A New York corporate lawyer’s crisis of conscience and the vanishing Gullah culture of South Carolina’s Sea Islands become intriguingly intertwined in tyro writer-director-star John D. Harkrider’s “Mitchellville.” A brooding, unusually ambitious American indie rooted in a restless sense of historical responsibility, pic’s lack of name talent and challenging, dream-logic structure portend a hard road commercially. But many festival dates are assured, while admiring reviews and careful handling by the right distrib could result in a decent arthouse biz.
There was a real town called Mitchellville, a post-Civil War settlement for freed slaves located on Hilton Head Island, just off the coast of South Carolina. A once-thriving epicenter of Creole-influenced Gullah language and culture (as seen in Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust”), Mitchellville and other towns like it found themselves slowly eroded by wealthy white vacationers and developers who, in many cases, simply stole ancestral lands from their Gullah owners. It’s fascinating material for a movie, but it comes as something of a surprise when Harkrider’s film ends up there.
That’s because “Mitchellville'”s early moments play out not against the lush Sea Islands landscape, but rather against a particularly dreary, emptied-out Manhattan, where 32-year-old Gabriel Williamson (Harkrider) finds himself up for a partnership in a Wall Street law firm and about to celebrate his 10th wedding anniversary with the woman (Anna Lodej) who was his childhood sweetheart.
Or is he? While Gabriel speaks of a blissful married life to the psychiatrist (Michael Voyer) he must meet with as part of the promotion process, the images we see on screen suggest a different reality. When Gabriel returns home at night, it’s to a lonely, Spartan apartment.
Gabriel’s recurring dreams depict his wife embroiled in an affair with his lecherous boss (also played by Voyer); Gabriel taking flute lessons from a suicidal jazz musician named Ken (played by real-life drummer Herb Lovelle), and Gabriel being pursued by an unidentified assailant through JFK airport.
As he relates these imaginings to his shrink, we see them depicted on screen in matter-of-fact scenes by which Harkrider deliberately (and quite skillfully) confuses our notions of what is and isn’t “real.”
And as we move deeper into these “dreams,” a conspiracy plot begins to emerge in which Gabriel, investigating some legal files, happens upon evidence that suggests his law firm may represent the corporation responsible for the illegal occupation of Gullah land in Mitchellville. Moreover, it’s land that once may have belonged to Ken and his family.
Despite the fact “Mitchellville’s” conspiracy plot is partly based on events from Harkrider’s own past as a corporate attorney, the film avoids whistle-blower-movie cliches. Rather, this is Harkrider’s intensely (and, at times, weirdly) personal investigation into his relationship, as a white American, to the lingering vestiges of racism.
The multifaceted “Mitchellville” is a difficult juggling act to pull off, particularly in the 83 minutes Harkrider has allotted himself. Yet, for the most part, the film exudes a sly confidence. If Harkrider’s own performance onscreen is a bit overly earnest at times, he draws very fine work from Lodej, Voyer and particularly Lovelle, who imbues the film with a weary, wizened presence.
Pic is strong visually, using spare, spacious compositions that suggest a dreamlike state without relying on the overt stylizations (slow-motion, distorted lenses, et al.) of many dream sequences.
Lensing by co-d.p.’s Soopum Sohn and Barron Claiborne is commendable. In a nice touch, the Jim Crow-era photographs of Gordon Parks are used in the film to represent photos of Mitchellville.