When I first saw Hype Williams’ Belly, I considered it one of the best movies of the time. It featured my childhood crush, Nas, and it had scenes lit in blue and shot from crazy angles. It was one of the most visually enticing films of my youth. In college, a friend introduced me to the tragedy that is Belly: “that was just a long ass music video.”
Damn, he was right.
To this day I still have love and respect for Hype Williams and Belly but the reality is that in my initial, immature viewing of the film, I overlooked the flaws of the story.
Fast forward more than a decade from Belly‘s release, I’m still a sucker for appealing visuals but I also value being drawn into a film with a good storyline and well-developed characters.
So when I first saw the trailer for Restless City, the visuals had me hooked but I also acknowledged that the I didn’t get a feel for the story without reading the written synopses.
Restless City director, Andrew Donsunmu, has quite a few creative titles associated with his name including fashion photographer and music video director. I have no doubt he knows the value of visuals in telling stories and evoking emotions. Paired with cinematographer Bradford Young, I had huge expectations of what I would get from Restless City. Just check these clips that were released in advance of the film’s opening night:
Unfortunately, after all of this visual seduction, I was a bit disappointed when I walked out of the screening. I thought the visuals were amazing but the story seemed to be lacking so much. I didn’t feel at all connected to it or moved by it. I appreciate quiet movies (Medicine for Melancholy and Donoma are two recent ones that come to mind), but the story was far too quiet and too subtle for me to really feel anything.
In the hours following the screening, I couldn’t stop thinking about my failure to connect, especially given all of the positive reactions the film received. Was my disappointment actually a projection of my idea of how a story should be told? Was the positive response to the film, a desperate need to see an alternative view of blackness on the big screen? Maybe I should give it another chance and go see it with absolutely no expectations.
Then I read Britni Danielle’s interview with Donsunmu. First, he shares some swoon-worthy comments about not making films in Hollywood:
I haven’t actually tried to get a film made in Hollywood… my world exists outside of that machine, for now. I have one main responsibility: to explore the depths of people, for better or worse. I want to go deeper into what makes us tick, what makes us laugh, cry, grow, grieve, evolve
I definitely respect him for what he sees as his responsibility and his rejection of Hollywood even if it’s just “for now.”
As the interview continues, he describes what he wants viewers to get out of Restless City:
I would like viewers of RESTLESS CITY to just see themselves in the characters, to feel a sense of familiarity with the story, to be curious about how it continues after the last frame. I would like viewers to feel at home in the story, to see my NY, and to understand the nuances of the NY they may never look at closely.
Now I’m back to being confused because Donsunmu’s comments suggest that he expects viewers to view this film in the same we do with other films told in a traditional manner. So I guess I wasn’t projecting my ideas of how a story should be told.
I had no curiosity about how the story continues after the last frame; however, the film did inspire thoughts about the unique experiences of African immigrants in NYC. I’ve always been curious about the vendors on 125th St, on Canal St, and in Koreatown. And given my experiences in African communities in the southern U.S., I’ve always been envious of the more developed African communities in NYC; I’ll credit Restless City for showing me some of the drawbacks and grittiness of this “development.”
I know as artists, our craft is constantly developing and evolving. So while I’m unsure if I will go see Restless City again in theater, I’m definitely going to look out for future works of Donsunmu as his craft continues to evolve. If anything, Restless City gave me enough of a taste for that.