For a long, time the common lament among fans of contemporary black American film was that much of the most popular fare—that which had a life beyond film festivals and garnered welcome but useless critical acclaim—lacked real ideas, and that it too often was absent knowledge and mastery of the basic fact that film is a visual medium, and the visuals matter. Not a lot has changed in that regard. Much of what goes “pop” is still both aesthetically anemic and soft on ideas. (To be fair, that’s a charge that can be made against most mainstream American filmmaking, period.)
But over the last few years, that subset of black filmmakers pushing against convention in terms of form, style and content has seen its ranks swell: Tina Mabry, Dee Rees, Dennis Dortch, and Barry Jenkins, to name a few. With An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, a visually dazzling ode to romantic angst among Afro-bohos, Terence Nance—writer, director, and star—makes an impressive bid for freshman status in that clique.
Nance plays a version of himself as he maps the frustrating evolution of a friendship with his ideal woman (Namik Minter) into something more. A struggling student and artist with a Maxwell-esque ’fro, hip wardrobe, and small but charming apartment, Nance is a poster boy for New York 21st-century black bohemia. With a voiceover to guide us through both his thoughts and the structural bones of the film (its construction is explained early on), we’re led through what is, at heart, a boy-meets-girl story in which the couple’s path to happiness is pebbled with mixed, conflicting, and fluctuating signals. Though the voiceover offers some wit and insight, it quickly drifts into tedium, underscoring that this is the film of a young person—one who assumes his interior monologue is meatier and more riveting than it really is.
What saves the film—and grandly—is Nance’s wildly ambitious visual imagination. Teetering somewhere between film school precocity and impressively assured audaciousness, Oversimplification blends animation, freeze-frame stop-and-go effects, mockumentary, and inspired manipulation of light and color into an ocular feast. It’s almost hypnotic in its style and genre promiscuity.
If there’s a downside to Nance’s facility with the visual, it’s that in his determination to avoid racialized clichŽ, to stretch the expectations of black filmmakers, he steps hard into a more generic and color-blind trap: that of the first-time filmmaker who communicates every idea, theory, and aesthetic exercise he’s ever conceived of , hurling them all with the ferocity of someone afraid they may never get another shot. (Which, given the grim data on the number of black filmmakers—especially men—who never make a sophomore film, is not an unfounded fear.) Here’s hoping he can avoid that fate, because if he can write or attach himself to a script that is as risky and unconventional in its story as he is in his craftsmanship skills, he’ll be a powerhouse filmmaker.