Not everything is better in black and white, but The Twilight Zone reboot is certainly more chilling when it’s stripped of color. Last week CBS announced that the new series will be available to stream in black and white, but Split Screens Festival gave audiences a chance to see the rereleased version of “Replay,” the series’ third episode, on the big screen. The screening on Sunday was followed by a conversation with the episode’s star Sanaa Lathan and screenwriter Selwyn Seyfu Hinds and put into perspective how the episode truly encapsulates everything the reboot should be.
“Replay” shows a black mother’s endless attempts to protect her son, Dorian (Damson Idris), from a racist white cop by rewinding a magical camcorder. In the episode, Nina plans to drive her son to his first week in college, but when they encounter a looming cop (Glenn Fleshler), she finds that her father’s old clunky camcorder can turn back time for a do-over. Like all Twilight Zone episodes, the magical aspect seems like a gift, but Nina soon finds it is a curse. The camcorder doesn’t eliminate the threat of the cop; it just traps Nina in a loop of torturous ends to her son’s life.
Eventually, she looks to her brother for help, and by connecting with their past, they can find a safe route to Dorian’s school and convince the cop to leave them alone finally. But in a flashforward to years later, Dorian’s daughter drops Nina’s magical camcorder. While Dorian tells his mother, it’s time to move on from the camcorder and that they are finally safe, flashing lights cover Nina’s face as she watches him leave to get ice cream. Here, it seems as if the inevitable couldn’t even be prevented in the Twilight Zone.
In the conversation with Hinds and Lathan at Split Screens, they talked about the purpose of the episode. In the beginning stages of the reboot, executive producer Jordan Peeleapproached Hinds intending to cover broad topics like racism but leaving the specifics to the writers. Hinds brainstormed for “Replay” by watching every recorded encounter between a black person and a cop on YouTube. He then thought of the role that video recording had on these increasingly similar situations and their seemingly inevitable outcomes. “The idea didn’t come from sci-fi,” he said, “but reality.”
Ironically, reality mirrored his writing just weeks after he sent in the final version of the script. While waiting for an Uber outside of a building where he was having a meeting, a cop patrolling the street slowed down to ask Hinds what he was up to. When he told this story to the audience at Split Screens, Hinds chuckled at the irony. But the truth of his writing and his lived experience made the episode that much more powerful, especially to someone who has not experienced what Hinds and other people of color go through daily.
The ending of “Replay” is intended to be ambiguous, but you’d have to be some optimist to believe that Dorian is safe from the cops. The Twilight Zone often preaches that the issues of the real world are unavoidable, and Hinds insinuated that the more cynical assumption that Dorian is arrested and possibly killed off screen is what he intended. “I wanted it to be like this thing [racism and police brutality] isn’t solved,” Hinds said. The simplistic ending conveys that a camcorder that rewinds time can’t keep Dorian from a societal problem and that the deep issue in American culture cannot be solved easily.
Just as in previous Twilight Zone episodes, Hinds wanted his episode to focus more on the moral question rather than on the technology. The episode’s theme, racism, is the inescapable aspect of the show and the magical camcorder is just a false solution to the problem. “The magic is fruitless,” Hinds told the audience. He followed with a great point that separated this reboot from another popular sci-fi anthology series, Black Mirror. The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror both preach that technology and magical elements are too good to be true, but The Twilight Zone doesn’t create a dystopian future. It harkens to the nostalgia of the past to speak about the issues of today.
The Twilight Zone is the perfect medium for this story in that it harkens back to the past, as many people try to do to prove how society has advanced since the 1960s. The reboot similarly embraces nostalgic references to the original series; in “Replay,” for example, the opening shots of a diner reference the Busy Bee diner from “Nick of Time,” an episode from the show’s second season in 1960. The story of “Replay” also places importance upon recognizing the country’s past – Nina must embrace her heritage and family history to combat the police.
The Twilight Zone also has an obligation to address the moral questions of American culture. Both Hinds and actress Saana Lathan talked about their first interactions with The Twilight Zone in their childhood. When growing up in Guyana, the VHS tapes Hinds watched were episodes of The Twilight Zone, and he considers those to be one of his earliest exposures to American culture. They showed him aspects of life unique to America, the post-WWII consumerism, and suburbia. If The Twilight Zone is a touchstone of American culture, that means it should also address the issues of that culture.
Just like Hinds in Guyana, almost everyone knows of The Twilight Zone, the theme song, or Rod Serling’s narration. It’s a recognizable and iconic aspect of American culture, but it addresses American moral questions as well. In the original show, it addressed or hinted at social issues like the Cold War, but hid them as science fiction. As Lathan said on Sunday, “It puts a mirror up to human nature and society.” Specifically, it speaks to American society.
The desire to speak about racism in America and put a mirror up to society has been at the core of The Twilight Zone since its earliest seasons. For one, Serling first drafted a scriptbefore the production of the show that was based on the story of Emmett Till. He wanted to tell the stories no one wanted to speak about because he knew they would scare us more than anything fictional. Sterling would be proud to know that the reboot of his show would continue to do the same years later.
“Replay” is a story that audiences expect to come from The Twilight Zone because the show is known for tackling these types of moral questions. It has never been just about science. What makes the show so good is that it isn’t afraid to discuss an issue like racism. “Replay” benefits from this formula that the show has been using for decades. It sets up a seemingly good magical aspect, the relatable problem it’s supposed to solve. But magic in the Twilight Zone is never as good as it seems, and the characters realize they can’t run from the reality they hope to fix. The formula allows for a similar realization from the audience about the problem; in the case of “Replay,” police brutality can’t be wiped from memory with the press of a button.
“Replay” is quite depressing if you interpret that Nina couldn’t save her son from the hands of the police, but that depressing ending fits with the formula of the show. It also may appeal to a wider audience that wouldn’t always think about such issues. As Hinds told the audience at Split Screens, The Twilight Zone is a staple of American culture, which means that it transcends political beliefs and often generational gaps. Those who loved the original show may watch this episode and experience a story they would have never considered watching.
The reboot of The Twilight Zone, specifically “Replay,” also couldn’t have been in better hands than Jordan Peele. He knows how to translate the horror that racism imposes on minorities into psychological horror on screen. The Twilight Zone has always been involved with the creepy and subtle horror of the mind, which could also describe either of Peele’s feature films Us and Get Out. “Replay” works perfectly within those parameters and needed the expertise of someone who both knew the genre of horror well and who had the authority to address race.
It’s a shame that “Replay” was not originally in black and white since the aesthetic of the rereleased version certainly aligns with the themes of the episode. The beginning of the episode most certainly plays into the nostalgia aspect of the reboot, but it’s emphasized more clearly in black and white. Nevertheless, it’s available to stream on CBS All Access now, and it’s one episode that is just better with the rerelease.