In August of 2013, 18-year-old Columbian-born artist Israel ‘Reefa’ Hernandez was killed by police while tagging an abandoned building in Miami. Through exhaustive investigation, it was discovered he was intentionally tased after he ran from the officers chasing him, some report, with weapons drawn and pointed at him. His death led to protests, and in 2017 he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Now filmmaker, Miami native, and daughter of immigrants Jessica Kavana Dornbusch has penned and directed the film Reefa about the struck down artist. After four years of intense research and much dialogue with Hernandez’s family, Kavana Dornbusch has crafted a story that is much more a celebration of a joyful, idealistic youth’s life than it is about a senseless, tragic death at the hands of the officers who should have been protecting him.
Tyler Dean Flores plays Israel ‘Reefa’ Hernandez, who may be a graffiti artist, but is a good kid, through and through. Skating with his model girlfriend Frankie, hanging with his friends, obeying or apologizing to his parents, this is the way he spends his days as a young man both considering his creative future and living in the now, thinking about the life ahead of him, and the art he wants to express in the world. He enjoys his days, has a strong artistic point of view, and his family life is filled with love. They are all just waiting for their green cards to come through. From time to time though, one particular cop comes around and harasses Israel and his friends, threatening them about their graffiti, and making his partner nervous with his aggressive, megalomaniacal attitude. It’s clear that’s going to end badly.
Some of the best qualities of Reefa are the ensemble work of the actors portraying the Hernandez family, guided by the always great José Zúñiga, as the patriarch, and the very natural breakthrough performance of Flores as Israel. The film is beautifully lensed, and has great use of color and light, especially for a film made on such a small budget.
On the down side, some of the actors are amateurish, and the story dips into Hallmark territory, especially in its loose interpretation of several real life events, which is unnecessary given how dramatic the true story already is.
It’s beautiful that not only was Kavana Dornbusch inspired to bring Hernandez’s story to life, highlighting the most positive, joyful aspects of who he was, as an individual, a beloved son and brother, and an artist, but she inspired others to support her vision by successfully crowdfunding the film. The story is one that should be told, and Flores is an actor who deserves to be seen.
3 out of 5 stars.