Paris Is In Harlem: Slamdance Review. By Daniel Pollock.
Music heals, but wounds can be deep – is that a fair assessment for Christina Kallas’ energetic celebration of New York City, Paris is in Harlem? It seems reductive for such a multi-faceted, deeply interlaced film, but it proudly holds jazz and racial division at its core, and while it raises some interesting questions, it doesn’t hold enough pretension to believe it has the answers. It instead serves a deeper purpose to a city and the ever shifting fabric of its people, and allows them to share their experiences, which are rarely easily defined.
Paris Blues, indeed, is in Harlem – it’s a jazz club that brings together a vast array of patrons who inhabit different classes and ethnic backgrounds, but share a love of music. On a night of celebration, where owner Sam is welcoming the repeal of New York City’s racist Cabaret Law, the revelry turns sour as a lone gunman opens fire. But on a night of such joy, why? And who? Over the course of the previous day, we learn what hardships brought our music lovers to drown their sorrows at Paris Blues, and see that each has a messy, complicated story to tell.
The most immediately notable element of this film is the use of splitscreen to concurrently tell the stories of its ensemble cast. Sometimes these screens comment on each other, and other times they don’t at all, or even actively clash visually and tonally.
Along with the odd deftly placed jump cut, this visual style gives the film a staccato rhythm, and ably apes the improvisational jazz that inhabits its emotional core. But beyond that, it gives the film licence to jump between stories freely and seamlessly, never once distracting or detracting from the film’s flow. It instead adds to it, weaving a tapestry of humanity that interacts and reflects itself as characters cross paths, create connections, break them in two, and forge new ways.
The film only occasionally dips into the patronising racial melodrama you would see in, say, Crash, but it owes more to the works of Spike Lee (including an intriguing segment shaped around a film lecturer’s unorthodox interpretation of School Daze) than the aforementioned Oscar schlock. Much like a lot of Lee’s work, Kallas’ film exists on the lived-in streets of New York, with the brownstones as her backdrop. It lends an authenticity to proceedings, which in turn validates certain scenes that lie at either end of a spectrum; the understated, as seen in the musical interplay between two buskers on opposite subway platforms during the opening credits, or the more outrageous, as club owner Sam turns a potential armed robbery into an audition for a new drummer by appealing to the gunman’s passions and hunger.
When Duke Ellington died, they say jazz died with him, as an overly friendly Uber driver tells us. But he left behind not only a legacy of unequalled musical genius, he also imparted great wisdom, including his four “moral freedoms”. They are mentioned explicitly in the movie, and each given weight, but one stands out in Duke’s list: “the freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel that he’s better than his brother”.
Paris is in Harlem embodies this entirely, in its characters, their relationships, their interactions, their immediate response to the repeal of a century-old law that effectively banned dancing in black nightclubs. And, in the film’s triumphant final moments, it shows us that no matter what challenging road is mapped out for us, there is always a chance for human connection. The future is written, but you can pick which notes to play.
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