starring Laya DeLeon Hayes, Chad L. Coleman, Denzel Whitaker
written and directed by Bomani J. Story
The Boston Underground Film Festival runs from March 22-March 26, 2023. Click here for more info.
by Walter Chaw Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes) is a 17-year-old STEM wunderkind who has a theory--one she shares with the mad oncologist of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain--that death is a disease and, as such, can be cured. It's her favourite topic, and she tries to expound upon it during chemistry class, but her teacher, Mrs. Kempe (Beth Felice), doesn't want to listen. Mrs. Kempe expresses her distaste through microaggressions like mispronouncing Vicaria's name, then offering to call her "Vicky" because it's easier to remember. When that fails to intimidate Vicaria, she summons the school's security officer to forcibly remove Vicaria from the classroom. It's dangerous when white folks call the cops on Black folks, and Vicaria, sure enough, is thrown from her desk--breaking her glasses--and cuffed for the crime of, essentially, being smarter than expected in a situation where her white teacher feels threatened. The first thing Bomani J. Story's The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster is about is the chips and how they're stacked against women and minorities, especially in the sciences. In just this one scene, he addresses different types of racism (internalized, subtle, overt, systemic), builds a character in the outspoken and unbowed Vicaria, and sets up a confrontation in which Vicaria's dad, Donald (Chad L. Coleman), demonstrates what it looks like when a father has his daughter's back. In five minutes, we know everything we need to know. This is exceptional storytelling.
Vicaria has lost her mother and, recently, her brother Chris (Edem Atsu-Swanzy). In a flashback, we see Chris ticking off all the checkboxes the police use to justify their endless harassment of the Black community: he's dressed in a hoodie, he wears his hair in dreads--it's a bullseye and, after a certain time of night in the right neighbourhood, a death sentence. He's gunned down running away from the cops. We find out later that local kingpin Kango (Denzel Whitaker) has enlisted Chris in a criminal enterprise that includes, adding complication upon complication, supplying drugs to his and Vicaria's dad. Chris's hands aren't clean, and The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster isn't a hagiography of its characters. Rather, it's an essay on an impossible situation exacerbated by legacies of violence and desperation. Vicaria steals Chris's body and repairs to her warehouse laboratory, harvesting bits and pieces from other corpses to knit a patchwork approximation of Chris she, spoiling nothing, resurrects by tapping into the power grid. I think about passages from Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man that describe its hero wired unseen into the electrical current of the community that disdains him--a metaphor for the lifeforce of any society being composed of its most overlooked members. Ellison's hero listens to a record on a loop, Louis Armstrong's "What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue," which says: "My only sin...is in my skin." For Vicaria, her experiments are an attempt to restore a family shattered by a system designed to oppress them, to imprison, enslave, impoverish, and demonize them, so the powers that be can kill them.
Story shows Vicaria stitching flaps of Chris's flesh together in intimate, sticky detail. Though there isn't an extraordinary amount of gore in The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, what's there is not only fabulous but also has a purpose beyond the gross-out. Just the fact of a Black body getting lovingly put back together instead of torn asunder is inevitably political: we see so much Black pain as entertainment, and so seldom see any attempt to assuage that pain, to salvage those bodies. In this and many other ways, Story honours Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. When freshly-reanimated Chris breaks bad, he first seeks revenge against the criminals (the dealers and the cops) who have wronged him before turning his attention to the family that loves him. A monster both before and after his death, Chris has self-loathing and shame for what he's become. The violence is exhilarating for its righteousness, but the joy of it is subverted by Vicaria's realization that she's underestimated the hate animating her brother. She comes to see how this second chance for Chris may turn out to be as poisonous for him as the first. Story excels at the viscera, but he's even better, I think, at the scenes Vicaria shares with her extended family--with her niece, Jada (Amani Summer), and pregnant sister-in-law, Aisha (Reilly Brooke Stith), representing the hopes of the next generation in the hands of ferocious women taking ownership for their education and uplift of each other. A late scene around the dinner table is interrupted by cops pounding at the door demanding to be let in for a warrantless--and unwarranted--search. Donald lowers the timbre of his voice and tells the fuzz he won't be opening the door to them. The most fraught moment in a tense film, it plays like fairytale noir: rejecting the wolf at the door with bluster and wisdom hard-won through disastrous attempts to placate the enemy in the past. To break the tension, Donald, when he returns to the table, asks his family if they remember that one time with Chris when... And they laugh the way loved ones sometimes do in the midst of their grief, remembering when things were not necessarily better, but at least they were all together.
I mentioned earlier how I respect the extent to which The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster honours its source material. What I mean is the very things I've always loved about Shelley's Frankenstein--the lore of its construction and publication--Story uses to his own ends. The book is famously the product of a party game in which a small group of bohemian Romanticists challenged one another to tell a scary story over the course of a drunken evening in the country. Mary Shelley's contribution won--and was so good, in fact, that her famous husband and his famous friend conspired to have it published. But because of the prejudice baked into the mere idea of women authors (complicated by the luridness of the subject matter), Frankenstein was first published anonymously. The literati speculated that the mysterious author was Mary's famous husband Percy Shelley or his famous pal Lord Byron, and while it's easy to say the reason they were suspected was a product of latent misogyny and their reputation, the truth is that Frankenstein is a deadly satire of the pretenses found in Percy and Byron's writing styles. Indeed, Mary Shelley wrote a book about a thing, an eloquent thing, assembled from bits and pieces in a text that is itself constructed of bits and pieces exhumed from the literary graveyards of her husband and the other high Romanticists. "Frankenstein" might be the name of the doctor, but the patchwork monster is the book itself. Mary Shelley is a wonderful speculative writer (check out her The Last Man to get your mind blown anew) and genre scribe, but she's also a sharp literary critic, the daughter of two of the finest philosophers and essayists of their time, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein is authored by a brilliant, exceptionally-well-read person who wrote a metaphor for the trials of outsider artists existing within an insular community--and it's written in the style of the ruling class. As I learn more about Hip-Hop's culture of sampling, I see the same kind of birth of the ferocious new from the cast-offs of the exhausted ruling monoculture. Story's film has essentially located Mary Shelley in its text, reconceptualizing Mary as Vicaria (the name a suggestion of "vicarious"--the experience in the imagination of the actions of another person), the razor-sharp critic manifesting her culture's rage from the bodies of its victims.
Like Mary Shelley, Vicaria is too gifted to be tolerated, too outspoken to be ignored, and too empowered to be suppressed effectively or for long. Her "monster" is a double-edged sword: an avenging angel created from the juice of the Master that inevitably turns its destructive attentions inward. Frankenstein ends with the creator's death and the monster's mournful self-imposed exile in a land of shifting ice and desolation. While it's ultimately a tale of failure and unnatural ambition (for all of Man's creations, life can never be one of them), Story sees a different possibility. Chris rampages, it's true, and condemns himself through his inability to break a cycle of violence--but this time, the monster's creator is given the chance to redress her wrongs. Vicaria learns. She uses the wisdom instilled in her throughout the film by her family. Just as there's a legacy of violence, Story says, there is also a legacy of strength and perseverance through love and acceptance. Vicaria can choose which of those legacies to honour. I'm a little stunned by The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster in that it's absolutely principled and loud about its sociological activism but doesn't feel like a screed; heartbroken and enraged, but possessed of enough grace to allow for something other than the nihilistic rimshot. It's like Get Out in that way: At the end of all the horror, it gives us a glimmer of the hope embedded in the transformative power of solidarity. The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster is an adaptation/remake of a conceit recycled hundreds of times that justifies its reason for being. If Story only has this one film in him, it's enough.