Rob Peace Is a Heartrending Story Of a Promising Life [Sundance]

Rob Peace still of Rob (Jay Will) sitting in class, smiling.

Playing at the Sundance Film Festival, Rob Peace is gut-wrenching and tragic, featuring a breakout performance from its lead actor. Based on a true story, the movie focuses on the brief life of Robert DeShaun Peace (Jay Will), a Black kid from Newark, and his triumphs and tragedies. Even knowing how it ends, watching the movie progress toward heartache, it’s impossible not to pray for a different outcome. The emotional impact of Rob Peace propels the movie past its 119-minute runtime, living in the hearts of viewers, reflecting on their experiences or failures within their micro-environments. 

Written and directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor and based on the book The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace written by Jeff Jobbs, the film begins with a montage of the times in Black urban communities when Rob was born while playing Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message.” Rob Peace narrates throughout the film. He points out turning points in his life that impacted his course. There is only so far people can go in life if tragedy strikes and they lack financial resources or support. The movie charts a lot of missteps, both in society and with his family, and showcases a person struggling to be everything to everyone he cares about.

Rob Peace Has a Triumphant Cast

Rob Peace photo of director Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, director of Rob Peace, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Jay Will is magnificent in this role. He doesn’t only present a strong front but an underlying sadness and pain. Every time he cries, it’s difficult not to sob and scream alongside him. Chiwetel Ejiofor as his father, Skeet, complements Will’s performance, showcasing the father’s humanity and selfishness. Mary J. Blige as Rob’s mother, Jackie, also does outstanding work. Blige captures the performance of a mom trying to shelter her son. She works hard to keep harsher aspects of the world at bay. Camilla Cabello as Naya also performs pretty well, though it falters at points, feeling wooden.

Torn Between Two Parents and Misfortune

Parents often think they know best. However, when parents pull in opposite directions, it leads to chaos for the kid. Rob’s father believed in community, while Rob’s mother believed the best thing for Rob was to leave Newark. But starting as a child, misfortune befalls the family and continues to worsen as Rob grows up. It leaves him torn between parents. Skeet demands Rob’s help him, treating him like a full-fledged adult when he hasn’t even finished college. Meanwhile, Jackie treats him as a child, withholding important information because she feels it’s in his best interest. 

It’s challenging when a child is exceptionally bright to remember they are still just a child. Children, when they love their parents, promise them the world as kids. But, sadly, Rob’s father guilts him to stop living his life while his mother manipulates him to live it her way. At the same time, Skeet is a sympathetic figure, too, scapegoated to take the fall for a case the cops want to shut.

A Societal Failure

Rob Peace still of Rob (Jay Will) sitting in class, smiling.
A still from Rob Peace by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo courtesy of Gwen Capistran.

The tragedy in Rob Peace is the failure of society, a society that—from microaggressions to institutional racism to the school-to-prison pipeline—limits the brightest if they don’t fit a homogenized, patriarchal, heteronormative standard. It keeps the masses downtrod, then punishes them for not climbing out of their circumstances, offering little leniency or options the further down a person is. The worst part is the stifling of economic growth. As Rob states toward the climax, “Money means you got choices.” For those who aren’t white, hard work is not enough—it’s hard work, connections, luck, and more to achieve success. 

Rob Peace is a fantastic film and a real-life tragedy. There are countless Robs out there with tragic ends thanks to this society. So many stories still go untold, but Chiwetel Ejiofor does phenomenal work in front of and behind the camera, bringing a story about an intelligent, promising Black man with a vision whose life ended far too soon. Jay Will is perfect casting, as anyone else in the role is unimaginable. Rob Peace is an enrapturing and heartbreaking, with magnetic performances and a lead actor who deserves all the accolades. 

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