Director: Martine Syms
Stars: Diamond Stingily, Ruby McCollister, Erin Leland
The African Desperate charts a day in the life of African-America MFA graduate Palace (Diamond Stingily). When we meet her, she is readying for an assessment of her work from an all-white board of staff members. Staged more like an intervention than a dialogue, Palace finds her integrity questioned as one of her colleagues makes blithely racist connotations that leave her crying in the aftermath.
Just another day as a Black woman navigating the predominantly white world of academia. Palace shrugs off her tears, denying them in public. Her pain and sensitivity in this regard has become normalised. Martine Syms’ slice-of-life drama undulates between shoegaze and the euphoric, but is mostly more interested in character observation than the pitfalls of racial politics. Still, this unpleasant encounter at the film’s beginning sets in place a tone that refracts in every decision that follows.
Palace and her friend Hannah (Erin Leland) identify themselves as “dead daughters”, but for Palace the notion of disconnect seems to apply more keenly and broadly across her life. Most of her interactions documented here are against her preference, all leading inexorably to a party she’s supposed to DJ that she has no desire to attend, and long into the night after. Indeed, for all her in-public extrovert exuberance, Palace seems most at ease in her own company; recording one of her make-up tutorials, or writing a personalised letter of thanks to the owners of her Airbnb. Come the movie’s hungover end, the Palace we see in transit suffers from her exploits the night before, but she may also be recharging from the strain of her nighttime – and indeed daytime – façade.
Prior to these moments of quiet, your mileage may vary considerably as The African Desperate hunkers down with Palace’s cavalcade of hipster and art world associates and an escalating pattern of drug misuse, staccato IDM and highfaluting talk of the death of liberalism etc. It often feels less like a love letter to the art world and more like a firebomb aimed at one’s best friends. If Syms has taken from her own experiences, one hopes her own associates share her sense of humour. The African Desperate is a work of fiction. It stresses so at the end. Hmm, okay.
Syms’ method of portraying a video call is original, garish and serene – a tryptic of adjectives that might broadly be applied to her film overall. Presenting (or rather acknowledging) our culture of extremely-online responses, Syms splices memes into corners of her frames like Tyler Durden sneaking in porno stills; an allusion that doubles considering one such instance occurs while Palace and her friends are in the presence of multiple screens of jerked off penises (a video installation).
Such is the nature of the world from which The African Desperate grew and in which it takes place. There’s a somewhat hermetic vibe here. A small-scale arthouse comedy derived from the very world it critiques. It makes for quite an indulgent piece in some ways. It’s more outré tendencies feel like the ouroboros – the snake eating its own tail – offering little intersection with the world outside of its own concern. Something that does little to counteract the sense of self-absorption that the art world already exudes.
Moments of formal verve compensate for some of the film’s shortcomings, which often manifest through less than seasoned performances around the peripheries, or the (possibly deliberate given the haze of euphoria) sense of unusual space in the edit. Syms uses the fairly unsensational map of a druggy night out to play with psychedelic filters and to intuit a sense of dysmorphia between sound and vision. The African Desperate often feels like a petri dish for Syms; a self-aware, work-in-progress filmmaker. Would that more filmmakers felt so confident evidencing their own development on screen in front of us. This sense of exploration and creativity carries The African Desperate through the stretches where its triviality grows cloying.
Notions of finding oneself and developing pepper Syms’ project. Palace is challenged with the absurd-sounding advice to focus on “The need not to know yourself”, and while she is providing make-up tips she herself encourages viewers to “Take your hair down and really embrace who you are… which is not me”. Symmetrically, The African Desperate exhibits a canny and inventive talent fashioning her own voice in real time.