April 25, 2015, by Peter Kirwan
Romeo and Juliet in Harlem (dir. Aleta Chapelle) @ Warwick Arts Centre Cinema
The second of the two films in Warwick’s annual Shakespeare Film Day was a very special occasion – the first screening in the UK (probably) of the first Shakespeare film made by an African-American woman. Aleta Chappelle’s most significant feature as director to date, which used a crowd-funded trailer to attract funding, is a low budget affair, shot entirely on location in Harlem with hand-held cameras, a young cast and Shakespeare’s dialogue.
The budget shows. Particularly in the opening scenes, as the younger cast members walk around Harlem’s streets dressed in all-black vest tops and slacks, they do look like drama school students doing a class project (and the undisguised reactions of passers-by rather reinforces this). At times this is a real problem, notably during the Tybalt-Mercutio-Romeo drawl as other residents of the playground recline on benches eating lunch. But for most of the film it is wonderfully evocative of a community experience; interpreted outside of a naturalistic mode, this is a film about tensions in its community, performed by members of that community.
While Romeo and Juliet are played by Latino and black actors respectively (Hernando Caicedo and Jasmine Carmichael), the film sidesteps any overt discussion of race – indeed, until the film’s very last moments introduce Montague, Romeo is the only member of his family seen onscreen (Benvolia, played by the African-American actor Vicky Jeudy, is a friend rather than kin). The subtext is clear though, particularly as the sweaty New York heat recalls both West Side Story and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Tensions simmer and are ready to boil over at a moment’s notice, as is clear in the central fight. For sequences of violence – the start and end, as well as this duel – the bleached sunny colours turn to true black and white, allowing the stylised fight sequences (involving knives and high roundhouse kicks) to be realised starkly.
The film kicks off in high gear with a brawl in a park between two gangs, broken up by an overhead police helicopter, and quick introduction to all the characters through intercut scenes. The pace is fast and snappy, cutting back and forth between Romeo’s pining for Rosaline and Juliet shopping with her mother. We see several different sides of Harlem at the same time, from the bustling streets to the leafier, more upmarket private residences, and the film begins mapping its own geography. It is such a shame that, from the balcony scene onwards, the film’s structure reverts to pure Shakespeare, reducing the pace to a crawl as each scene is played out in lengthy detail. The first twenty minutes feel like a film with its own carefully constructed narrative identity, the rest a straight performance of Romeo and Juliet.
And what a conservative reading. Beyond the setting (and of course, we’ve seen American gang versions of this play before), this follows the normal beats, emotions and interpretations one might anticipate from Romeo and Juliet. The main interest comes from the casting of very youthful-looking leads, leading to an unusual amount of embarrassment – when they kiss upon meeting for their wedding, they withdraw quickly and bashfully; when thrown their clothes by the Nurse after their night together, they hide themselves under the covers as they get dressed and slip out of separate sides of the bed. The relative coyness and youth makes the aggressive, patriarchal Capulet (Harry Lennix) stand out when berating his daughter, and leads to a nicely filmed moment of Romeo in a downpour screaming as he hears of Juliet’s death from Benvolia, but it also perhaps feels that much less is at stake than the two lovers feel.
That isn’t to diminish the relative scale of their tragedy though, and the smallness of it is telling. The film ends in a tiny funeral parlour room, closed off behind a calm façade, and the camera follows Benvolia – disgusted, apparently, at Montague and Capulet’s forced truce – as she storms out and away down public streets, surrounded by people who will never know what has just occurred. Harlem is the film’s biggest asset, particularly during the street carnival through which Benvolia, Romeo and Mercutio wend on their way to the Capulet’s party, Juliet’s meander in glorious colour around Central Park after the black and white murder of Tybalt, and the background glimpses of statues of Adam Clayton Powell. in early scenes. It is disappointing that the film makes so little of these localities, cloistering its actors away instead in anonymous churches, funeral parlours, backyards and playgrounds.
There are a few narrative holes. The Duke still refers to the death of a ‘brace’ of kinsmen, although Paris is not seen after the Capulet’s party and is certainly not killed by Romeo; and the absence of the Montagues leaves the entire enmity plot lacking in substance. Apart from the opening two minutes, the film is a private set of grievances between Tybalt and one supporter against Romeo and Benvolia, and the households seem to have no other followers beyond the nuclear families. On a more personal level, I find disturbing the uncritical misogyny of Mercutio’s taunting of Erica Gimpel’s Nurse, during which Romeo, Benvolia and Peter all laugh as Mercutio lifts her skirts and teases her. The insistence and duration of this scene left me with little sympathy for any of the participants.
But for the film’s flaws, there is also much to love. The youthful energy grounds the story in an immediacy that will, despite the hackneyed quality of the phrase, make the story much more accessible to a young audience; even though the language is heightened, the way these young people carry themselves around the streets of a city that is clearly their home makes this feel more like a story that could happen than any other ‘modernised’ production I have ever seen. The guilelessness of Romeo and Juliet, supported by gruff performances from Friar Lawrence and Capulet and a lively, sassy Nurse, developed compelling relationships that encourage empathy.
And given the budget, the cinematography is very good. While the quality dips in indoor scenes, the streets are captured in painstaking detail, every piece of rubbish and kerbside glare jumping out of the screen. The handheld cameras move as if held by invisible gang members, jerking back and forth to get the best view of the actors in long takes filled with energy, particularly in Mercutio’s (Vladimi Versailles) performance of the Queen Mab scene on a railway platform.
The film is best when living thoroughly in the world of Harlem, and particularly in the opening scenes this feels like a potent, meaningful reclamation of the play. That it descends into a underwhelmingly conventional reading is disappointing, but this is a film whose very existence is more important than its individual interpretive achievement. We don’t need a Romeo and Juliet set in Harlem – in the way that the RSC sets its productions in whatever bright location it feels like designing – but we do need Romeo and Juliet in Harlem, developed organically in that district with its heart, anger, energy and desperation yoking actors and their surroundings. At its best, this is what this film offers, and I hope it finds UK distribution.