Andrew Dosunmu’s feature debut is nothing short of a visual feast. Not in that slightly over-the-top, Carravagio-esque way that Tarsem Singh art directs his films. Rather, you’re in the hands of a photographer who has evolved into film director, but who still maintains that strong sense of framing, color and still-film visual drama.
Restless City, which opened last Friday in New York, LA and Atlanta, captures the immigrant experience in NYC. The story settles on Djibril (portrayed by Sy Alassane, above right), a young Senegalese man doing odd jobs, some of which are of dubious legality, all the while looking for a way to restart his singing career. One of the jobs he does is selling bootleg CDs, which he gets from Bekay (Anthony Okungbowa), a smalltime African gangster (portrayed as part Fela, part Idi Amin). It’s through his dealing with this shady character that Djibril falls in love with Trini (Nicole Grey, above left), who works for Bekay as a prostitute. (An aside: At various times in the film, Grey’s look reminds me of Whitney Houston or, as above, Jean Grae.)
The story unfolds languidly and in African time. This is not a criticism, just know that there’s no “ticking clock” plot device that keeps things moving forward, as is the case with most Western films. Aside from the Djibril-Bekay-Trini triangle that’s fully developed, what we’re shown of this group of immigrants is a bit like a buffet. Some are minor story arcs, such as Trini’s friendship with the hair salon owner. Others start, but don’t finish. For example, one of Djibril’s associates, Midi, is beat up early in the film because he owes Bekay money. After he takes a few shots at the guy in a crowded club, we basically don’t see him for the rest of the film.
But in some ways, the story within Restless City is beside the point. That is, the film is such a visual feast—the abstracted New York City as a background; the lens flare so nicely placed; the scenes of people that look like photographic portraits; the rose filter that evokes the dust of an imagined African city—that you find yourself transported into Djibril’s world.
Visually, director Dosunmu and cinematographer Bradford Young (who shot Alrick Brown’s Kinyarwanda and Ava DuVernay’s upcoming Middle of Nowhere) have unhooked viewers from the visual and emotional cues that comfort us and clue us that we’re watching a film set in New York City. In that regard, they’ve achieved something important in conveying even deeper the feeling, not of an experienced New Yorker, but of an immigrant far, far from his native land.
NOTE: As of Friday, May 4, Restless City gains additional screens in LA, and opens in Chicago, DC, Philly, Detroit, Seattle, San Diego and Denver. Click here for a full list of theaters.