The stories and struggles of African immigrants in America are rarely told in American media and are notably missing from most dialogue around the issue of immigration. For that reason alone, director Andrew Dosunmu's visually gorgeous tale of 21-year-old Senegalese musician Djbirl (Sy Alassane) and his efforts to navigate Harlem make it a novelty even on American art-house screens. But Eugene Gussenhoven's script is so basic as to be rudimentary: Djbirl survives on a series of odd jobs that skirt the edges of legality, including a gig for an African gangster whose underground empire hawks everything from bootleg CDs to prostitutes, one of whom, Trini (Sky Grey), Djbirl falls in love with. Even someone who'd never seen a single film before could predict the ill fortune this relationship will bring. But the story line itself is beside the point—as is, in a way, the acting skill of most of the cast, which is just above competent. Told in an elliptical style with a pacing and jagged rhythms that take some getting used to, the thrust and power of the film lies in its poetic imagery, in the way Dosunmu and cinematographer Bradford Young use light and composition to make almost every frame (breathtaking profiles; close-ups on faces and feet; slo-mo moped rides down city streets) stunning. The cumulative effect of their visual handiwork brings an unexpected impact when tragedy finally strikes.
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