In Jamal Caesar’s ’03 “The Darker Side,” beautiful days in the city don’t always end up so pretty.
Capturing the tense crescendo of one couple’s heated exchange on a blazing day in New York, Caesar ’03 overcomes an initially sluggish pace, ending his 48-minute film with rapid-fire, racially honest action.
Adapting Amiri Baraka’s “The Dutchman” with co-writer Elshaday Gebreyes ’03, Caesar preserves much of the original work while adding and altering where necessary, utilizing the freedom of the film medium to establish the plot’s direction.
For example, Caesar begins with a slow, soft a cappella song, flowing from the mouth of Paula (Julie Lake ’05). The otherwise silent scene — which even quiets the shattering of a glass of whiskey — builds tension and audience involvement.
The film immediately increases its pace, speeding the audience on a train to Grand Central Terminal, where people and days pass quickly by. Director of photography Casey Mott ’03 cuts deeper into the heart of the city with each scene, beginning with the Grand Central lobby and ending with the glaring, rushing metal of the subway.
Instead of remaining on the subway, as the original play does, Caesar wisely moves the action to a cafe, later traveling to the city streets and into Paula’s apartment. The changes from location to location signal corresponding changes in tension and mood, lifting the sometimes lagging pace.
The action begins as Paula enters an otherwise calm, ordinary cafe to find Victor (Ja-Shukry Shia ’03) eyeing her. So, she does what any normal girl would do — sits down with him, confronts him, and asks him to come home with her.
What follows is a conversation that is sometimes slow and repetitive. Lake shines nonetheless — she is completely believable as an older, sexually forward woman. When the pace seems slow, her words still pop with precise timing and much enthusiasm.
As their conversation progresses, however, the film speeds along. Paula becomes increasingly offensive to Victor, like a firecracker with sudden spurts of energy. She brings up the race question with biting sarcasm in her voice, calling him a “well-known type: a black man who doesn’t like jazz, who went to Princeton, and who wears suits.” In other words, she accuses Victor of no longer being black, and to jolt him back to reality, she insults him.
When the couple steps outside the cloister of the cafe, they explode with sexual energy and racial argument. The scenes on the city sidewalk move swiftly along with rapid cuts, a welcome change from the cafe.
Back at Paula’s apartment — aside from an unnecessary use of split-screen — the camera work, the pace, and the conversation are deliberate and seductive.
Lake and Shia are at their best here, simultaneously desiring and loathing each other. Shia’s final monologue is powerful, a great contrast from his necktied sputtering in the cafe. Mott interrupts their conversation with brashly lit sex scenes — whether they are imagined or actual is up to the audience — that build the film to a fever pitch and let it end softly and eerily. Caesar’s film is ambitious in its range of racial and sexual tensions, and his cast and crew are certainly up to the task.