Scrap the negligible subplot about inanimate objects desiring, and achieving, corporeal existence and the narrative of William Jennings’s Harlem Aria is essentially Pinocchio in the Hood. Anton (Gabriel Casseus) is a wooden savant lacking the mental capacity to properly operate a washing machine but sporting pipes that can belt out entire operatic scores by Puccini and Mozart without a single libretto glitch. After being tempted away from his mother’s brownstone by an opportunistic Honest John (the casually predatory derelict Wes, played by Damon Wayans with the worst case of ghetto lisp on this side of the caricature “Pepper Jack” from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Anton falls in with Matthew (Christian Camargo, from the first season of Dexter), a nebbish Stromboli of a street pianist, and the two form a perfunctory performance partnership with hints of racial manipulation.
The film would be a mediocre street fantasy were it not for Jennings’s malodorous treatment of ethnic themes; as such, Harlem Aria comes off like a confused humanities student’s retort to Do the Right Thing. Mentally handicapped and lacking the potential for significant dramatic growth, Anton exists in the plot mostly so that other, more dynamic characters can control his strings: Wes steals his money while crying “slave trader” on Matthew, whose compassion as both a fellow busker and a fellow human runs equally shallow. Jennings fashions Matthew and Wes, and their mutual desire to control Anton’s gift, as a kind of perverse bridge across the socio-economic gap they weakly represent, but since the former is living off his famous chanteuse girlfriend’s pity while his music career stalls and the latter is simply and rather stereotypically resistant to work, their equality is entirely dependent upon their flaws; it’s as though Jennings is attempting to once and for all assert that no race is lazier than the next. In the sober, guilt-ridden aftermath of a Pleasure Island-esque evening, Anton optimistically deplores his friends: “Can’t we just get jobs?” It’s the smartest line in the movie, and even it seems to suggest that employment alone could patch the black/white schism.
Harlem Aria was also produced and peddled on the festival circuit back at the start of the new century—quite significantly on the cusp of the independent film industry’s transition to digital video—but not released theatrically until 2010. This makes the texture of the movie difficult to date with accuracy, and it’s curiously jarring. We can’t quite believe that contemporary actors like Wayans and Camargo are interacting with the low-budget film grain and old school titles—along with odd “‘90s”-isms, like inappropriately vibrant color schemes that seem designed to underscore the hue of sneaker stripes—that we associate with TV flicks from two decades ago. We tend to forget, of course, how pervasive the “cheap film” timbre was before another method superseded its affordability, and there’s no doubt that Wayans and Camargo look younger than their current selves. But the movie has the dramatic dullness of a modern-day flop that, were it actually produced today, would have all the telltale signs of handicam immaturity rather than indicators of über-commercialized slickness. (How many indie films with an urban setting are shot sans handheld jitters today?) It’s like a twentysomething’s funhouse of anachronistic mirrors. Coming of age in the midst of technological revolution has its price: The technical motifs on which we were raised have already progressed from embarrassingly obsolete to disorientingly antiquarian.