The “anatomy of a marriage” film is a category I use for movies that are about the realities of marriage and little else. The story does have a plot and an interesting arc, however, the meat of the narrative is how a couple navigates the ups and downs of being a married couple. Plenty of films have done this—like The Story of Us starring Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer, or Marriage Story starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson–yet few have done them well. None have fallen squarely into this category while featuring a Black couple until Asunder: One Flesh Divided.
Before you start naming a slate of Tyler Perry movies or ones that feature an ensemble cast and a harried plot centering a host of marital issues. The anatomy of a marriage film features one couple. The two people in it are at a crossroads where they must evaluate their time together. In doing so, they grappled with the barest ideas of what a marriage is and how they will define that for themselves or not. Asunder is this type of film.
It follows Brandon (played by Nfa Djba) and Ruth (played by director and writer Alana Barrett-Adkins) as they navigate a dry, dead existence together. This is evident in their conversation, which is practically nonexistent. When Ruth is called to the hospital for a family emergency, you can feel Brandon relax. The house even seems to sigh. While she is away, Brandon springs to life on his phone. Upon Ruth’s return, the somberness also comes back.
In an interview with Barrett-Adkins, I found out that the aesthetic was intentional. She wanted to show just how dead the marriage was in the beginning. She says that the marriage is “stagnant and old” as if the couple was stuck in a wooden box. Eventually, if they are not careful, they become so basic that the couple begins to blend in with the house. By the time Ruth is hit on by a newcomer to her job, the audience is practically rooting for her to jump in bed with the man, Jackson (played by Justin Crowley).
But Ruth is a Christian woman and her faith is keeping her with a man who is indifferent to her. Barrett-Adkins does apply the faith lightly, she says, to show the humanity of the couple. “We are dynamic, we are layered as a people,” she says. And, Ruth’s faith is another layer that we see of her. The marriage goes under examination after she does succumb, partially to temptation with Jackson. Brandon and Ruth go to marriage counseling and there they open the carcass of the dying marriage to reveal that Ruth is not the only one who abandoned the relationship. In fact, there are many secrets that they must face before this marriage can be salvaged or must be strewn asunder.
Asunder may catch some audiences by surprise as it is a bit on the quirky side. The narrative unfolds slowly and offers an unsettling look at the person we thought we were supposed to be rooting for. But she is flawed and imperfect. Barrett-Adkins explained that she was inspired by films like The Secret Life of Walter Middy in this element. Her attention to the aesthetic details is inspired by films like Hidden Figures. While some may enter Asunder looking for a couples drama, they will be surprised to find that the film is actually an artist’s painting of marriage through a Black love lens.
The experimental elements show all too well as the film has a halting plot that drags in places and threatens to speed away in others. This little film has so much potential. At its core is a story that we need so much more of. By the end, viewers will be wanting to know more about Brandon and Ruth. Barrett-Adkins hints that they may get a chance.
Asunder: One Flesh Divided is screening at the American Black Film Festival on August 21-30.
Rating 3 of 4