Indie filmmaker Ryan Culver advances the premise “What if Philando Castile was white?” in a new short film. In July of 2016, Castile was shot and killed by former St. Anthony Police officer Jeronimo Yanez after being pulled over for a broken taillight.
Castile advised Yanez that he had a firearm—it was licensed—to which Yanez replied, “Don’t reach for it then.” Despite being assured by Castile and his fiancé Diamond Reynolds that he was complying, Yanez put five bullets into the 32-year-old man who had simply been out with his family—Reynolds and her four-year-old little girl.
Twenty minutes later, Castile was dead. In a three-minute short, “What if Philando Castile was white?” Culver revisits the scenario and envisions the senseless tragedy in an alternate universe that reverses the races: Yanez and his patrol partner are Black and the victim is White.
The new short launches a “WHAT IF…” short-film series planned for 2021, that also depicts the deaths of Breonna Taylor (presently in pre-production), George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Atatiana Jefferson and Botham Jean.
What prompted this undertaking? “[I wanted] a project that would challenge me creatively,” said Twin Cities native Culver. “I knew right away because of my ties to Minnesota that I wanted to tackle our brother Philando Castile first.”
He added, “I had been toying around with the concept of reversed roles for some time. Films like “Freaky Friday,” “Face Off” and “BIG” have always interested me for the opportunities they present to entertain and [send a] message to the audience. We’re…reversing roles and messaging through the audience in a unique and creative way.”
Accordingly, the series furthers his predilection for cinema as social statement, following 2019’s “The Education of a Negro,” which he acknowledges relates to Carter G. Woodson’s “The Mis-Education of the Negro.”
“The best book I’ve ever read,” Culver said of Woodson’s timeless book. “Certainly, the best non-fiction book. He was prescient and I encourage every Black person to read it…yearly. For him to have that kind of understanding of our plight in 1932 and be able to articulate it with clarity and sincerity was brilliant.”
Even the most visionary producer-director-writer can’t get the job without a cast and Culver is well-pleased with the actors in “What if Philando Castile was white?”
“All of them were eager, malleable, willing to take direction,” Culver said. “They understood the concept and purpose behind the film immediately and it was a collaborative process from there.
“Because of COVID,” he continued, “we didn’t have rehearsal time, so everything came through video chats. I don’t know if that would’ve worked with a feature film but because the script was only five pages, it worked very well.”
The actors ranged from seasoned veterans to rookies. He said of the youngest, Macy Mae (21) who plays the Diamond Reynolds character: “[She] is exceptionally talented and I have an eye for acting talent. I feel lucky to be getting her before the larger productions find her.
“When actors audition by self-tape I give them the option of doing it however they want. Standing, sitting, inside, outside, wherever their creativity leads them. Most of the time the actor will just do a bland reading in front of a wall. Not Macy. She actually watched the real Philando Castile video of Diamond Reynolds and then went in her car and shot it and submitted that as her audition. It was a pretty easy choice for me after that.”
“The Education of a Negro,” Culver’s feature film debut, premiered at the 2019 Twin Cities Film Festival. It fictionally dramatized a man dealing with White supremacists and the suspicious death of his brother at the hands of police. Released on Apple TV, it is also streaming via Amazon Prime. The “WHAT IF…” series is available free on YouTube and Vimeo.