a hulking, alien-looking gun outfitted with technologies we’re decades from developing.
As the boy takes aim for his first blast, he pauses when he realises an owl’s landed on the felled tree he’s placed cans on, and as intimidating as the kid’s future-gun is, you get the sense he’s never used it to willingly kill a living thing before.
Bag Man’s few minutes of proper action kick into gear when a car pulls into the field, prompting the boy to hide and watch as three armed men pile out and pull a man with a bag over his head from the trunk.
It’s obvious that the three men have brought the fourth there to kill him, but the boy reveals himself and what his gun can do to prevent that from happening.
There’s so much to be read into from Bag Man’s last few minutes that recontextualises the earlier parts of the film in ways that are… complicated. The image of a young black boy holding a massive, dangerous, gun-like weapon is striking and loaded. The moment the three criminals realise what the boy is capable of with the gun, he becomes something terrifying to them and a person to direct their rage toward.
As he saves the titular Bag Man from death, the film frames the boy as a good person with a gun who was in the right place at the right time, but that’s juxtaposed with our having just watched him vaporise people with a weapon he clearly doesn’t fully understand.
Seeing the gun in action changes the subtext of the street hustler’s conversation with the boy earlier in the film, where he offers the boy a chance to get in on a job that would fill his bag up with money twice over. It isn’t clear whether or not the hustler knows about the gun and if his invitation is contingent on the kid bringing it with him, but you’re left to wonder whether that’s the case.
There’s also the gun itself, which is simultaneously impressive and strangely childlike. It isn’t a realistic handgun, but rather a kid’s idea of a war weapon — the kind you’d expect to see one of Halo’s Spartans or Overwatch’s Zarya wield. There’s a toy-ish quality to the way it lights up and expands when activated that belies the havoc it can cause and is at odds with the short’s subtle militaristic undertones.
The gun and his discretion in using it, Bag Man suggests, are what make the boy powerful. It’s a message that always would have been difficult to sit with — but is especially so given how just months after Bag Man’s 2014 release, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police when he was seen playing with an airsoft gun in a park near his home.
Bag Man doesn’t flesh out its world fully enough to clue us into the inner workings of the boy’s mind. We never learn how he’s feeling or what he’s thinking outside of wanting to make his trip, but given the film’s premise and its optics, it feels like a missed (or purposefully passed over) opportunity to pick apart the complexities of how guns hold a symbolic power in our society that’s viewed differently depending on who’s holding them.
Bag Man isn’t a film of absolutes and certainty. Like many short films, it’s an exercise in and execution of ideas that gives us a look into the filmmakers’ minds. In Bag Man’s case, that initial idea was turned into a feature-length movie — Kin, in cinemas now — and hopefully, we’ll be able to revisit this world and come away with a clearer idea of exactly what the Bakers are getting at.