Tallgrass Film Festival Review – Paris is in Harlem

This review is for a film originally viewed at the 20th Annual Tallgrass Film Festival. WD;ED will update when the film becomes available either in theatres or on VOD.

Music may not completely heal the wounds we carry or prevent the pains we suffer, but it can take us away and free us for just a bit.

Paris is in Harlem, by director Christina Kallas, is a movie that’s steeped in euphoria and bliss even as it opens by showing you its deep tragedy. Uniquely edited and distinctly calling out a time already in the rearview mirror, it focuses on the lives of several New York City citizens in Harlem as they barrel through a difficult day towards an already forgone conclusion. One man is homeless and grieving his wife, two teachers about to lose their jobs for different reasons, a poor thief that’s got music in his heart and a hard decision, these people all fall into the same vortex that swirls as it sucks them into the bright blue lights of the Paris Blues club on the night that New York’s quietly buried “no dancing law” (also known as the Cabaret Laws) is to be repealed.

Shot in side-by-side narratives as an artistic choice, each character’s lives are woven together in a series of vignettes that tear them each down so that they can rise back up. The production design of Stefan Petridis clings to the city with a tight grip, relying heavily on its character to guide these stories along and it works. Elwaldo Baptiste deserves medical attention for taking these plot threads and carrying all that weight across the finish line because what they’ve accomplished here is nothing short of impressive. Each little bite serves as an interesting story on its own, from the feminist teacher that’s being slapped with a Title IX to the Uber driver that tries to stop a suicide after answering the phone of a rider he dropped off an hour ago. These moments can be everything from devastating to uplifting and all of them impactful. Kallas is hitting a stride here, one that requires a knowledge of the city and its variety of people.

Each performance across the board is one to cherish, but there are two that I really want to highlight. Leon Addison Brown takes duty as the club’s owner, a man that is so in love with jazz and yet so exhausted with life that he doesn’t care whether or not he retains it. There’s an air of “over it” that he exudes when talking to specific individuals, but his ability to maneuver difficult situations as a businessman that’s suffered at the hands of institutional racism through the duration of the “no dancing law.” Perhaps his greatest moments are those coupled with Souleymane Sy Savane (Our Father, the Devil), a homeless immigrant that lost his wife to cancer and all of his money trying to save her. Savane is a believable force of nature in the film, broken and beautiful, and his presence is one of lingering menace despite his more pathetic existence and demands to be seen.

There are a lot of subjects being tackled, from gun violence to feminism to health care, but the main focus sits on institutionalized racism and the things we all carry. Rhetoric is an important thing to understand, and when it’s left by the wayside things begin to fall apart even if what was said or done isn’t what was intended. Positions of power and unaware privilege are pieces of life that many blissfully ignore because they don’t have to remain conscious of them, but New York’s law against dancing was utilized to specifically target non-white musicians and clubs for over ninety years before the repeal. It didn’t solve racism, and Kallas doesn’t shy away from that, but there’s a bright moment where everything seems to be okay even though we know it ends in tears.

Paris is in Harlem will be challenging for most viewers. Its stylized editing and frenetic pacing might prove off-putting, but I found it to be an emotional and engaging experience like no other and cannot wait to see it again. Check out the promotional clip below and keep an eye out for Paris is in Harlem!


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