Film Comment Recommends: The African Desperate
This article appeared in the September 22, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The African Desperate (Martine Syms, 2022)
The African Desperate, the debut film by visual artist Martine Syms, abounds in bold text, bolder colors, and wry humor struck through with a Very-Online sensibility to explore the construction of Black feminine identity. Unfolding over the course of 24 hours at an art school in scenic upstate New York, the film captures a pseudo-bohemian milieu of primarily white students and staff, many of whom can’t seem to articulate their feelings about art without spewing academic jargon—or showing their asses. Syms counters this drudgery by invoking the snappy rhythms of reaction videos, GIFs, and memes prominent on Black Twitter—many of which flash spontaneously on the screen as our freshly graduated protagonist, Palace Bryant (artist Diamond Stingily), contends with the caucasity in her midst. Syms’s vivid use of color ultimately engulfs the screen, swirling around each character that our heroine—fueled by a cocktail of drugs—encounters on her Odyssey-like last hurrah, bidding it all good riddance before heading to her hometown of Chicago the next morning. It’s a surreally immersive and snickering good time, and Palace—a deadpan, no-nonsense woman with a languorous gait, a mane of fluorescent orange hair, and a winsome scowl—emerges as one of the most lived-in and gloriously unpredictable characters of the year, even (or especially?) as she’s liable to be marching around with a bit of vomit in her hair.
Beatrice Loayza is associate web editor at the Criterion Collection. She writes about film and culture for the New York Times, Reverse Shot, Cinema Scope, The Baffler, and other publications.