BRIAN ALESSANDRO’S PASSIONATE DEFENSE OF A CULT CLASSIC

Why “As an Act of Protest” is still relevant…

Though the film was made in 2001 and scrutinizes the racial profiling and police brutality in New York City under Giuliani’s draconian reign, “As an Act of Protest” has never been more urgent than now. I approach this review—a defense born of moral outrage, really—not as a film critic, but as a fellow filmmaker and novelist. Often, it takes an artist to recognize an artist, talent to identify talent.

To contextualize, the film makes almost all contemporary activism and progressive finger-wagging histrionics feel like a disingenuous kindergarten special, a halfhearted performance staged by people who stand for nothing, driven by questionable motives. 

Che Ayende as Cairo in the film’s ultimate de-colonialist climax

The story centers on Abner, imbued with a glorious righteous indignation by writer-director Dennis Leroy Kangalee (originally “Dennis Leroy Moore“), who runs a Black theater group, and his actor Cairo Medina, Che Ayende in a turn that manages both a visceral nerviness and a cerebral intensity. Though Abner floats throughout the film like a haunted, haunting spirit, the spiritual journey—and crisis—is Cairo’s. He must cope with the unjust, criminal murder of a loved one at the hands of the NYPD as he reconciles his passion for expression through art or, failing that, a descent into violent vengeance. Ayende’s work here is unnerving, spellbinding, and ultimately heartbreaking. He is a force of brooding expression, tension, and apoplectic eruptions. He is compelling when silent and striking when in a verbose fury.

The acting is so raw, immediate, and naturalistic it seems more than improvised—it feels as though we’re watching real intimate connections being worked out. And yet, there is a fascinating formalism at play here. Rarely do we find actors who can balance with such adeptness the natural with the formal. The cinema of Cassavetes comes to mind. The theater of Baraka and Genet do, too. Kangalee clearly knows his film and theater history and understands where he fits in the ever-shifting canon. His marriage of forms and sensibilities is thoughtful; he assiduously toils toward excavating a new understanding of human behavior.

We have seen countless movies that celebrate straight white men at breaking points with society. Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Edward Norton in Fight Club. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Rarely are black men granted the same luxury of being enraged with the world and acting on their anger. And if we’re being honest, it is black men—especially black men in America—who have the greatest right to be in a, as Baldwin put it, “state of rage, almost all the time.” 

The ruminations on the nature of theater, and especially the need for a Black theater, run deep and into enlightening spaces. Theatre of the Absurd is thought of when considering the film on a meta level—the way Black people are mistreated in America is in and of itself absurd. Cruel and unfair to an absurd degree. Kangalee knows this and his emphasis on theater suits such thematic meditations. 

Kangalee, the writer, is relentless in his examinations and excoriations. He demands you pay attention and endure the rhythmic chaos and existential horrors he dissects, those dehumanizing atrocities experienced daily by black men and women. Kangalee, the director, doesn’t let up, either. He insists you confront the gruesome truth and either flee or find deep mettle to withstand the revelation of your complicity. Kangalee, the actor, serves as an effective provocateur, a missile in human trappings sent deep into the heart of the matter. Unlike too many current filmmakers who claim to make “message movies” or “take stands” against injustice and the establishment, Kangalee actually does. And he does so poetically, unapologetically, and with an authenticity that shames.

Marvin X’s 2002 review of “As an Act of Protest” as featured in his book This Crazy House Called America.

Speller Street Films has done an admirable job remastering the cult film that has screened at universities across the United States and in Europe, however, it is unconscionable that As an Act of Protest has struggled for nearly two decades to land distribution. I can only blame the American (mainly white) critical establishment for not championing it, instead doing the bidding of the film industry—yes, both the “independent” film scene and Hollywood. The fear, the lack of imagination and depth, and the outright racism that has kept the film from garnering a wider audience is unforgivable. The hypocrisy of the independent film scene is apparent. They speciously declare their allegiance to emerging artists, taking “risks” with “edgy” fare, seeing more deeply than the big wig studio executives, eschewing commercial formula, and promoting marginalized voices. This is all nonsense, though. They’re just better at hiding their ugly, venal faces, faithful only to maintaining the status quo, and the rejection, indifference, and bitterness that As an Act of Protest has met with is evidence of this.

These same critics celebrate Ava Duvernay, Barry Jenkins, Spike Lee, all gifted and worthy in their own right, but also too-polite “fighters” for the cause, falling into line, protesting within acceptable lines; they stick to studio parameters, abide by white executive decree, and follow the structural playbook of formulaic moviemaking. They are using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which leaves nothing dismantled, in the end. The structures remain. Kangalee has no use for the master’s tools and in his gritty, obliquely stylized aesthetic uses his own tools. And his dismantling is actual, not theoretical. He has no use for levity to break tension. He doesn’t care if you’re bothered by the cacophony of actors screaming into each other’s faces for two hours. He has no use for your precious sensitivities. Why should he? He’s not trying to become anyone’s friend. He is seeking to make enduring, personal art. And he has. 

Writer-Director Dennis Leroy Kangalee in 2001.

In a certain, eerie sense, the detractors of As an Act of Protest mirror the racist cops, corrupt mayor, and gentrified encroachers in the film itself. They too possess a colonized entitlement, a sense that they have the license to control, own, and kill.  

Having followed the underground movements of As an Act of Protest, I possess empirical knowledge of the politics surrounding the film. And of the machinations intent on derailing it. I have witnessed too many cowardly, meek “critics” and academics lazily assail the film as if it posed a threat to their existence. The Guardian’s apathetic pseudo-review and TrustMovies’ ill-informed, vindictive rant, to name but a few. The same people who claim to want revolution and fancy themselves progressives, or even radicals, for that matter, reveal themselves to be anything but—they’re comfortable bourgeoise daunted by the prospect of being discomfited. They prefer a softer, templated blend of activism, something that will go down smoothly with their lattes and Wes Anderson confectionaries. To them, activism is little more than a fashionable accessory, a cute button or hip catch phrase. As an Act of Protest is a litmus test, one to weed out the truly rebellious and throttle the frauds into retreat. It’s exhilarating to watch the assault.   

Brian Alessandro currently writes literary criticism for Newsday and is a contributor at Interview Magazine. Most recently, he has adapted Edmund White’s 1982-classic A Boy’s Own Story into a graphic novel for Top Shelf Productions, which won the National Book Award in 2016 for March. His short fiction and essays have been published in Roxanne Gay’s literary journal, PANK, as well as in Crashing Cathedrals, an anthology of essays about the work of Edmund White. In 2011, Alessandro wrote and directed the feature film, Afghan Hound, which has streamed on Amazon and Netflix. In 2016, he founded The New Engagement, a literary journal that has released two print issues and eighteen online issues. His debut novel, The Unmentionable Mann, was published in 2015 and was well received by Huffington Post, The Leaf, Examiner, and excerpted in Bloom. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and the Independent Book Publisher Association Best New Voice Award. He holds an MA in clinical psychology from Columbia University and has taught the subject at the high school and college levels for over ten years. He currently works in the mental health field.

The Cult Classic That Remains the Most Relevant Film Right Now In The USA

“As an Act of Protest – Best Black Movie Nobody Will See This Year.”

                          – Kam Williams, The Black World Today, Nov. 27, 2002

“Powerful…”

                        – Ryan Shriver, The NY Times All Movie Guide (2006)

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Che Ayende, as Cairo, an actor exasperated by racism, who creative growth leads him to become a revolutionary

 

You cannot have a revolution without having an art to go alongside it.  Sometimes that art is living itself, sometimes it’s the expression of the angst through blood. Sometimes the tears mean more in the glimpse of 24 frames per second. Sometimes, often in actual life, there is no time for tears — and certainly no poetry that comes along with it… “Revolutions are not fought in, of, or by poems,” as Umar from the Last Poets warned in As an Act of Protest.  But it certainly helps to have those poems going up into the sky like fireworks…and hoping that their residue settles onto a willing recipient before the final axe falls or before the final step of the American gestalt is taken.  You can’t clap with one hand.  But you can still wield a sword.  Or a pen.

 

 

In order to bring Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s controversial and haunting 2002 cult film As an Act of Protest to a new generation of film enthusiasts, activists, organizers, and those interested in revolutionary expression, Speller St. Films (who brought the world Wilmington on Fire in 2015) will host online screenings of the movie in an attempt to relay the vitality and importance of the film originally made in response to the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999 and unfortunately now – the most relevant independent film, perhaps, in American history in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing and Rayshard Brooks’ execution. The film charts the unmapped territory of the fears, inclinations, and proclivities of conscientious Black Americans who are aware that they are “walking in terrible darkness” as James Baldwin once asserted. The film expresses the angst and racism of a system riddled with racism like a corpse covered in tumors. From hostile bankers and a Theater community entrenched in thwarting the liberatory desires of Black dramatists to the hypocrites of Higher Education to families unable to confront the serious trauma of racism to an unbridled savagery contained within the American police force, Cairo – like a character out of Kafka – has nowhere to turn and the more he dares to open his eyes…the more racism he dares to see. Described once as an “internal Battle of Algiers” and “radical Taxi Driver” (had that film been a progressive movie) — As an Act of Protest is a perfect introduction to Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s art, his admiration for the Black Arts Movement — and a stellar example of an unheralded movement and radical inclination in American cinema and drama that went completely under the radar beginning twenty-five years ago. 

— Joshua Kibuka for the New Black Arts Alliance, Speller St. Films June 9, 2020

Stay tuned for more updates on the release of As an Act of Protest and please visit my page here for more information, clips, and a detailed history of my film…

Vagabond’s “Machetero”

Vagabond Beaumont Alexander’s   classic Audio-Visual Terrorism and guerrilla film-making at its most potent.

 

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Like my own cinematic revolutionary attempt made in the turn of the century As an Act of Protest, Machetero sought to blow the mind like a grenade and rouse the ‘logic-of-the-soul’ as to the horrors, complexities and simplicities inherent in our human duties as a result of colonization and racism.

“Machetero is about terrorism and terrorists, how they are defined and by whom…It is a film about the cyclical nature of violence that is perpetuated by those who choose to oppress and those who no longer wish to be oppressed.” – Vagabond

The PAN-Latino/Indigenous and Black struggle and yearning for liberation are conjoined like Siamese Twins.  We both share a Leftist view of the world from our inherent understandings of the Caribbean (we are both West Indians, my family largely from Trinidad – his from Puerto Rico) and while our direct influences and approaches have been different (I come from classical theater, Vagabond hails from the fine arts world), we share a view of the world and what love is through our appreciation of DIY punk ethos, rock & roll, and those who think way outside the established academic norms.  We are also New York natives who tried to inject ourselves and our generation with the dust-mites from our & the previous generation’s approach to growing up and exploring the world around, both good and bad, and while we may have faltered to get our generation fully on board — our attempts have been righteously and fantastically executed.  High quality cinema with no money; priceless ideas and talent…verve and conviction.  That’s where Vagabond is coming from and he could not operate any other way.

“Success is getting someone else to believe in you.  Not you believing in yourself.” – Vagabond

Over the years, I have come to learn a lot from Vagabond, and he is one of the few born in the bone filmmakers still in the trenches, trying to make sense of radicalism and meaning, the poetry in science fiction…and the immorality of mere “happiness.”  He is a romantic and a film-addict.  And like all addicts he simply seeks to reconcile himself with this urge to get his “fix”….so he can fix the mind.

Machetero is a punk-rock-garage band-movie that Abel Ferrera might have drooled over in his youth if his punk sentiments were as blisteringly politically avant-garde as they may be ‘controversially’ social.  In splendid rawness and just the right balance of stylistic panache, Vagabond moderates his work with a documentary sobriety and yet a “other-worldliness” presentation very much rooted in his own personal brand of science-fiction which has always had an enormous inspiration for him I feel, where as I have only looked upon sci-fi as a curiosity but never understood it in my bones.  I come from Method Acting and drama and was a devotee of the Theater of the Absurd; he uses our ‘space oddities’ and the world’s political landscape as a towering backdrop; his externals are my internals.  I use dialogue the way he visually creates atmosphere…perhaps we both meet somewhere in the middle where surrealism and radical ideas converge?  He needs to make films, I need to write words.  He opts for the moving image, whereas I want to halt or destroy it.  He understands the pictorial, I relate to the textual.  We both love sound.  As traditionalists, he’d like Scorsese, I’d prefer Cassavetes.  He can paint and draw, I am colorblind.  But we both appreciate poetry, rawness and having guts verses having might.  We are both for the underdog and no matter what despise Goliath. 

With an excellent soundtrack and bold photography, the movie also features an outstanding cast:  the always charismatic  Isaach de Bankolé , the superbly honest Not4Prophet (of punk-band Ricanstruction) as well as gently Naturalist performances by Kelvin Fernandez and Dylcia Pagan that help to both round out and sharpen the film’s layered acting styles, given more complexity to the movie’s stylized neo-realism.

The movie was hailed by socially conscious artists such as Chuck D and Sam Greenlee.  It has had international critic support and yet remains largely maligned and dismissed here at home, in NYC.  I personally have known people who simply can’t get on board with our mode and style of filmmaking – and so our own artwork become ghettoized and blacklisted.  Machetero is a victim of a whole other virus that we won’t get into at this very moment.

Machetero is one of the great films of the digital revolution and the cinematic one…and part of a movement that was largely missed. A defining film of my generation, it was the A side to my worthy B side of our shared “cinematic” single and sheds beautiful light and time and space on those profoundly disturbed by injustice and obsessed with fixing it.

 

Here is the Link to the insightful 2013 announcement when Machetero had finally received a dignified DIY screening in NYC’s Lower East Side:

https://nothingtobegainedhere.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/machetero-diy-nyc-theatrical-release/

 

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