Gabriel Range’s “I Am Slave” demonstrates that outrage over a contempo human-rights issue is more of a hindrance than a prerequisite for a nuanced portrayal of a complicated subject. True tale of a Sudanese girl who toils away as a domestic slave in London lacks the complexity of scripter Jeremy Brock’s earlier “The Last King of Scotland,” with Range only partially succeeding in hiding the Lifetime-ready plot through superior production values. Pic was already shown on co-producing Channel 4 in Blighty and further broadcast exposure seems guaranteed, though theatrical prospects look dim.
Range’s previous pic, “Death of a President,” used a shocking blend of docu and fiction elements to tell the story of the (obviously hypothetical) assassination of George W. Bush, raising many thorny questions in the process; Brock’s screenplay for “Scotland” similarly explored complicated matters as it contrasted the worldviews of a naive young doctor from abroad and a local military despot. But Range and Brock’s collaboration on “Slave” is strangely devoid of gray areas, ignoring sociopolitical context in favor of a purely human tale in which an innocent girl is abused by two evil women.
Malia (Wunmi Mosaku) is the daughter of a proud Nuba chief (De Bankole, credited as associate producer), but is sold to a rich Arab family in the Sudanese capital in the aftermath of a spectacularly staged nighttime raid on Malia’s Nuba village (where everyone, rather incongruously, speaks perfect English).
Range and Brock barely even hint at the local conflict behind the surprise attack, or the complicated ethnic and religious politics surrounding the fact that the young Nuba princess, a Muslim, is finally taken in by a woman of Arab descent, Laila (Hiam Abbass, “Miral”), who turns Malia into an obedient domestic slave through brute force. After a few years of service, Laila ships her charge to Haleema (Lubna Azabal, “Incendies”), her only slightly less aggressive London-based cousin. Throughout, Range remains close to Malia’s p.o.v., as she’s made to do unpaid chores day and night in a locked manse, with no free time or access to her passport or even a phone.
It would take a formidable actress to convey the doubts and emotions of Malia, whose circumstances have reduced her to an almost entirely passive character. But while newcomer Mosaku, who is of Nigerian descent, is good, she hardly transcends the material. Azabal and Abbass, the latter cast especially weirdly against type, can do little in largely one-note roles, while De Bankole is an imposing presence early on before his character’s credibility takes a serious hit in the film’s most contrived and melodramatic scene.
Like “Death of a President,” the film is technically very impressive, with the handheld widescreen lensing by Robbie Ryan, the work of production designer Christina Casali and the score by Harry Escott and Molly Nyman all neatly contrasting scorching-hot Sudan (actually shot in Kenya) and dark, wintertime London.
End titles suggest more than 5,000 girls in London currently suffer the same fate as Mende Nazar, whose life the film is based on.