It may take a little time, but once Restless City releases the brakes, prepare yourself for a mesmerizing experience that won’t soon be forgotten. Nigerian Director Andrew Dosunmu stuns all with his portrait of one African boy’s journey in America, where pursuing music is a dream that seems to be slowly eroding the deeper New York City’s West Side digs into his skin. Restless City is a persuasive film that strips away the foolish notion that all is well once an immigrant has finally settled in America. Without family, and friends who mean to harm more than help, there is no salvation to find in America, simply more trouble, especially if you find yourself living in the darker crevasses of the American underworld. I was shocked to learn that this is Dosunmu’s first feature film, having only directed television documentaries prior to his work here. Dosunmu directs with a maestro’s touch, knowing exactly how much to give each scene, with visual splendor aplenty and music that enriches our understanding of African culture, and how much to pull back. The sparse dialogue, written with realistic intent by Eugene M. Gussenhoven, brings a refreshing change to our expectations of the screenplay, where too often elongated speeches and uninspired rhetoric distract from the poignant story at hand. Restless City was first showcased at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and was criminally passed over by distribution studios. Now, thanks to the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement™, the film is being released in select theaters across the country in a few short weeks. It’s my pleasure to dive deep into a hidden gem in cinema, the emotionally stirring Restless City.
Restless City centers on Djibril, an aspiring young musician who has left his home country in Africa to pursue a music career in the states. Djibril reasonably inserts himself into the Harlem subculture, where connections to powerful music producers can be found if one befriends the right people. Unfortunately for Djibril, these connections come at a price, where petty crime is but the smallest of favors one is demanded of. Djibrel sees no end in sight until he glimpses upon a face of beauty, whose innocence has been corrupted by the hustlers and drug kingpins who control Harlem’s streets. Trini, a prostitute belonging to a chief hustler who supplies Djibril with producer connections and free CDs for demo recording, catches Djibril off guard with her vulnerability that is hidden underneath layers of glazed sexual servitude. Even when Djibril tries to take out Trini as a friend, Trini’s mind is tragically trained to look at Djibril as just another client, where sex is the be all, end all of her existence. At that moment in the film, Djibril puts his music career on hold, focusing instead on saving this girl from her doomed lot in life. His refusal to let her being anything less than human, whose body is sacred and in control of its own self, shatters Trini’s wall of complacency. Djibril ignites something inside Trini, something that had been lost long ago, and she realizes she must take a firm hold of her life and steer it in a direction where love and decency hold greater meaning than sexual mistreatment.
Bradford Young, whose cinematography should be up for an Oscar nomination in a perfect world, shoots each scene with specificity and intent. Close-ups, wide-angle shots, and hallway pullbacks are just some of the ways Young approaches each tense scene with the actors in frame, but he’s more than just a director of photography. Branding sepia tones and sleek visuals, Young raises the bar of aesthetics for African-American imagery on film. The African-American faces in the film pop, their skin glowing with crisper detail, resonating the sentiment that black really is beautiful. Several attendees during my screening spoke of the positive way Young’s cinematography and Dosunmu’s aesthetic sensibility heightened the awareness of African-American’s visual representation in film. I could not agree more with their statements, as both Young and Donsunmu’s stylish yet accurate portrayal of African-Americans helps break down cinematic racial barriers, where the glitz and glam seemed only reserved for white actors and their stereotypically portrayed sheik culture on celluloid. After Young’s work as cinematographer in Pariah and now Restless City, I can’t imagine an Academy Award isn’t in this man’s future.
A rousing Afro-Jazz score accompanies many of the film’s outdoor moments, capturing the spirit that is Harlem, as well as the possibility of success for Djibril if he’s able to rise above Harlem’s underworld, which attempts to sink him into its pool of crime on a daily basis. Djibril himself is a character whose on-screen styling evokes that of a comic book hero. His dress attire consists of a brown leather jacket, an African cap, and those memorable red headphones that always hang on his neck. From the second he comes into frame, Djibril stands out amongst the rest thanks to his look, whose confident styling doesn’t quite match his soft-spoken personality. The contrast between Djibril’s visual presentation and personality make for a interesting paradox of a protagonist. On the one hand, Djibril uses his visual image to survive in Harlem’s underbelly of crime, as it promotes his musical intentions to all those who happen to cross his path. On the other, the getup is a way for Djibril to hide his innocent nature, which is obvious to anyone who witnesses the scenes between him and Trini. Djibril’s maturity and confidence rise across the length of the film’s narrative as he and Trina play off of each other, one requiring worldly experience and the other a desire for stability. Both actors sell their characters so well that I cannot imagine Sy Alassane (Djibril) and Sky Grey (Trina) being anything less than extraordinary in future film projects. Sky Grey, in particular, believably transitions from tragic prostitute to strong-willed heroine, an incredibly difficult task to accomplish if sympathy isn’t derived from the audience right from the start. By the time I had finished viewing Restless City, I knew Grey is someone we should be keeping a lookout for in the future. Supporting turns by Tony Okungbowa and Danai Gurira should not be glossed over either, especially Gurira, whose impassioned stares rival the great Viola Davis.
In sum, Restless City lives up to the chaotic expectations of its title, and does so much more in execution. The only real negatives that I can pinpoint in the film is the slow beginning, which is a tad confusing until the plot begins to take understandable form, and the negation of Djibril’s original music on display. As wonderful as the Afro-Jazz score is, I would have preferred to hear Djibril play his own music in a scene or two. We know music is his passion, but we’re not quite sure of his actual talent since it’s never showcased in the film. That little tidbit would have added an extra layer of depth to Djibril, who already has plenty for the audience to sink into. Other than those minor complaints, this film is a nothing short of an independent masterpiece. I can only hope the film receives more theater bookings in the future. Please, everyone who lives in the country’s largest cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, etc.) must go see this film. I promise you, you’ll have nothing less than a transcendental experience. This is one of those films that just so happens to have the perfect balance of a great director, great cinematographer, great screenwriter, and great actors all working together to make one of the most moving pieces in African-American cinema I can remember.
Restless City releases in select cities nationwide on April 27th, 2012. Please do not miss it!