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‘The African Desperate’ Review: A Radical Indie Art School Odyssey

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

"The African Desperate"

“The African Desperate”


One of the only Black students on a mostly-white art school campus, Palace (Diamond Stingily) is exhausted. She just sat through her final MFA review with four white professors, where they approached her work with a mix of hyper-seriousness and outright condescension, flinging art-world jargon and vaguely racist assessments at her with abandon while maintaining an air of performative woke-ness.

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

Palace oscillates between this sense of incredulity 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 obtrusive, innovative soundtrack (composed by the band Aunt Sister, along with Colin Self and Ben Babbit) and 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 wholly subjective look at the last 24 hours of Palace’s time as an MFA student, as she prepares to leave a space that’s been a source of discomfort, but which has also become a reassuringly familiar territory.

“The African Desperate” is based on Syms’ own time completing her MFA at Bard, where much of the film is shot. “I was one of a handful of students of color negotiating the dissonance of being lionized and attacked at the same damn time,” the filmmaker writes in a director’s note provided to press. While this is her first narrative film, the 34-year-old artist has long been translating her own experiences, as well as those of Black women and artists in general, into video works and installations that have been shown at museums including MoMA, the Tate, the Art Institute of Chicago.

Syms has referenced the scholar Allison Landsberg’s theory of “Prosthetic Memory” in relation to her work, which, according to Syms, can be explained as, “Massive amounts of sounds, images, videos that we have access to [that] constitute a public imagination we can draw from.” She sees her work as a form of collage, and indeed, it feels thrown together at times, almost to the point of being unfinished, like a fly trap that’s picked up all the conflicted cultural influences that surround it.

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

As her classmates beg her to attend a party happening that night, Palace makes it clear that she has no interest in going. And you can understand why: each student is more insufferable than the next, an exaggeration of the privileged art school hipster whose only goal is to make middling, borderline offensive work and do as much ketamine as possible. While she tries to keep a low profile, Palace’s shock of bright orange hair makes her easy to spot from anywhere on campus, and it’s never long before another student is clinging on to her like a needy puppy.

Her consistent air of aloofness and disaffection, however, display an unwillingness to bend to their whims, or to assimilate to the bubbly, buoyant tones that nearly everyone seems to speak in. Saying “no” to a party invitation may not seem like a big step, but for Palace, holding her ground feels like a victory.  This attitude is an affirmation of her own identity, and a refusal to fit in, even in a space that desperately wants her to.

This resolve disappears, however, as her classmates offer her a potent cocktail of psychedelic drugs, wine, and liquor. Add in 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 sexy borrowed dress, and coming completely out of her shell into a space of self-love.

“I’ve been told I have nice lips. It is what it is,” she tells herself in the mirror while doing a pretend YouTube makeup tutorial. To see Palace experiencing such happiness once she escapes the barrage of demands from those around her hints at a hope for the future, one where she can live in her own space, on her own terms.

While this is one of Palace’s high points throughout the night, which are tempered by just as many lows. The party is a day-glo deconstruction of a drug-induced fever dream, equal parts blissed-out heavenly visions and fluorescent nightmare (with 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 wouldn’t let her out of their sight the previous day.

The story might feel a bit flimsy at times, seeing as it’s centered around whether or not the protagonist will go to a party — it’s not surprising 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 centered on the inherent suffering of the Black experience, Syms wants to celebrate it. “I’m using a signifier, Blackness, which for some people can connote serious pain,” she said in a recent New York Times interview. “But I see it as a real space of joy and freedom.” With “The African Desperate,” she’s done just that.

Grade: B+

MUBI will release “The African Desperate” at BAM in NYC on Friday, September 16. The film will expand to LA on Friday, September 23.

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