Friday, May 29, 2020

‘A Love Song For Latasha’ Is Gentle Prose That Transcends Black Girl Tragedy

A Love Song For Latasha film poster. 
These days are full of fire and rage fueled by the pain of tragic loss. Black bodies are robbed of living and their murderers often receive no punishment. 

Latasha once saved another Black girl from drowning and that girl became her best friend— one of the film’s narrators. 
Art is one remedy that temporarily soothes the affects worldwide racism has historically created over centuries. And that racism is not always black and white. Back in the 1990’s such a turmoil boiled hotly in South Central part of Los Angeles, California between Black people and the Koreans— majority business owners. A Black girl was heinously murdered by a temperamental Korean grocer. 

That Black girl’s name was Latasha Harlins. 

Latasha’s yearbook photo. 
A Love Song For Latasha honors her memory, often lost in the continued escalating violence of today. History allots a paltry paragraph on her death and not a full bodied in-depth look at her short life. Among images of Black girls swimming and Black girls immersed in dreamy flowers, this hybrid short film humanizes Harlins, sculpting a figure beyond the teenager executed for buying an orange juice. Her story is carefully constructed by her best friend and cousin, the narrating women celebrating their lost youth, sharing the innocent desires of building community centers, becoming lawyers. Although surviving to only the tender age of fifteen-years-old, Harlins was a known heroine in her neighborhood, having valiantly protected the most vulnerable from bullies. A loving, caring girl wanted to give back to her community, save it from harm. She lost so much already in her young life including her mother at age ten, but Harlins still reimagined a greater world, an unfulfilled hope of Black utopia. 

When Black girls hang out, it’s a moment of celebrating each other, of simply being and enjoying each other’s light. Latasha brought so much light to everyone she loved, her friends, her family. 
Black girl with flower crowns dressed in white, tall sunflowers surrounding her. 
Between Adebukola Bodunrin’s dark, haunting animation and depicting the value of Black girl friendships through fictional scenes, writer/director/cinematographer Sophia Nahli Allison brings new information to light about Harlins, breaking away from standard documentary format. The long-awaited justice is found here through the scope of Allison’s caring, tender lens, in visually stunning pictures showcasing a rich, insightful look at burgeoning Black womanhood, at something taken for granted, stolen. Latasha Harlins is more than her death date of March 16, 1991. She was a Black girl who mattered, who had some real poignant dreams. 

Black girl friendships are special. 
A Love Song for Latasha is a piece of our past, our present. A valid resource for future generations, demonstrating the worth of a Black life, a Black girl’s life, Allison reveals why Latasha Harlins deserved to live. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

‘The Weekend’ Is a Smart, Relatable Romantic Comedy

The Weekend film poster. 
Although most romantic comedies contain a grossly exaggerated raunchiness that borders on unrealistic caricature, especially rated R films, The Weekend is well above the average. It has the rarity of putting Zadie, a Black woman in a leading role while also placing her at the forefront of desire— the attention of two men. What is not to love?

Zadie is a sarcastic, wise-cracking comedian. Her standup material mixes situational humor and making light of mental health struggle. She wears basic t-shirts (black, white, yellow) and high waisted blue jeans, even wearing the same outfit twice. In fact, she does not change those blue jeans.

In the premise, Zadie is spending the weekend at her parents’ rustic bed and breakfast with her ex-boyfriend Bradford and his girlfriend Margo. Now Bradford and Zadie are extremely close exes. Their intimacy is stronger than friendship, unlike a sibling vibe. Margo— who puts on a brave face— certainly feels the rift. The odd dynamic becomes overwhelmingly complicated due to Zadie’s increased meanness towards Margo. Aubrey, the handsome unattached guest, immerses himself into the triad, drawn specifically to Zadie. This incites Bradford’s own green-eyed monster. Beneath his kind and warranted protectiveness lies that need for Zadie. As days steeped in nature slowly press onward, that need cannot stay quiet. Even Zadie’s judgmental mother, Karen, sees it.

Bradford (Tone Bell) enjoys being in the middle of Margo (DeWanda Wise) and Zadie (Sasheer Zamata) until Aubrey (Y’lan Noel) enters the picture with eyes on Zadie.
On occasion, the four young people at the apex of this trip experience third wheel shifts: Zadie’s discomfort with Bradford and Margo, Bradford’s insecurity with Zadie and Aubrey, and Margo’s invisibility with Bradford. Throughout this interplay, Zadie is trying to keep a firm head as her anxiety wavers. She continues acting out, hiding secrets, secrets within herself. Aubrey, fresh from a breakup, is intrigued by Zadie and does not allow her to push him away.

Black girls ruling nature: Zadie and Margo try to have a civil conversation. 
Zadie’s most reliable male relationship seems to be with her father— who is absent during this mini vacation. He “appears” on the phone with her, though the audience never hears his voice. The busiest shirt that Zadie happens to wear is a patterned pink shirt taken from her father’s closet— while bike riding with her two love interests. Still, it is not too difficult for Zadie to embrace being brutally honest. Aubrey brings out another side of her, that awkward girl who often feels like a “supporting character and not the leading lady.” Even though Bradford knows Zadie’s every fault, he broke up with her because the dueling personalities were too heavy a burden. It is understandable, a partner with mental illness can be challenging exercise. However, cultured, sophisticated Margo— the “normal” woman— is not convincing him to commit enough. The well-traveled, articulate, fashionably conscious Margo has the flawless paper performance. Yet Bradford and Margo have not been intimate in months. Bradford sneaks off every chance to see Zadie, warning her against Aubrey, threatened by their obvious connection.

One of the most hilarious scenes in the film are Zadie, Aubrey, and Bradford biking together. 
Writer/director Stella Meghie helmed a brilliantly entertaining piece. The story arouses questions on the longevity of relationships, of finding balance and setting boundaries. There are Black comedians, Black photographers, Black business owners, scenes lit beautifully, capturing brown skin in all its glorious range. Plus, a deep complexioned, 4C haired Black woman leads a phenomenal cast operating smoothly together. Sasheer Zamata has an utterly riveting screen presence as Zadie, able to transition between deadpan humor and an authentic vulnerability with degrees of heartfelt seriousness resonating deeply. Her star should rise further in multifaceted roles, letting that natural candor shine through. The promising Tone Bell (Little), the exceptional DeWanda Wise (The Underground, Shots Fired, and She’s Gotta Have It), leading man material Y’lan Noel (Insecure’s heartthrob Daniel and funnily enough playing a younger version of Issa Rae’s character’s father in Meghie’s other film, The Photograph). Kym Whitley’s Karen provided a sweet, delightful surprise, a humbling performance that too allowed another real-life comedian to show impressive layers of humility and strength.

Tone Bell (Bradford), DeWanda Wise (Margo), Sasheer Zamata (Zadie), Kym Whitley (Karen), and Y’lan Noel (Aubrey) make up The Weekend cast. 
The Weekend is a refreshing look at the ways of discovering the constant things in life that heal us and the others that are quite toxic. Zadie learns in three days what will help her grow and what holds her back.

Zadie in darker jeans, an optimistic shirt, and a new hairstyle.
In the end, Zadie’s bright yellow t-shirt matching a great big smile assures viewers she made the healthiest choice for herself.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Colorful ‘Jinn’ Comes at the Right Time

Jinn film poster. 
Once a menace came into presidency and signed a dangerous, very prejudiced Muslim Ban into order, this caused a great ruckus across America. Prior to and even after 9/11, films and television ostracized the Muslim community, always depicting them as the bad guy. 

The amazing Jinn portrays the religion in a humanized light, weighing its pros and cons. It centers the significant journey that converting into Muslim religion presents between a Black mother and daughter residing in the Inglewood neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Jade is a local meteorologist and Summer is a creative, outgoing high school senior and aspiring dancer hoping for acceptance into SoCal’s art program. 

Jade (Simone Missick in maroon) is entranced by the words of Islam and hopes that Summer feels the same rapture. 
Firstly, the carefree Black girl will never be a tiring image. Summer riding her bike, dancing with passionate determination, expertly skateboarding, dying her curls, and even slyly flirting with girls are some authentic, rarely seen film components of a Black girl growing up, unafraid to let spirit and fluidity fly. This adds layers to a refreshing coming of age drama. Interesting parallels uniquely weave how Jade and Summer enter into this new chapter together, how it changes them, how it clashes and creates new boundaries.

Sometimes Jade (Simone Missick) comes off too strongly against Summer (Zoe Renee), who is still very young and learning. 
Jinn’s script illustrates a thoughtful, tender depiction of a religion that is often ridiculed and villainized in media much like that of Black and brown bodies. The writing lends itself to having a loving, tender care, analyzing each part with both a graceful hold and sharp critique. This nuanced treatment shows the beautiful side (the penmanship of Arabic language, the poetry in its words, the incredible headscarves) as well as its disturbing misogyny (that yes all religions hold women to some oppressive standard). For instance, Summer’s #HalaiHottie image causes quite a stir, reaching the mosque. She is humiliated in a stern, heavy handed manner by both the Muslim community and her mother. Jade is suddenly at a crossroads, forgetting too that Summer is still between childhood and adult womanhood. Thus, the storminess crashes down on this peaceful calm that the religion supposedly brings into the weatherwoman’s life. On top of trying to understand her daughter’s actions, Jade faces microaggressions at work, the disdain of mostly white peers unimpressed by her new “unAmerican” look. 

Summer (Zoe Renee) having fun times in her bike with Tahir (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). What a joy!
Love is explored between mother/daughter, father/daughter, father/daughter/father’s girlfriend, mother/religion/daughter, girl/boy. Summer’s parents are not together due to Jade’s compulsion to switch it up on short notice, changing routines like the seasons impacting her forecast. Religion has all the makings of a coupling— the magic of falling in deep and the pitfalls of how it hurts when identity comes into play. Jade has fallen head over heels with the religion, but also the leader of their mosque— which Summer notices. Meanwhile, Summer shows interest in girls in that pansexual, fleeing sort of way, but is drawn to the brooding Tahir, a boy in her class raised Muslim. She is utterly impressed by his parents, almost idolizing. Summer and Tahir’s love is that first burgeoning taste into the unknown. She is the embodiment of American culture and he is the testament of relegated faith. Their pure, innocent union softens the chaos of high school and critical surveillance. 
After killing it on stage with an awesome dance routine, Summer (Zoe Renee) recites a bittersweet poem about her experiences since converting and her tense relationship with Jade. 
Jinn’s every intention from its eclectic music choices to the casting breathes in perfect symmetry. Nijla Mu’min’s soft, poetic narrative collides beautifully with the key saturated hues of Bruce Francis Cole’s cinematography— the light playing on Summer’s bike rides, the intimate close up of Tahir’s fingers untying her red headwrap, the eyes speaking volumes in the silence. The performances of newcomer Zoe Renee, seasoned award-winning Kelvin Harrison Jr. (of Waves, Luce, and The Photograph), and Simone Missick (who stars as Judge Lola Carmichael in All Rise, Misty Knight in all the Marvel Netflix series,’ and a great cameo in American Koko) memorably stand out, leaving behind the hope that Hollywood knows their names as well. 

Jinn gives audiences the solemn promise that emerging Black director/writers are truly out there making must watch film. And we must champion their rise. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Saturday Soapy Flashback: ‘Sunset Beach’s’ Crazy Virginia Harrison

Virginia (Dominique Jennings) conceiving the inconceivable. 
In the late 90’s, the soap opera genre had its campy moments. The short lived Sunset Beach was no exception. Although Ben and Meg were the obvious endgame supercouple, sweetheart reporter Vanessa Hart and her lifeguard lover Michael Bourne overcame great odds to be together as well. That one obstacle was the sensational, wildly jaw-dropping Virginia Harrison.

She should have just sat there and watched her son.

Jealousy got the best of the dangerous Virginia (Dominique Jennings). 
Michael, a former gang affiliate turned goodie good guy, accidentally killed Virginia’s husband and father to young Jimmy. A guilt ridden Michael often helped them out, even finding a place for them to live closer to him. Opportunistic Virginia took advantage of his kindness, slyly manipulating him into doing the simplest of favors. Most soapy vixens are tempted by preoccupied men, allowing lust and obsession to take control of their sensibilities. Virginia conducted more heinous acts, throwing morality out the window, vowing to take out her biggest threat at any cost. Consequences be damned indeed!

Dominique Jennings (Virginia) for Soap Opera Digest, March 1998. After Sunset Beach ended, Jennings had a few minor roles, but did not take off. It would be awesome if she joined another soap— daytime or prime time, network, cable or otherwise. She was an excellent scene stealer. 
Within the daytime soap opera realm, women of color villains are few and far between. Writers chose to have these characters be on the good side— a little too squeaky clean good. Days of Our Lives’ Lexie Carter had some very bad girl moments as the daughter of the evil Stefano Dimera. Young and the Restless had a gem in Hilary Curtis Hamilton, a young woman avenging her mother’s death all over Genoa City. General Hospital’s Jordan Ashford is not exactly flawless. Yet Virginia Harrison’s crimes are a lot more memorable, partly due to their controversial, far fetched, absolutely ludicrous nature. Her entertaining antics came around a time when fantasies were abundant, showing the inner workings of their minds. Nowadays soap operas rely heavily on flashbacks and repetitive dialogue. And the terrific portrayal by Dominique Jennings was nominated for the Outstanding Villainous Soap Opera Digest Award.

Virginia’s bright, technicolored Insemination Operation fantasy. 
 The first strike was setting a cabin on fire. Virginia could not let Vanessa and Michael get any closer— especially physically. She stalked them to their romantic getaway and unleashed her inner arsonist. Why would a gorgeous, thirty-something single mother resort to symbolically burn away the remainder of her sanity for a man as aloof as Michael? That is the obsession acting out, acting out in a desperate, give-no-figs fashion. Meanwhile, Vanessa told Michael over and over again that Virginia wanted him, but the hardheaded man refused to listen to the intelligent reporter that he has nicknamed “Scoop.”

She’s no Lola. What Virginia (Dominique Jennings) wanted, she didn’t get: Michael (Jason George). 
While the fire did nothing to smother the flames of Vanessa and Michael’s romance, Virginia still continued sabotaging, wedging her way into their growing love. She continued using Jimmy, seeing how much her boy idolized Michael. On an island vacation, invited by a clueless Michael, Virginia often fantasized about offing Vanessa while a serial killer is on the loose (who turned out to be Ben’s evil twin Derek). Virginia changed her mind on murder, but later found out about Martin’s Syndrome, which Vanessa’s mother had, and weaved this information into a new diabolical scheme involving witch doctors and poison. A terrified Vanessa dumped Michael and hid away in shame. In her absence, Virginia tried and tried, but Michael was just not interested.

Virginia (Dominique Jennings) never gave up even though she really, really should have.
If disfiguring Vanessa’s face, psychologically wounding her “competition” was not enough, Turkey Baster Gate 1998 sent Virginia over the edge of no return. Virginia stole the sperm of Dr. Tyus Robinson, stuffed it in a turkey baster, drugged both Tyus and Vanessa, staged them in bed together, and inserted... Well, it was the most grotesque, most horrific event that a woman has ever done to another woman short of killing them. This incomprehensible rape led to Vanessa becoming pregnant and the temporary break up of her and Michael. However, when they reconciled, an enraged Virginia caused Vanessa to lose the very baby she disgustingly created.

Dominique Jennings (Virginia) with Jason George (Michael) and Sherri Saum (Vanessa).
In the soapy Sunset Beach finale, Vanessa and Michael got married in a double wedding with Ben and Meg. Months prior, crazy, reckless Virginia was carted off to a mental hospital for the criminally insane. Still, what a juicy, hilarious, eye popping afternoon Virginia made. By god, she shocked the airwaves.

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Passions (and Pitfalls) of Michaela Pratt

Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King) in season one of How to Get Away With Murder. 
How to Get Away With Murder’s twelfth episode, Let’s Hurt Him, was somewhat refreshing— none of that privileged white boy mess. Unfortunately, Michaela remains beholden to the dead, murderous informant, verbally assaulting her ex Gabriel. She has forgotten how Asher slut shamed her in one breath and cried, “you’re the one” in the next. Yet she claims that he is tens times better than Gabriel could ever be??? Righhhhhhhhtttt. The entitled Asher Millstone lived up to Frank’s “doucheface” nickname. Somehow Bonnie and Michaela both fell for an impulsive man-child who used colloquialisms, danced terribly, threw tantrums, ran over Emily Sinclair (blaming Annalise for it), and long ago covered a rape happening in his own home. Asher’s unlimited access to Michaela (coming into her room at any time) did not help. And to have him actually propose marriage hours before dying— a big WTF. It was no surprise that he ratted out the Keating circle and died for those sins. 

Still, Asher is a troubling part of Michaela’s strange character descent. Now there is nothing wrong with sexual fluidity and owning that agency (which is partly what makes the multifaceted Annalise so superb). Yet it is problematic that every “good looking” story arc guy winds up sleeping with Michaela. And no one else. 

Annalise (Viola Davis) had seen a little of herself in Michaela (Aja Naomi King). 
For six seasons, this writing team has failed Michaela Pratt— a formerly engaged Yale grad who snatched her fabulousness crown away from her ex-fiancé’s meddling mother (played by the brilliant Lynn Whitfield) and stood her own at Middleton. The adoptee from the projects showed bite and independence. Her fall started with Eggs 911 (Rebecca’s blue-eyed foster brother) and the quest to finally obtain an orgasm. Wes— who knew all about the guy— did not warn her, failed to protect her. Then she fell for the murderous Caleb. Later, she cheated on Caleb with Asher, cheated on Asher with Marcus (from Scandal), tried to get with Marcus after Asher dumped her, and cheated on new boyfriend Gabriel, another murderer, with Asher. For a fabstintent girl quite eager to align herself with Tegan and best Annalise, her hypocritical behavior proved that she could not last a season without sex, especially with men who intentionally kill people. Well, not to say that she is Miss Innocent. After all, she pushed Sam down the stairs, helped dispose his mutilated corpse, and got Simon Drake, a gay man deported to his home country. 

Laurel (Karla Souza) and Michaela (Aja Naomi King) had sweet, young lawyer bonding moments. However, it is interesting to note that whereas Wes failed to protect Michaela from Eggs 911, Laurel does this same behavior— keeping Gabriel’s paternity a secret. This definitely presented a minor bump on Michaela’s friendship with Laurel.
Despite the murder cleanups, mean girl behavior, and a sexual appetite, Michaela worked hard and managed to graduate. She vouched for huge issues like racism and classicism— the same values as her old mentor Annalise, joined the team for the civil lawsuit case, and met her idol, Olivia Pope. For all her intelligence, the young woman has poor judgement and does not see obvious red flags. Like right now, her father is not the man she believes him to be. 

Michaela (Aja Naomi King) and Tegan (Amirah Vann) were hitting it off until Michaela’s huge fourth season betrayal. Although Tegan has slowly turned back to befriending her (even volunteering to be her lawyer), the relationship is not as close. No more expensive shoes for Michaela. Plus, Tegan is surely Team Annalise and not Team Informants.
Still, the writers struck out, missing the opportunity of not having Michaela bond further with Tegan or Annalise whom she once admired. In fact, last night’s episode had Connor saying, “we’re sorry” to Annalise, but Michaela could not bring herself to apologize once. She was wrong and still blaming Annalise. After everything that woman did to protect these kids, according to them (that blasted Oliver included) it is Annalise that deserves to take the fall for their crimes. Michaela’s hatred of Annalise has certainly been stewing, but it goes back and forth like a pendulum. One minute, the hate comes and the next, pure fascination and respect. Yet Michaela needs a strong woman figure. Her endearing camaraderie with Connor is always a treasure, a constant anchor, considering it is her strongest, asexual tie to a man. A Black woman scolding another Black woman, throwing her under the bus, puts the viewer in a tough, heartbreaking spot. There is desire and hope for them both to succeed. Michaela should thrive and pursue her career, but not at the expense of Annalise. So when Annalise impressively turned the tables on Connor and Michaela, it was laudable payback. 
Let’s just state the obvious— Aja Naomi King did a commendable job with the material given. Seeing a woman of her complexion on primetime television alongside Viola Davis was a double treasure. 
While Tegan and Annalise are beautifully opening up to each other, exposing parts of their vulnerable sides piece by piece, one cannot help wonder what would have happened if Michaela had embarked on the road of simply choosing herself. She may have rejected Asher’s proposal high on mushrooms, but the way she goes on and on about him does not speak independence. It suggests regret. That if he had not died, informant or not, she likely would have accepted his proposal.

With only three episodes left, Michaela and her fickle ways may either lead her down a jailhouse or perhaps she will join Asher in the afterlife. Maybe she can still win this thing— get away with murder. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Rocky Shores for Issa and Molly? Say It Isn’t So

Insecure season 4 poster. 
It feels like eons since Insecure dropped off with Issa, Molly, Kelli, and Tiffany celebrating Issa’s 30th birthday at a special projection rerelease of The Last Dragon. Launched by Condola, the successful event inspired Issa to seek out aide for her own ideas— a Block Party for her community. 

Molly (Yvonne Orji) and Issa (Issa Rae) before things become unhinged. Would you still be BFF’s if someone called your life messy when theirs is not exactly together either? Molly needs to meet a kettle ASAP. 
In season four’s first episode Lowkey Feelin’ Myself, it sounds like Molly and Issa— one of the show’s key foundations— are on the rocks. Condola and Issa are becoming fast friends in addition to partnering in what appears to be an upcoming successful venture. And Molly seems to be looking left out. Sometimes relationships need a cooling off period, even sisterhood ones. Case in point, Molly and Issa have always had a tight bond. They talk about any and everything, smoke pot, and do yoga together for crying out loud. However, Molly has been too comfortable. The language used, her tone, even her eyes were expressing degrees of animosity, envy too. Deep down, perhaps, Molly does not want Issa’s Block Party to succeed, much less Issa and Condola. 

Yes, it will be strange that Lawrence’s new girlfriend Condola (Christina Elmore) is working with Issa, but this girl was already giving the beaming “I’m proud of you, Sis” look at Issa during the Block Party meetup. 
Before Issola can take off, it is revealed that Condola and Lawrence are not only dating, but Tiffany knows about it. Even if she was aware of the one date, it was wrong of Tiffany to withhold that information from Issa. Although Condola and Lawrence’s romantic link may mar the potential friendship from fully forming between the two, Condola and Issa retain an unexpected spark. Issa sees a lot of herself in Condola and Condola definitely sees Issa as a fun, quirky, stylish girl. This is unlike the dynamic between her and Frieda— Issa’s former We Got Y’all co-worker. Black women are something else together in a way, especially with a personality like Issa— awkward yet surprisingly fresh and relatable. Molly on the other hand could not form relationships with any of her co-workers, Black or otherwise. Hence why, Issa picturing Condola dressed like her whilst having sex with Lawrence (complete with the tags still on the clothes) was downright hilarious. 

Molly (Yvonne Orji) and Issa (Issa Rae) at the party, but Molly obviously had only Andrew in mind. 
Earlier in season three Daniel liked being the “hero” for Issa and Molly has these minor similarities. Molly, the successful, financially stable friend, loves being relied on, needed. Her selfishness entered Issa’s big event, growing wildly. Molly saw herself sidelined for another woman, jaws dropping hardcore as Issa thanked Condola, a definite red flag. Instead of congratulations (which Kelli and Tiffany granted), Molly pulls Issa aside to discuss her relationship with Andrew aka Asian Bae. Now there is a time and a place to talk about your personal situations— a night of raising money and promotion was not it. Even Issa, whose body language revealed her own frustration with her self-centered friend, was not having it. As they were taking out the trash, the feelings could not have been painted any clearer. 

Other tidbits: Issa still uses people to her advantage. At least she is open to different body types. Her brother may be gay, but he appreciates the alluring qualities of a woman’s body. Kelli still deserves a rich layered story beyond the sex crazed voluptuous sidekick. The moment Andrew (whose fabulous hair is gone) nonchalantly confirms that he is dating other people, Molly reacts in typical Molly fashion. The show within a show promises to be another hilarious treat with Terri J. Vaughan and Ray J leading the fray. 

Issa (Issa Rae) has definitely come up on her public speaking skills. 
In conclusion, this welcome back episode was quite interesting— the music, the fashion continues threading significantly into the show. While Issa is growing (well, if she could only stop returning clothes), Molly is stagnant— how can a friendship survive that? Can Condola and Issa blossom into a new sisterhood while Condola is dating Lawrence— Issa’s longest relationship? 

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

‘Fig Tree’ Is A Poignant Autobiographical Tale

Fig Tree film poster. 
With the Western obsessive “happily ever after” and “that love like our grandparents’ had” narrative, it takes ample courage and grit to tell a tragic coming of age love story. Set in Ethiopia around 1989, a friendship is tested in ways that Romeo and Juliet cannot compare. This situation is more gender and religion than family vendetta. The circumstances are more dire, stakes raised higher. Fig Tree‘s Mina and Eli have a beautiful relationship, but as such most things cannot always stay tied together like knotted ribbons. 

Eli (Yohannes Musa) and Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe) up in their fig tree. 

Smart, Jewish Mina shifts between tomboyish in her straight back braids and American shirts and shorts and maturing womanhood in an olive green checkered dress. Eli is a Christian, sweet-faced apple of his mother’s eye. Mina and Eli live together (her family is purposely hiding Eli). They are best friends, often running off to rendezvous beneath and around their fig tree. In that mystical meeting place, they can climb above those gnarly branches and be safe from the pop up soldiers kidnapping boys for war. Against the backdrop of this unfair civilization, their love is an urgent one, as urgent as their need to leave the country. Yet the process of leaving takes time and careful forgery. 

While Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe) smiles in every picture, her grandmother (Weyenshiet Belachew) keeps her face the same seemingly vacant expression.  Perhaps because she has had a hardened life or has forgotten joy. Later, however, she tells Mina that she was in love once. 

Mina has a closer relationship to her stern grandmother, but a tense one with her mother who abandoned them to live in Europe— they have to travel ways to call her. Meanwhile, Rata, Mina’s older brother— a returned veteran with a disability—is supportive of the war effort. In fact, he wishes to return to the frontlines. It is the grandmother and Rata who are quick to snuff out Mina’s outspokenness and show her that there are consequences to being “disrespectful” to authority. 

When Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe) spied the soldiers in the window during class, she does not hesitate to do what is right. 

The cast is led by the phenomenal Betalehem Asmamawe, making her acting debut. She carries this film on her shoulders as a young girl breaking through adolescence whilst simultaneously fighting the horrific system in the only way she can. Mina is brave, resilient, and passionate— emotions Asmamawe was able to evoke in every scene. 

Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian’s gut wrenching piece of work, based on her own life, daringly casts a shadow over the evil consequences of war, especially in its severity of stealing young boys unprepared for adult battles. She shows love and fear of Eli’s life through the eyes of Mina, his young love and his mother who has had a nightmare of his death. These two women make ultimate sacrifices in order to protect him only to be sabotaged. Winner of the TIFF Eurimages Adentia Award, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival Jury Prize for Emerging Filmmaker, and a skew of honors for cinematographer Daniel Miller, Fig Tree deserves every last win and nomination. Hopefully this encourages Davidian to pen and direct more features, more stories from her poignant perspective. Her voice is unique and transformative, a pleasant evidence that there are emerging women creatives in Ethiopia determined to make an impact. 

Eli (Yohannes Musa) and Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe) are a calm before the storm. 

Fig Tree— a history lesson and love story all at once— is a must see and tissues will be needed. For Davidian's haunting story will leave audiences pining for a better, just world.