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My Name is Myeisha
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by Jay Seaver

"Tries to stretch a few minutes into a movie, and can you blame it?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL XX: It's a challenge to build a feature-length film around a specific, brief incident; the options generally seem to be providing enough background to lead up to it (and risk swallowing the important moment) and pointedly attacking it from different perspectives in a way that risks making the audience numb to the moment. "My Name Is Myeisha" tries to do a little of both, and there's no doubt that, by the end, the audience can feel the filmmakers stretching, although many will find themselves not exactly begrudging it that extension.

The incident in question (or at least, the fictionalized version presented here) takes place on 28 December 1998, the third day of Kwanzaa, which 19-year-old Myeisha Jackson (Rhaechyl Walker) figures is kind of a fake holiday. After dinner, she, her cousin Roni (Dominique Toney), and their friend Kai (Dee Dee Stephens) decide to head into Los Angeles to hit a club, but about halfway there from their home in the Inland Empire, their car gets a flat tire. Kai and Roni step away to find help, while Myeisha stays with the car, keeping her aunt's gun on her lap to discourage anyone trying to make trouble. She passes out, and when "help" comes, there's a chance for one heck of a misunderstanding on the part of responding officer Garland (John Merchant).

What Gus Krieger's film (and the Rickerby Hinds play upon which it is based) posits is that, while Myeisha may not be conscious, she is at least partly aware of her surroundings, breaking the fourth wall to describe it as "one of those dreams" where the waking world seems within reach but she is unable to move or break free. It's a choice that allows her to free-associate, make observations about her life and those of African-Americans in general, recounting memories that may or may not have any sort of direct bearing on the present situation, and speculating on what this looks like from others' points of view. That sort of loose structure can sometimes be too much freedom for a filmmaker to have, and there are moments when Krieger seems a bit too ready to range fairly far afield - it's not always an easy transition from a scene of Myeisha frozen behind the wheel of the car, describing her terror, and her standing on a bare stage, mentally debating whether she prefers Denzel Washington or Wesley Snipes, or telling the audience about her cousin who just can't do anything without injuring himself.

No matter what Myeisha's train of thought may be at the moment, it's generally interesting because Myeisha is the one articulating it. She's built with enough specific characteristics that the audience can form a picture of her life without any trouble at all, and Rhaechyl Walker does a great job of highighting her youthful, brash personality, delivering her monologues with a wit that is assured and propulsive despite maybe not being fully formed, and when she's scared, there's two sides to it: the part of her mind that recognizes a dangerous situation and the part that doesn't understand it at all.

Walker isn't quite in every scene, but Krieger is careful to make sure that the audience never loses track of this being her perspective. Consider, for instance, how he uses John Merchant, who played every male character in the original stage play but takes on a subset of that here. He's often charged with giving the "official" version of what happened, often delivered in a stern, guilty monotone, but also interrupted by beatboxing which restarts the line reading. It feels like static in retrospect, a broadcast that Myeisha's mind can't quite receive or process. It's one of many elements that are presented as coming from a perspective that can't truly know everything but still doesn't break the environment Krieger has created.

A bit of fatigue does emerge by the end; the viewer can feel the filmmakers trying to stretch what amounts to seconds out, but at a certain point, he or she can't really blame them. It's easy to like Myeisha and think she deserves a few more minutes, and isn't that the point of the whole thing?

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originally posted: 03/28/18 11:43:59
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