Friday, May 17, 2024

‘The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster’ Finds New Life in Mary Shelley’s Classic Tale

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The Frankenstein monster is one of the most relatable and enduring creations. Borne from the mind of a woman and brought to cinematic life by an openly gay man, the monster is a symbol of the unloved and marginalized. I have vivid memories as a child of being drawn to photos of Karloff’s creature, feeling a deep kinship with the creature’s desperate need for love and acceptance.

Something I’m sure Bomani J. Story must have done as his interpretation of Mary Shelley’s iconic story is about how being viewed as monsters often creates monsters. He also wrote the script, which among other things, sets the story in a low-income housing development and shows how grief and obsession can drive us to extremes. By updating it and changing the setting, Story allows a new lens and a fresh take on the story similar to Hammer’s’ 1957 classic The Curse of Frankenstein.

Similar in that the new lens changes the story dramatically. Gone is the spoiled wealthy egomaniac driven by grief, and in his place is the brilliant young Black Vicaria (Laya DeLeon), driven by grief and fury. “Death is a disease,” she tells about witnessing her mother and brother being shot by gangs. Her brother Chris (Edem Atsu-Swanzy), a gang member killed in a shootout, is the straw that breaks Vicaria.

angry black girl
Chris (Edem Atsu-Swanzy) lies dead before Vicaria (Laya DeLeon).

As rumors begin to swarm about in the neighborhood about someone stealing bodies–including Chris’s corpse–Vicaria becomes obsessed with curing the disease destroying her family. Her father, Donald (Chad L. Coleman), is using drugs to cope with the loss of his son, drugs he bought from Kango (Denzel Whitaker), the local drug dealer and gang leader. For Vicaria, her father is battling the “disease” as well, making her desire to find a “cure” all the more consuming.

What Story and his DP, Daphne Qin Wu, do so well is use the camera to put us squarely in Vicaria’s mindset. Wu’s camera straddles the line between objectivity and subjectivity, such as in the scene where Vicaria is unfairly targeted by her science teacher Ms. Kemp (Beth Felice). After Vicaria tries to derail the conversation by discussing a possible cure for cancer nay death, Ms. Kemp calls security on Vicaria. The security office attacks Vicaria physically; Wu’s camera pulls back, showing us the horrifying detail in full frame, as if from a CCTV angle. 

Meanwhile, Annie De Brock’s editing cuts from the objective angle to close-ups of Vicaria, so we both see and feel the violation of Vicaria’s personhood. The scene is chilling because it shows how the world in which Vicaria lives, the housing complex, and the one she is trying to escape to, a majority-white private school, pose a threat to her body. Story and Wu use the trappings of the horror genre to tell a tale full of anger and woe while commenting on the dangers Black women and men face within and without the community.

Story emphasizes this with a simple scene between Vicaira and Jerome (Ellis Hobbs IV), a young boy from the complex, “The mind and body are beautiful things, Jerome. Don’t waste or destroy them.” “Who’s stopping someone from destroying mine.” The horror in The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster comes not from the grave robbing and gore but from the daily realities Black youth must encounter.

Wu’s lensing and De Brock’s cutting give Story’s themes and visuals an emotional weight and verve. The Angry Black Girl and her Monster is a riveting fable that surprises me at every turn. Story centering the story through Vicaria’s point of view allows for a worldview constantly being challenged. A teenager, Vicaira sees things as all good and all bad. But the characters in Story’s film contain multitudes. 

Kango is a prime example. At first, he seems like we have seen many gang leaders and drug dealers. He is exploitative and manipulative and seems to not care about the people he’s hurting. It’s not until that Vicaria learns that Kango is using the money from drugs to take care of his ailing mother that she is forced to recognize that, like Jerome, Chris, or her father, Kango is trying to survive in a world that is trying to destroy him.

Vicaria’s search for knowledge slowly leads her to conquer death, ushering her into adulthood and a world of grey moralities. Young Hayes is phenomenal as Vicaria, as she anchors every scene. She’s making everyone around her that much better. Her Vicaria mixes fear, sorrow, and righteousness into a compelling concoction that is impossible to look away from. 

angry black girl
Vicaria (DeLeon) helps the Creature (Atsu-Swanzy) learn to walk

Story isn’t interested in the “horror” aspect. There’s blood and guts, the kind you’d expect to see about a mad scientist sewing together dead body parts to re-animate a dead older brother. However, aside from some jump scares, The Angry Black Girl hews closer to sci-fi than horror. The monster itself plays a part but is mainly off-screen. Story is more interested in the threat of Chris than of Chris himself.

Wu uses color and lighting to give The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster a vibrancy that enhances the mood and vibe of the film. Not to mention Wu and Story understand how to properly light Black actors, making the imagery–often at night–all the more dynamic and striking. Wu imbues a visual poetry to Story’s narrative making the story feel fresh and new despite its familiarity. 

The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster is one heck of a debut, as the story never feels overwhelmed by its aesthetics. Story shows a breadth of talent as he navigates a well-worn tale in a way that makes it feel alive and tethered to modern times. 

Images courtesy of RLJE Films

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