African America is a very nontraditional underdog story that doesn’t work as smoothly as intended.
Nompumelelo (co-writer Phumi Mthembu) always felt this lingering sense of dissatisfaction with her life. That fork in the road moment came for Nompumelelo when her application to Julliard was rejected. Since then, she’s climbed the ranks at a corporate job and is moments away from an arranged marriage.
Staring at a bleak and unfulfilling life, Nompumelelo uses a long held truth as the impetus to leave South Africa and chase her dream of performing on Broadway. How she leaves is incredibly messy as her family and friends are left to pick up the pieces.
Director/co-writer Muzi Mthembu and Phumi Methembu (Muzi’s sister) do little to make Nonpumelelo a likable character. It’s hard to root for Lelo when she ditched her fiancé, deserted her mother and embezzled funds from her job leaving everyone behind so she could pursue her dream.
With just a few tweaks to the script this could have been fixed. Maybe it’s Lelo leaving before the wedding and having a nest egg saved up for something would have made her efforts to chase a dream inspiring. Instead, all of the hardships and challenges she faces seems like the consequences for her actions. There’s a place for flawed heroes, but this story can’t navigate that balance and too often tries to legitimize Lelo’s choices.
Lelo doesn’t have much of a plan upon arrival figuring her determination and drive will ultimately propel her to success. She makes fast friends with an area hairstylist and is ready to conquer Broadway. Soon pesky issues like a cut off credit card, a lack of resources including a green card make her efforts seem insurmountable. Fortunately, the audition assistant, Jaquan (Anthony Goss), takes an interest and encourages her not to give up.
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Motivated by his advice and his cool New York swagger, Lelo proposes an arrangement that could work out for both of them. It’s the kind of deal that casts doubts on Lelo’s true intentions yet again. This makes Lelo a fascinating character even if she’s not the usual likable protagonist.
The Mthembu siblings make some soap opera-esque choices that feel a little over the top. Lelo gets a gig as a nanny for a black woman with an oddly inauthentic sounding Southern accent and a white husband who immediately starts scamming on her. It feels like a subplot thrown in to allow the siblings to discuss white privilege with little nuance. The auditions seemed a more natural avenue to tackle race issues.
Editing is consistently shaky and scattershot. A simple segment like Lelo pacing in her room features six or seven quick cuts for no apparent reason. Lighting is a challenge with some overall murkiness. Jaquan’s place is cast in red and green lights and in some scenes it’s hard to make out what’s happening.
Pacing is also an issue with extended sequences of Lelo simply staring at the walls in her room or aimlessly traveling on New York’s subway system. Occasionally, Muzi Mthembu will play out a scene and intercut it with characters reacting to it in almost real time. These scenes feel like watching a commentary on a flashback.
These are the results of a limited budget that the Mthembus can overcome with future films.
Overall, the acting is solid. Phumi Mthembu gives Lelo a determination that makes it easy to buy into her convictions. With the weight of the film largely resting on her performance, Phumi Mthembu delivers. Goss’ performance is the one most impacted by the melodramatic screenplay decisions. It’s hard to see the sparks of this connection between Lelo and Jaquan.
Despite its flaws, African America is rarely boring and should appeal to viewers seeking a less predictable, by the numbers journey of self-discovery.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Netflix
Check out Ketu H. Katrak’s Jay Pather, Performance, and Spatial Politics in South Africa on Amazon.