The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2023

All Issues
FEB 2023 Issue
Art Books

Martine Syms and Rocket Caleshu’s The African Desperate

This text is a critical study of the Black woman as a multidimensional figure in film.

Martine Syms and Rocket Caleshu
The African Desperate
(Nightboat Books, 2022)

The ending of The African Desperate, co-written by the interdisciplinary artist Martine Syms and writer and collaborator Rocket Caleshu, varies slightly between the screenplay and the film. In the screenplay the main character, Palace, descends upon the Lake transit station in Chicago after an odyssey of sorts from Bard College in upstate New York. Once outside, Palace encounters Maverick, a street performer, who begins to sing his rendition of “Easy” by the Commodores. She hands him a twenty-dollar bill and the scene ends with her words of gratitude. In the film, however, Palace emerges, if slightly less self-assured than how she seems in the screenplay, after an everlasting night, withered and weary across the threshold. Before she can extricate herself, she must contend with Maverick as a kind of jester in the background. Just as she manages her bags down the airport escalator, the frame freezes, and the film ends. Although not unusual for screenplay and film cut to differ, this distinction casts a meaningful light to the film’s overall aesthetic principles: hyper contextualized and vague, duality and sameness, marked by persistent moments of familiarity—a firm thesis for The African Desperate as a collective project and critical study of the Black woman as multidimensional figure in film.

The story follows Palace Bryant, an MFA student at Bard College, during her final thesis critique. The opening film shot is a wide pan of an altar and art installation showing the stacked spines of critical theory texts, incense, and hair weave draped on an easel. Diamond Stingily plays Palace, an artist in her own right and a dazzling protagonist who is a pleasure to accompany on this ride. It is the last day of her graduate program. Donning monochromatic attire, a group of all white, mostly male professors arrive for the final visit to Palace’s studio. Each one slings utterly disinterested commentary and microaggressions her way, like aimless softballs meant to land as platitudes. They sit in a row facing Palace in a hilarious parody of a graduate school committee as a moody Greek chorus. One of two femme professors, Rose, takes particular interest in the presence of people in the work, specifically, Palace’s family. “A family? A family. Your family. It’s just about your family,” Rose parses flatly. Palace takes this in with legitimate eyerolls, thoroughly confused by the collective disposition. She insists, “Let’s talk about the work, not me. Stop making me the work.”

The narrative follows Palace through a night of partying. At a screening of The African Desperate in Toronto, Syms spoke to the audience via Zoom during a talkback led by scholar and producer Dr. Nataleah Hunter-Young. During the conversation, Syms acknowledged the story’s mythological framing, loosely inspired by Greek tragedies like the story of Persephone. Palace is propelled through a never-ending underworld further away from any intended direction before an abrupt ricochet back to reality. Based on this conceit, the unique narrative structure lands. Viewers and readers are attached at the hip to Palace, dragged through the labyrinthine highs and lows of her journey, never quite making it home but always in motion.

The screenplay, published by Nightboat Books, is compiled and designed like a play or poetry book, with thick pages, the edges of which are bright yellow. A unique accompanying text to the film, The African Desperate screenplay highlights the sharpness of the dialogue, while adding clarity and balance to the scene work. In the film, scenes contain a flash of random memes flickering across the screen, or a quick sound loop dropping in and out, in a clever depiction of the contemporary tether of the digital age, most of which are not indicated in the screenplay. The only indication of this digital consciousness is in Palace’s phone calls with her friends, documented as “Screenland” or “SL”—where the fourth wall is reconceived as a distant character or third space. This is emphasized by the cover art, which features a film still of Stingily as Palace sampling drugs with a dab of her finger pressed squarely onto her tongue. The verso is overlaid with black smiley-face graphics, exemplifying the way the text relies on secondary conversations, such as the coded particulars of MFA experience, for example, conversations between Palace and her peers citing tertiary critical references like Glissant and Fred Moten. These are satirical notes of the familiar; The African Desperate is unflinchingly aware of itself.

The screenplay and film line up in one of the standout scenes where Palace prepares to go to a party. In the style of a makeup tutorial, she narrates the process to herself in a hilarious monologue, one that is not written in the screenplay and instead is indicated by cues, “She talks through the application of the make up as she does it, as if she is in a makeup tutorial.” Rather than distilling vernacular forms of self-making, The African Desperate celebrates Palace’s vibrant personality and rejects canonical frameworks of legibility. During her frustrating critique, she misspeaks—“desperate” instead of “diaspora”—revealing the emotional toll of persistently not being taken seriously. “Of course, I’ve been responding to the African desperate, staking my claim to the right to opacity.”

The desire for opacity and realism is a central tension of the film and is ultimately filtered through Palace’s ambivalence toward the art world at large, attributed to a host of real-world concerns related to her mother’s declining health caused by Lupus. This information looms large in the background, rendering graduate school as an unimportant, slightly less pivotal factor in the rest of Palace’s life—a fantasy or dream never fully realized, especially not in the presence of her detached thesis committee. Palace wisely foreshadows this early on, in an idyllic moment of respite by the lake with a friend, “Like art is essential to life, but I’d say it’s because of the relationships and connections it makes. Not really the art itself.” The African Desperate delivers cutting critique of the contemporary MFA program as a precarious underworld from the perspective of a Black female artist, dodging vapid assertions and resisting false categories, deftly focused on making her way back home.


Erica N. Cardwell

Erica Cardwell is a writer and critic based in Brooklyn and Toronto.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2023

All Issues