Review: PARIS IS IN HARLEM (Slamdance Film Festival)
There is a lot to unpeel in Christina Kallas’ Paris Is in Harlem. Screening as part of the 2022 Slamdance Film festival, this emotionally powerful and crisply paced film uses the cultural tapestry of Harlem as the backdrop for exploring multiculturalism. Structured like a jazz composition this fine example of socially conscious cinema piles layers of tension on top of one another as it unfurls the lives of several New Yorkers whose volatile lives intersect over that historic day.
Just as it fills the streets of Harlem, Jazz fuels the physical and emotional structure of the film, serving as its soundtrack, and acting as a landing point for the movie’s drama. Jazz also provides an emotive soundtrack for the percolating mix of contemporary themes that crisscross in and out of the lives of the production’s characters, forcing them to face moments of personal change as they face challenges to the tranquility of their daily lives.
Set in 2017 on the day that New York’s Cabaret Law was repealed, Paris Is in Harlem follows several characters as they weave throughout separate, but intertwined events, all of which culminate in a meeting at Harlem’s Paris Blues jazz club.
Established in 1926 and used as a tool for institutional racism, the Cabaret Law, which prohibited public dancing, has profoundly affected New York’s club scene, particularly in Harlem, where it forced many great performers to move to Paris to further their careers. When news of the repeal spread across Harlem, revelry abounded as multicultural celebrations broke out instantaneously.
Unafraid of confrontation, Paris Is in Harlem is a well-acted film led by a cast whose performances speak from the heart. Leon Addison Brown is exceptional as Sam, an African bar owner who turns a robbery gone bad into an opportunity to mentor Job, a teenage drum prodigy (the terrific Kojo Odu Roney) Living in a shade of grey, Sam works hard to rescue the lad from the streets while simultaneously pushing a homeless man to the brink of violence. Brown’s steadiness across multiple scenes helps anchor the film.
Vandit Bhatt also shines as Ben, an Indian American adjunct professor who stands to lose his job for using the “N” word while citing dialogue from a Spike Lee film in a class lecture. Alternating between being frustrated and scared, his performance vividly brings the problematic issue of using a monstrous word within the context of academia to the forefront Playing a character who feels misunderstood, Bhatt gives a realistic portrayal of anxiety to the project.
Also acting in an uncomfortable space is Tim Eliot as Jason, a slightly inept security officer who is having a rough day. Losing his gun and being branded as sexist and racist, his character straddles a line of uncertainty throughout the film. Working within that space, Eliot gives audiences a man who is perpetually awkward, and uncomfortable to be around.
Giving off a calm and cool vibe throughout the film is Steven Vause. Starring as Arthur, a wise to the world jazz-obsessed Uber driver whose kindness makes him one of the few instantly likable characters in the film.
Despite being based in New York, Kallas’ European background comes to the surface in this film as she turns her camera on Harlem, a place that remains a vibrant microcosm for America’s musical and social fabric. Unrestrained and unrelenting, Kallas’ uses her film to confront a variety of difficult issues, including mental illness, poverty, divorce, sexual harassment, classism, racism, and identity wars. The results are not always pretty, but they are raw, real, and unnerving.
The 2022 Slamdance Film Festival runs virtually through February 6th. For passes and more information, visit www.slamdance.com.