The Subject

Movie review by
Monique Jones, Common Sense Media
The Subject Movie Poster Image
Intense, engaging, mature drama about racial issues.
  • NR
  • 2021
  • 119 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Empathy is an important skill to exercise, especially with people who have different backgrounds than you. It's important to use compassion and empathy when relating to others, without judgment. 

Positive Role Models

Phil shows empathy to his latest documentary subject by supporting them after their mother dies (and pays for funeral), but he didn't help his first subject, Malcolm, when he was getting beaten up. He put his documentary over Malcolm's safety, resulting in his filming Malcolm's death. The differences in his approach is intended to show positive change.

Diverse Representations

Adeptly covers complex issues regarding race relations with drama and tension. White privilege is deconstructed in a scorching way, and other microaggressions -- such as Phil calling his Latina girlfriend a "housekeeper" to make a point -- are also addressed. Aunjanue Ellis is a standout as Leslie, the mother of a son who was killed from gang violence. Jason Biggs offers a nuanced look at Whiteness as a social construct, giving audiences insight into how empathy and compassion play a role in eradicating racial prejudices. Marley Green, a Black woman who becomes Phil's assistant, is a character who isn't limited by the stereotypes often associated with Black female characters. But she's also put in a seducing role. 


Physical threats, strangling, gang violence. A person's death is captured on film. A character describes her daughter's ex-boyfriend as "pedophilic."


Two make-out scenes and one scene that alludes to characters having had sex. One character asks another to "f--k the f--k out of me." A scene includes the description of someone who lost their virginity at 12. A character says they would "give my left breast" for a big opportunity in filmmaking. Scene with the description of a character being "hot."


Language includes "f--k," "a--hole," "s--t," "bitch," ass," "t-ts," "skanky," "hell," "fat-ass," "man-whore," "bastards," "damn." Use of "crazy," which could be considered ableist. Middle-finger gestures.


Fruit of the Loom is mentioned.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Wine shown, but characters never shown drinking it.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Subject is a drama about a White documentary filmmaker (Jason Biggs) who must deal with his guilt after accidentally filming his Black subject's death. Mature content includes coarse language ("s--t," "f--k," and more), violence (physical threats, strangling, gang violence), and sexual content (make-out scenes, a scene that alludes to characters having had sex, reference to virginity loss, etc.). The film does a great job handling complex racial issues and features diverse representations in its characters.

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What's the story?

THE SUBJECT is an emotionally gripping drama that follows documentarian Phil (Jason Biggs), who has latent guilt surrounding the fate of his past documentary subject, Malcolm (Nile Bullock). Phil's internal conflict regarding his personal guilt and racial prejudices come to a head when Malcolm's mother, Leslie (Aunjanue Ellis), visits to get answers regarding her son's death. 

Is it any good?

The first part of The Subject is entertaining enough; it starts out like a slow-simmering drama. But it really picks up speed and takes a turn toward becoming a micro-thriller after the first hour. And while Biggs turns in an amazing performance as a man who doesn't recognize his own racial or financial privilege until it's nearly too late, the performance to watch for is Ellis as a mother who needs to know more about her son's death. 

The film works best when it's a pressure cooker about racial tensions, analyzing how one group of people can feel empowered to overlook another group and not realize how inhumanely they're acting toward others. Ellis brings raw humanity to her character and the people her character represents: the downtrodden, the forgotten, and the oppressed, who want a way to succeed like everyone else. In fact, Ellis' scenes outshine most of the film. That's both a good thing, in that it shows her vast talent, and a bad thing, in that it eclipses other parts of Biggs' performance, which does showcase Phil's empathy despite a huge lapse in judgment. But overall, The Subject is a film worth watching if you're interested in media that tackles thorny issues facing U.S. society. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Parents can talk about the racial issues discussed in The Subject. What message do you think the filmmakers want viewers to take away from watching?

  • How is Phil trying to deflect blame for his role in Malcolm's death? How does Phil show empathy? How does he fail to show empathy?

  • How does Leslie show Phil compassion despite his guilt?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

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