Possibly more than any other narrative art form, predictability is a bugaboo of cinema. It is all
too common to know precisely where a story is headed the moment the first scene ends. And
contrary to popular belief this is just as much a problem with indie cinema as it is with studio
fare. Often when a film attempts to buck the predictability problem it causes the filmmakers to
make erratic left turns in terms of tone or plot that harm the film in equally pernicious ways.
That makes director/co-writer/co-editor Takeshi Fukunaga’s freshman feature intriguing. “Out of
My Hand” constantly lulls you into thinking that you know where it is going only to have events
play out in unexpected ways. Fukunaga and his team have made a film that elegantly walks a
tightrope. It eschews cliche and hoary plot points but it never does so in a way that seems
unpredictable just for the sake of unpredictability. No mean feat.
The film starts in darkness as Cisco (played by Bishop Blay) makes his way out in the predawn
hours to tap trees in a Liberian rubber plantation. Fukunaga and his team adopt a simple,
naturalistic approach in presenting this arduous labor in a way that recalls Italian Neo-Realism.
Cisco supports his loving family with this work but the rigors of this labor have begun to take
their toll on him and his fellow workers. The word “union” is on their lips. Their supervisor’s car,
clothing and sophisticated mien make it clear that their labor is supporting a lifestyle they are
barred from enjoying. When the strike collapses (small wonder, the striking workers lay about or
fish instead of picket) Cisco stands alone in righteous anger as his defeated fellow workers
accept their lot in life.
In a brilliantly realized church scene (I am no expert in Liberian churches but the style of sermon
delivery seems to be mimicking the tics and patterns of their American cousins in the pulpit),
featuring none other than Joshua Milton Blahyi (a former notorious warlord known by the
moniker “General Butt Naked” who has become a Christian minister) as preacher who delivers
a message to Cisco and the congregation: leave. He tells them that their salvation lies beyond
Liberia’s borders and Cisco listens.
Following the lead of his expatriate cousin, Cisco journeys to New York City in order to eke out a
living in that very metaphorical and cinematically freighted of New York occupations: taxi driver.
To say any more about the plot would spoil the film. Let it suffice to say Cisco faces new and
unforeseen challenges in New York City that also bring him face to face with some traumas of
If you were to match “Out of My Hand” in a double bill, the most obvious and fitting mate would be
Andrew Dosunmu’s stylish Restless City. That film also explored the African immigrant sub-
communities within New York City. The differences between the films are significant. Dosunmu’s
film was shot by the virtuosic cinematographer Bradford Young (“Selma,” “A Most Violent Year”).
While no less beautiful for being less stylized, Ryo Murakami’s camera work in Liberia is a stand
out. The images have come to mean more since they were taken: cinematographer Ryo
Murakami, age 33, died from malaria after returning to New York City from Liberia (this links to a
http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/in-memoriam-ryo-murakami ). Owen Donovan takes over camera
duties once the narrative shifts to New York.
Once in the city, the story feels more like narrative and less like a documentary. The
unpredictable plot serves the film well. “Restless City” was somewhat undercut by the melodrama
its protagonist becomes embroiled in. In “Out of My Hand” we watch Cisco, but we come to
realize how much more there is to him than we initially imagined. Bishop Blay carries the film
ably, his soulfulness suggests depths to the character that we later on understand more clearly.
With its emphasis on labor, its worth, its existential value, the ghosts of war, and immigration,
Fukunaga and his co-writer Donari Braxton have crafted a very timely film that is both of the
moment and timeless. As seen in the films of French filmmaker Laurent Cantet, “Out of My Hand” makes it clear that work isn’t just something we do as a necessary evil. Work defines us. And
Cisco’s story makes clear that for some only the sweat of labor can remove the stains of the
Brandon Wilson is a writer and director living in Los Angeles. Find him on Twitter at @GeniusBastard