The African Desperate

At the beginning of Martine Syms’s debut narrative feature, sculptor Palace (Diamond Stingily, also an artist in real life) is shown receiving her MFA from an art school in upstate New York. Four white faculty members bestow the honor, but only after offering a range of supercilious (some even outright racist) critiques and patronizing banalities. This kicks off Palace’s final 24 hours as an exhausted graduate student, who vows to skip the end-of-summer party but instead finds herself drawn to the debauchery. Syms’s work—which ranges from performance art to gallery installations to this more straightforward narrative endeavor—is compelled by a preternaturally propulsive energy that sustains its momentum even as she explores various forms of expression. As Palace navigates her final day at the college, Syms inserts multimedia quirks into the coming-of-age proceedings, such as when Palace, doing her makeup for the night, assumes the peculiar dialect of a social media influencer filming a tutorial; trenchant memes occasionally pop up in the top right corner of the screen, flashing by so quick as to be illegible but hilarious nonetheless. It’s through these means that the film offers wry commentary on everything from undecipherable artspeak to racism. (An exchange between Palace and a faculty member extolling the virtues of a rapper he heard an interview with on NPR’s Fresh Air, to which Palace replies “What’s Fresh Air?,” is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a film all year.) Cowritten by Syms and Rocket Caleshu, its script is so good as to seem unwritten, the stuff of real-life folly; Stingily’s performance is similarly ingenious. 97 min.

Gene Siskel Film Center

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