Terry and Jackie Bumbry are a newlywed couple on a road trip near Mount Shasta. It’s 1961, and they’re also an interracial couple, dealing with the psychologically corrosive effects of constant racism they face from their community and their own families.
But when they pull to the side of the road at night, they encounter a bright light in the sky. As it gets closer, they confront it… and then lose all memory of what happened next.
They report the strange incident to local law enforcement, who pulls in a psychologist to question them. But soon the couple finds themselves facing a nefarious force much closer to home.
Writer-director Jay K. Raja’s short sci-fi thriller blends an elegant visual classicism, beautifully structured storytelling and a fresh, intriguing use of sci-fi genre norms to question societal conventions and examine how these ideas are propagated in the first place.
The film opens with the happy couple on the road, singing together to Harry Belafonte’s “Mama Look a Boo Boo.” The vivid colors and dynamic camerawork offer a snapshot of two people deeply in love, while a fine attention to detail with costumes and sets firmly establish the 1960s setting, with its evocations of a seemingly simpler, gentler time. But even in this world, Terry and Jackie’s love affair isn’t entirely charmed: a thread of racial prejudice weaves its way through their world, even in they’re most carefree moments. There’s an uneasiness underneath the beautifully vibrant surfaces of the cinematography, present even in the strange lyrics of the song they’re blithely singing along to.
The dialogue that unfolds between Jackie and Terry confirms this: they’re both deeply affectionate and passionate about one another, but also worn down by the racism they face as a couple. The writing and performances are considerable strengths of the film, building relationships and characters with powerful economy.
The rapport between actors Lauren McFall and Skipper Elekwachi at the Bumbrys is beautifully natural and connected, making viewers root for the couple in a short period of time. And when Jackie confronts Dr. Bancroft, the psychologist, in a remarkably constructed scene, we fear for the pair as tension escalates — and we see there’s much more to their placid, idyllic suburban world than meets the eye, as the uncanniness established in the film’s opening is exploited to stunning effect by the film’s end.
“The Bumbry Encounter” is based roughly on the first widely publicized report of an alien abduction in the U.S. The Hill abduction, as it came to be known, was also about an interracial couple named Betty and Barney Hill, who believed they had an alien encounter; some psychologists attributed their “hallucinations” to the stress they faced as a mixed-race pair in the U.S. at a time of openly hostile racism.
“The Bumbry Encounter” is clearly inspired by the Hills, but takes the nutshell of their narrative into a fascinating direction, foregrounding their race within the social context of the time and showing how prejudices can be easily manipulated and inserted into stories of all kinds, deployed to incriminate its victims. The story of the Bumbrys ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, but beyond its thriller-like propulsion, it also reveals how racism is a social tragedy, and insidious in how it gets inside people’s heads and twists the truth into something ugly.