The African Desperate Review: The Art School Odyssey of Martine Syms

Artist Martine Syms injects her radical vision into a reimagining of her MFA experience in her innovative feature debut.

Palace (Diamond Stingily), one of the only black students on campus at a predominantly white art school, is exhausted. She just took her final MFA exam with four white professors, where they approached her work with a mixture of hyper-seriousness and outright condescension, abandoning her with art-world jargon and assessments. vaguely racist while retaining an air of performative awakening. ness.

“People here really want me to get mad,” she then tells her friend Hannah (Erin Leland) as they sit by a lake near their bucolic upstate New York campus. . “And it’s like I don’t want to fight you.”

Palace oscillates between this feeling of disbelief and indifference as she encounters various shades of ignorance and insensitivity from her teachers and peers. With its everyday setting and social interactions mixed with an intrusive and innovative soundtrack (composed by the group Aunt Sister, featuring Colin Self and Ben Babbit) and a hyperactive visual style, “The African Desperate” straddles the line between shock and banality.

Through this frenetic approach, director Martine Syms – who co-wrote the film with Rocket Caleshu – delivers a totally subjective look at the last 24 hours of Palace’s time as an MFA student, as she preparing to leave a space that has been a source of discomfort. , but which has also become reassuringly familiar territory.

“The African Desperate” is based on the time Syms completes his MFA in Bard, where much of the film is shot. “I was one of the few students of color to negotiate the dissonance of being adored and attacked at the same time,” the filmmaker wrote in a director’s note provided to the press. Although this is her first narrative film, the 34-year-old artist has long translated her own experiences, as well as those of black women and artists in general, into video works and installations that have been featured in museums such as MoMA, Tate, Art Institute of Chicago.

Syms referenced researcher Allison Landsberg’s “prosthetic memory” theory in relation to her work, which Syms says can be explained as follows: “Massive amounts of sounds, images, videos to which we have access [that] constitute a public imagination on which we can draw. She sees her work as a form of collage, and indeed it sometimes seems put together, almost to the point of being unfinished, like a flytrap that has picked up all of the conflicting cultural influences around it.

In Syms’ vision, phone calls transpose the face of each caller onto that of the other, in a kind of disembodied digital space. The sounds vibrate and thump in dissonance with the relatively calm on-screen action. Syms injects his radical flair into this work, creatively revisiting a time of transition in his own life and the ambivalent energy that often accompanies the end of things.

As her classmates beg her to attend a party taking place that night, Palace makes it clear that she has no interest in going. And you can see why: each student is more insufferable than the next, an exaggeration of the privileged art school hipster whose sole purpose is to do average, borderline offensive work and consume as much ketamine as possible. As she tries to keep a low profile, Palace’s clash of bright orange hair makes her easy to spot from anywhere on campus, and it’s never long before another student latches onto her. her like a needy puppy.

His constant air of distance and disaffection, however, shows an unwillingness to pander to their whims, or assimilate to the bubbly, dynamic tones in which almost everyone seems to speak. Saying ‘no’ to a party invitation might not seem like a big step, but for Palace, holding on feels like a win. This attitude is an affirmation of one’s own identity, and a refusal to fit in, even in a space that desperately wants it.

This resolve disappears, however, when his classmates offer him a potent cocktail of psychedelic drugs, wine, and alcohol. Add to that a phone call from her elusive crush Ezra (Aaron Bobrow), and she’s convinced to attend the event. She spends several hours excitedly getting ready, trying on a borrowed sexy dress, and completely coming out of her shell in a space of self-love.

“I was told that I had beautiful lips. It is what it is,” she tells herself in the mirror while doing a fake makeup tutorial on YouTube. Seeing Palace experience such happiness once she has escaped the deluge of demands from those around her hints at hope for the future, one where she can live in her own space, on her own terms.

While this was one of Palace’s highlights throughout the night, it’s tempered by just as many lows. The party is a daytime deconstruction of a drug-induced fever dream, equal parts heavenly visions and fluorescent nightmare (featuring an appearance by the always entertaining Ruby McCollister as Palace’s ketamine and cocaine fairy ). Palace ends the night passed out in the parking lot, neglected by the very people who haven’t taken their eyes off her the day before.

The story can feel a little flimsy at times, as it centers around whether or not the protagonist will go to a party – it’s no surprise to learn that Syms is also influenced by ’90s high school rom-coms. – but it’s this lightness that makes “The African Desperate” so unique.

In a sea of ​​films that center on the suffering inherent in the black experience, Syms wants to celebrate it. “I use a signifier, Blackness, which for some people can evoke intense pain,” she said in a recent interview with The New York Times. “But I see it as a real space of joy and freedom.” With “The African Desperate”, that’s exactly what she did.

Grade: B+

MUBI will release “The African Desperate” at BAM in New York on Friday, September 16. The film will be released in Los Angeles on Friday, September 23.

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Kayleen C. Rice