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Sundance movie review: 'Rob Peace' captures real-life triumphs, tragedies

Jay Will stars as Rob Peace. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Jay Will stars as Rob Peace. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Rob Peace, which screened online at the Sundance Film Festival, manages to be equal parts inspiring and tragic. The inspiring parts give hope while the tragic parts themselves inspire empathy.

Robert DeShaun Peace (Jay Will) spends his life trying to help overturn his father, Skeet's (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murder conviction. Rob goes to Yale and has a successful business after college, but the legal system is not his only woe.

As a seven-year-old (Jelani Dacres), Rob sees Skeet convicted of a double murder. As a teenager (Chance K. Smith), Rob helps his mother (Mary J. Blige) with their living budget.

Rob was always good at math and gets into Yale, but he also keeps researching Skeet's case. By the time he's 18, Rob is actually able to get a judge to overturn Skeet's conviction, but the state wins their appeal within a month to send Skeet back to prison.

Based on Jay Hobbs' biography of Peace, Ejiofor adapted the story and directed in a way that captures the big pictures in two hours. Ejiofor doesn't linger on any one setback or success for too long, because they are but moments in Peace's journey.

Chiwetel Ejiofor wrote, directed and stars in "Rob Peace." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Chiwetel Ejiofor wrote, directed and stars in "Rob Peace." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

Ejiofor captures period detail from 1987 - 2008 and local cultures from New Jersey to New Haven, Connecticut. Music feels authentic but not the common radio hits.

At Yale, White students question Rob, but he can handle them. Rob doesn't need to call out racism because his credentials speak for themselves when he has the answers.

Mary J Blige plays Rob Peace's mother, Jackie. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
Mary J Blige plays Rob Peace's mother, Jackie. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI

Yet, this dynamic still depicts the hurdles students like Rob face even when they make it on the so-called right path. Yale also causes a divide between Rob and his father as Rob tries to compartmentalize his two lives.

White judges keep upholding the state's case. A lawyer can fight it, but the lawyer is expensive.

Camila Cabello plays Rob Peace's college girlfriend. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Camila Cabello plays Rob Peace's college girlfriend. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

Rob is on a scholarship to Yale but raises money for Skeet's lawyer by selling marijuana. It's a lucrative business that dissolves racial lines far more than academia does.

Ejiofor's film balances the stories like Rob would have had to balance his focuses in real life. Friends and family also keep raising the issue that perhaps Skeet isn't innocent, which is both hard for Rob to hear and confronting to his devotion.

"Rob Peace" is Chiwetel Ejiofor's second film as director and both got into Sundance. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
"Rob Peace" is Chiwetel Ejiofor's second film as director and both got into Sundance. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

The appeal and Rob's education are not the only issues in Rob's life the film depicts. Rob has a romance in college with Naya (Camila Cabello).

After Yale, Rob returns to East Orange, New Jersey where he launches a successful business that simultaneously helps revitalize his community. But, this coincides with the 2008 financial crisis which affects that business adversely.

Yet Rob's life is not a sob story about how the world holds him back no matter what he does. The world is brutal and Rob has disadvantages that privileged people do not.

Considering Hobbs' book was called The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, the movie is not trying to downplay the hardships he faced. What it does is capture the entirety of Rob's life, so he's not solely defined by tragedy.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.