‘Two Distant Strangers’: Oscar-Winning Netflix Film Accused of Plagiarism

This year’s Oscars may not have generated quite the buzz and attention that the ceremony has in year’s past, but between the delayed timing of the event and the changes due to COVID-19, that was to be expected. Even in a normal year, some categories get a lot more attention than others, and the winners of Best Picture and Best Actor/Actress are almost always going to grab the lion’s share of the headlines. 

This year, however, the winner of the Best Live Action Short Film has been gaining a lot of attention — and some of it has been for an unfortunate reason. Two Distant Strangers won the Oscar and then faced accusations of plagiarism. What’s going on with this controversial movie?

Oscar statue is seen during a screening of the Oscars on April 26, 2021
Oscar statue is seen during a screening of the Oscars on April 26, 2021 | Lewis Joly-Pool/Getty Images

‘Two Distant Strangers’ is a timely time loop movie

The plot of Two Distant Strangers, which clocks in at 29 minutes, is a heavy one. It features Carter — played by rapper Joey Bada$$ — as a comic book designer who wakes up in the bed of a woman after a one-night stand. After joking around with his date and setting a light and fun tone, Carter announces that he has to leave in a hurry to get back to his dog, an adorable pup who Carter takes time to call and shower with treats remotely. 

Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned for Carter. As soon as he steps out of the apartment building, he bumps into a man who spills his coffee on his shift. A brief verbal altercation follows but quickly resolves, but not before a nearby police officer intervenes.

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Soon, Carter, who has done nothing wrong, is pinned to the ground, gasping “I can’t breathe” as the screen goes dark. Then he wakes back up in bed next to the woman from the first scene.

Convinced he’s having a bad dream, he tries to leave again, but soon he realizes it’s no dream. He’s in a time loop, and no matter what he does, the police officer kills him in the end. 

‘Two Distant Strangers’ earned accolades for his powerful message

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In a year when the Black Lives Matter movement has been increasingly visible — especially as George Floyd’s death and his murderer’s subsequent conviction played out — Two Distant Strangers was bound to draw attention. Plenty of entertainers have gotten involved in the activism, and calls for police reform and accountability have echoed through songs, live performances, TV shows, and film. 

Few are as direct in their messaging as Two Distant Strangers, however. In one of the later scenes of the film, an aerial shot shows the roof of a building painted with the names of many African Americans slain by police officers.

As the credits roll, the screen scrolls with name after name of those who have lost their lives to police brutality. The message is direct, brutal, and condemning while still managing to provide a shred of hope that we’ll eventually make the necessary changes. 

Is ‘Two Distant Strangers’ plagiarized?

All of those accolades — and the Oscar — have become shrouded in controversy as the film’s creators face accusations of plagiarism. Filmmaker Cynthia Kao is calling out the creators for ripping off her 4-minute short film called Groundhog Day for a Black Man.

Her version came out in 2016. Obviously, the films share a general plot, but it’s not as if the idea is completely original. Kao’s own film references Groundhog Daythe Bill Murray film where a weatherman relives the same day again and again. 

The accusation doesn’t stop there, however. As Daily Dot reports, Kao was approached by NowThis following George Floyd’s death. They wanted to use her film in a news spot and promised to maintain her credit for the creation. NowThis is cited as a contributor to Two Distant Strangers, but Kao is not credited. 

Some are taking to social media to decry the theft and blaming Netflix for profiting from a story without crediting the true author. It’s worth noting, however, that Netflix didn’t create this film. They simply picked it up for distribution after it was nominated for the Oscar. The writer and director is Travon Free. 

While the two films share a similar concept, Free’s work is much longer (more than five times the length) and more detailed. As a legal issue, it doesn’t seem that copyright infringement is at play. Creators can’t copyright a concept, and Two Distant Strangers clearly does not copy the writing or dialogue in Groundhog Day for a Black Man.

It seems unlikely that the accusations have any legal standing, but the court of public opinion will have to decide if there has been a creative ethics violation that will tarnish the film’s reputation.