Paris is in Harlem
Leon Addison Brown, Souleymane Sy Savene, Vandit Bhatt
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… a cohesive and wonderfully vibrant story of human connection.
In 1926, during Prohibition, the New York City Cabaret Law decreed a ban on all dancing in public spaces selling food or drink unless the venue obtained a cabaret license. Notoriously difficult to process, the cabaret license had a hugely detrimental effect on Harlem’s clubs and jazz scene, a systematic oppression that wasn’t officially lifted until 2017.
Set against the bustling New York backdrop, writer/director Christina Kallas presents a snapshot of lives colliding and emotions overflowing as we follow a discordant group of stories all taking place on the day the Cabaret Law was finally lifted. It’s a key historic moment made personal through the lens of interwoven relationships, all the more impactful for its smaller scope.
Kallas weaves together a captivating narrative using a complex spiderweb of different viewpoints, the camera seamlessly switching focus as background characters become protagonists, stepping forward when the time comes for their story to be told. From Leon Addison Brown’s club owner to Souleymane Sy Savane’s lost soul, each story represents a voice longing to be heard; the intersecting lives of strangers passing one another on the street, unknowingly linked by music, by hardship, by the city they live in. The film brings together a diverse cacophony of voices touched by racism, sexism, and oppression, finding a harmony through shared experience.
The ever-present soundtrack of free jazz flows through each scene, whether providing an outlet after the tension of an awkward uber ride, or building to violent crescendos as the Chekhov’s Gun plotline laid out in the opening scene finally runs its course. The music tells its own story and becomes its own character equal to any of the protagonists sharing the screen.
Kallas offers up an authentic depiction of living, breathing New York City. Naturalistic dialogue and honest sentiment blended with the immediacy of the camerawork all work together to drop the audience directly into the middle of the scene. The director is a deft hand at building tension, from the use of split screen dropping back to single frame as a harrowing phone call repeatedly drops out, to the carefully layered plot building towards an emotional climax, Paris is in Harlem is a masterclass in storytelling.
Just as jazz finds its form in a complex harmony of spontaneous, improvised notes flowing together, the film combines jarringly different perspectives and experiences to create a cohesive and wonderfully vibrant story of human connection.