Though the film was made in 2001 and scrutinizes the racial profiling and police brutality in New York City under Giuliani’s draconian reign, “As an Act of Protest” has never been more urgent than now. I approach this review—a defense born of moral outrage, really—not as a film critic, but as a fellow filmmaker and novelist. Often, it takes an artist to recognize an artist, talent to identify talent.
To contextualize, the film makes almost all contemporary activism and progressive finger-wagging histrionics feel like a disingenuous kindergarten special, a halfhearted performance staged by people who stand for nothing, driven by questionable motives.
The story centers on Abner, imbued with a glorious righteous indignation by writer-director Dennis Leroy Kangalee, who runs a Black theater group, and his actor Cairo Medina, Che Ayende in a turn that manages both a visceral nerviness and a cerebral intensity. Though Abner floats throughout the film like a haunted, haunting spirit, the spiritual journey—and crisis—is Cairo’s. He must cope with the unjust, criminal murder of a loved one at the hands of the NYPD as he reconciles his passion for expression through art or, failing that, a descent into violent vengeance. Ayende’s work here is unnerving, spellbinding, and ultimately heartbreaking. He is a force of brooding expression, tension, and apoplectic eruptions. He is compelling when silent and striking when in a verbose fury.
The acting is so raw, immediate, and naturalistic it seems more than improvised—it feels as though we’re watching real intimate connections being worked out. And yet, there is a fascinating formalism at play here. Rarely do we find actors who can balance with such adeptness the natural with the formal. The cinema of Cassavetes comes to mind. The theater of Baraka and Genet do, too. Kangalee clearly knows his film and theater history and understands where he fits in the ever-shifting canon. His marriage of forms and sensibilities is thoughtful; he assiduously toils toward excavating a new understanding of human behavior.
We have seen countless movies that celebrate straight white men at breaking points with society. Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Edward Norton in Fight Club. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Rarely are black men granted the same luxury of being enraged with the world and acting on their anger. And if we’re being honest, it is black men—especially black men in America—who have the greatest right to be in a, as Baldwin put it, “state of rage, almost all the time.”
The ruminations on the nature of theater, and especially the need for a Black theater, run deep and into enlightening spaces. Theatre of the Absurd is thought of when considering the film on a meta level—the way Black people are mistreated in America is in and of itself absurd. Cruel and unfair to an absurd degree. Kangalee knows this and his emphasis on theater suits such thematic meditations.
Kangalee, the writer, is relentless in his examinations and excoriations. He demands you pay attention and endure the rhythmic chaos and existential horrors he dissects, those dehumanizing atrocities experienced daily by black men and women. Kangalee, the director, doesn’t let up, either. He insists you confront the gruesome truth and either flee or find deep mettle to withstand the revelation of your complicity. Kangalee, the actor, serves as an effective provocateur, a missile in human trappings sent deep into the heart of the matter. Unlike too many current filmmakers who claim to make “message movies” or “take stands” against injustice and the establishment, Kangalee actually does. And he does so poetically, unapologetically, and with an authenticity that shames.
Speller Street Films has done an admirable job remastering the cult film that has screened at universities across the United States and in Europe, however, it is unconscionable that As an Act of Protest has struggled for nearly two decades to land distribution. I can only blame the American (mainly white) critical establishment for not championing it, instead doing the bidding of the film industry—yes, both the “independent” film scene and Hollywood. The fear, the lack of imagination and depth, and the outright racism that has kept the film from garnering a wider audience is unforgivable. The hypocrisy of the independent film scene is apparent. They speciously declare their allegiance to emerging artists, taking “risks” with “edgy” fare, seeing more deeply than the big wig studio executives, eschewing commercial formula, and promoting marginalized voices. This is all nonsense, though. They’re just better at hiding their ugly, venal faces, faithful only to maintaining the status quo, and the rejection, indifference, and bitterness that As an Act of Protest has met with is evidence of this.
These same critics celebrate Ava Duvernay, Barry Jenkins, Spike Lee, all gifted and worthy in their own right, but also too-polite “fighters” for the cause, falling into line, protesting within acceptable lines; they stick to studio parameters, abide by white executive decree, and follow the structural playbook of formulaic moviemaking. They are using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which leaves nothing dismantled, in the end. The structures remain. Kangalee has no use for the master’s tools and in his gritty, obliquely stylized aesthetic uses his own tools. And his dismantling is actual, not theoretical. He has no use for levity to break tension. He doesn’t care if you’re bothered by the cacophony of actors screaming into each other’s faces for two hours. He has no use for your precious sensitivities. Why should he? He’s not trying to become anyone’s friend. He is seeking to make enduring, personal art. And he has.
In a certain, eerie sense, the detractors of As an Act of Protest mirror the racist cops, corrupt mayor, and gentrified encroachers in the film itself. They too possess a colonized entitlement, a sense that they have the license to control, own, and kill.
Having followed the underground movements of As an Act of Protest, I possess empirical knowledge of the politics surrounding the film. And of the machinations intent on derailing it. I have witnessed too many cowardly, meek “critics” and academics lazily assail the film as if it posed a threat to their existence. The Guardian’s apathetic pseudo-review and TrustMovies’ ill-informed, vindictive rant, to name but a few. The same people who claim to want revolution and fancy themselves progressives, or even radicals, for that matter, reveal themselves to be anything but—they’re comfortable bourgeoise daunted by the prospect of being discomfited. They prefer a softer, templated blend of activism, something that will go down smoothly with their lattes and Wes Anderson confectionaries. To them, activism is little more than a fashionable accessory, a cute button or hip catch phrase. As an Act of Protest is a litmus test, one to weed out the truly rebellious and throttle the frauds into retreat. It’s exhilarating to watch the assault.