Special is the movie that makes Harlem seem like someplace else. The Harlem in “Restless City” is a lonesome place. It doesn’t bustle or jump or preen. Whatever chaos there is feels controlled. It’s haunted and homesick and mysterious — Harlem by way of West Africa, whose emigrants populate the film’s hovels, hair salons, and street corners. They supply the neighborhood with its edge, its cool, its danger, and its shirts with their beautiful prints.
You don’t hear Nas coming from cars — or Nicki Minaj or Teena Marie or anything you’re likely to find on any radio or satellite service. You hear a soundscape that edges what you see into the realm of science fiction. You hear drums. Once, the voice of Jessye Norman singing one of Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” soars over shots of people sitting around a recording studio. It soars again as a motorbike wends through the night.
This is all to say that “Restless City” is tumescent with atmosphere. There’s a story — a chic, young Senegalese musician named Djibril (Sy Alassane) needs money to record a new demo, wants to rescue a woman (Sky Grey, in a jungle-print jacket and one of Whitney Houston’s wigs) from her pimp, and finds himself in the special-delivery street hustle. Eugene Gussenhoven wrote the script, and it’s not much. Yet it’s enough for the director Andrew Dosunmu to forge all his luscious imagery.
“Restless City” is chiefly a collection of close-ups of strong faces and the backs of heads. At some point, one of Djibril’s deliveries takes him to a music studio where the reflection of a singer strumming a guitar imposes itself over the producer receiving his package from behind a soundboard. The shot lasts long enough for its beauty to turn odd, for the woman with the guitar to seem like an illusion.
Dosunmu is a Nigerian music-video director — he’s made videos for Maxwell, Angie Stone, Tracy Chapman, and Common. And all he’s done here is apply the same smoothness at feature length. The absurdly prolific Nigerian film industry is called Nollywood, and Gussenhoven’s story could easily have hailed from one of those flimsy, budgetless entertainments. But Dosunmu is not the average Nigerian director. His film has the alluring thinness of old French movies and the throbbing vividness of oldish American ones. I see a lot of what he accomplishes with rhythm, depth of field, and color saturation and think about Hype Williams, the iconic music-video director, whose only film — a blaxploitationish crime drama from 1998 called “Belly” — has managed to linger in the imaginations of other filmmakers. Not because it’s good (it isn’t) but because the imagery has the indelibility of body ink.
Dosunmu probably has his own style. But if he’s just appropriating Williams’s, that’s OK. Williams doesn’t appear to need it at the moment. There’s a dreamy immediacy to life in the Nigerian’s Harlem as opposed to the drugginess of life in Williams’s New York. The apartments, sidewalks, bedrooms, sex dens, nightclubs, and the gunmen who empty them out have a kind of impressionistic vitality. With Dosunmu, African culture thrives in a demographically shifting but historically African-American part of town. If the idea is that Nollywood could work in Manhattan, this is the director who can show us how.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.