“Ain’t no black folks singin’ no opera”—least of all mentally handicapped 28-year-olds living with their Aunties. But in Harlem Aria, director William Jennings’s belatedly released 1999 uptown fairy tale, opera buff Anton’s wide-mouth grin and Pavarottian voice help our man defy the doubters. Actually, only the opening and conclusion of the film hew to the fairy-tale template; most of the rest simply finds Anton (Gabriel Casseus) hanging out in the park with Damon Wayans’s acerbic street hustler, who alternately tries to fleece and educate the simple-minded kid. Wayans is in good vulgar form, cracking jokes about performing cunnilingus on Angela Lansbury and cracking holes in the façade of a bourgie white park musician who makes an excessive show of his liberalism (“I voted for Jesse Jackson twice”) and takes an intermittent interest in Anton. Racial tensions and bawdy humor carry the day, until, following an unfunny set piece at a fancy hotel and a street robbery, black and white (far too) easily come together to help their young charge. Slow, dumb, and possessed of a single talent, that charge invites ready comparison with The Blind Side‘s barely conscious Michael Oher. The difference is that while John Lee Hancock’s film exists to laud white beneficence, Aria is wary of such motives—at least until its triumph-of-consensus conclusion.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 2, 2010