It is interesting to know that something that starts as a random conversation between William J. Saunders (director) and Will Smith (not the Will Smith we all know) turns into this true-crime documentary that spans for years.
The Penny Black is a non-fiction investigative thriller that begins with Will, the estranged son of a conman, his unknowable Russian neighbor, and a million-dollar stamp collection. The film follows and documents months leading into years of Will and the producers trying to find this Russian neighbor and the true story behind this stamp collection.
Will reveals that his father was a con man who sold art he did not own and also forged documents. He details how growing up was like for him and waking up one time to see their home ransacked by federal agents whilst his father escaped and abandoned him and his mother.
As the years go by, you can’t help but wonder if all that he says about how he came into possession of the stamps is true. As the search for Roman (the Russian Neighbour) continues you are forced to keep asking yourself if he does exist or he does only in Will’s mind.
The producers even enlist the help of private investigators to help track down the Russian who Will claims to have gotten the stamps from.
They also get the collection appraised at one point and realize it is worth a lot. We also get to see Will attend stamp shows and auctions that give you a real sense of appreciation of how valuable these stamps are to collectors and how competitive bidding wars for them can get.
All this makes you fear for Will‘s life and his safety. The producers decide he keeps the stash in a banks safety deposit box but later realizes that one of the binders containing a significant collection of stamps goes missing. This sends them on another wild goose chase trying to find
The makers succeed at keeping viewers at the edge of their seats expecting something serious to happen to Will in connection to the stamps.
What’s even more captivating is the crafty reenactments captured by the makers to help visualize some of the details about the night Will comes into possession of the stamps. You feel the mystery surrounding the stamps and the intensity behind the search for its original owner or owners.
Who would leave something as valuable as this in the hands of a stranger and forgets about them for years? Or something bad had happened to this Russian? You are forced to ask yourself those questions several times as you sit through this film.
Will comes off as sketchy and dishonest sometimes. But surprisingly, Roman describes him as the most honest man he’s ever come across considering that he took all these years to try and track him and down and return the stamps. There is no doubt that he might have sold or kept a few of the stamps for himself waiting for all this to blow over. Who wouldn’t? But I guess we would never know.
At one point he jokes about having sold a few stamps when he’s asked about his new car. His response leaves you with some doubt and enough reason to question his integrity.
He admits he’s haunted by his father’s past and fears that he too might go down a path of dishonesty and crime as though it is hereditary. The director uses this information to create a flawed, shady persona about Will that is enough to give this film its hero and villain in one person.
In the end, we are still left with the mystery about the stamps. How Roman got them, who the true owners are and whatever happened to them. Also, whatever happened to the missing binder and how these events shapes Will’s life going forward.
For a documentary film, “The Penny Black” is enthralling, to say the least. You can’t but ask yourself what you would do if you found yourself in Will’s situation. The film is oddly satisfying as you are constantly left wondering if it all real or just a well-scripted story. I would rate it a well-deserving 6.5/10.
This might not be your regular documentary that is well researched and packaged with archive footages loads of information but truth is, its entire premise is worthy of a full feature film. A film that would be great to sit through if put together well.
Watch ‘The Penny Black’- https://www.laemmle.com/film/penny-black