A Triptych of Trials, Tribulations, and Redemption: Movie Review of Gun Hill Road

In his first full feature film, writer and Director Rashaad Ernesto Green creates a tour de force in the poignant portrayal of Enrique, Angela, and Michael, a Bronx family on the mend.  Starring Esai Morales, Judy Reyes, and introducing Harmony Santana.  A Grand Jury Nominee at the 2011 Sundance Festival.  A film by SimonSays Entertainment.  Distributed by Motion Film Group.  In limited release in NYC and LA. 

Three Characters Joined and Distanced by Blood

Gun Hill Road is a film about trials, tribulation and redemption.  Within minutes we are thrust into a community and family welcoming home its prodigal son, and it is in this pivotal moment the lives of three family members begin to unfold. Enrique, a father and ex-con, attempts re-entry into a world and family who define him more by his absence than his present potential.  As husband and patriarch, he works arduously toward the reconciliation between past and present.  The mother, Angela, negotiates marriage and motherhood; despite her sacrifices both to make do with and make ends meet with scrapes of life offered, she pangs for her own happiness and completion.  Michael, the teenage son, seeks confirmation of his transgendered self within worlds that work relentlessly to objectify his outer beauty and extinguish his inner beauty.  The three have the best intentions to reunite, but each one’s resistant to being hurt again.  It won’t be easy, but each is resilient to press through harm into hope.

A Story of Contrast and Complexity

Director and writer Rashaad Ernesto Green creates a screenplay that steers away from clichés and stereotypes, instead constructing and vivifying characters with layered complexity.  The experiences of the characters with incarceration, transgenderism, masculinity, fatherhood, and infidelity are not treated as one-dimensional, but in nuanced relationship with each other.  Enrique’s time in jail haunts him even after he gets out, which manifests in both his challenge to again consummate his marriage and the unconventional means he employs to “bring his son around.”  Michael is a teenager struggling to balance his self-esteem and self assuredness.  He accepts who he is, and wants others to do the same.  His struggles for acceptance are detailed through poetic pleas for recognition during open mics, the give and take of one-sided relationships, the guardedness of the fraternity of his community, and the mirror he is both trying to find and resist within his father.   Angela’s sacrificial fidelity to institutions and relatives are juxtaposed by her love interest in Enrique’s absence, being sole provider within an economic and familial gap, and the unconditional promotion and protection of their son.  Green skillfully avoids insulting the audience by telling a story already told.  The film instead invites us into an authentic witnessing of the contemplation and work of three family members trying to gravitate toward individual and familial wholeness.  Brutal truths are relayed with unflinching transparency.

Green’s choice of storytelling in his first full feature film, complemented by its cinematography earns him kudos. His courageous storytelling is such that other filmmakers may be too reluctant to discuss.   Gun Hill Road was a finalist for the Jury Award at the 2011 Sundance Festival.  Melding one part memoir, one part journalism, one part documentary, with one part novel, Green bends and blends genres to create a fictitious masterpiece.  He skillfully mimics the gritty eloquent narration of “The Wire,” the journalistic feel of “Law and Order,” the familial realism of PBS’s “An American Family” with the unapologetic and blatantly beautiful truth-telling of Lee Daniel’s “Precious.”  Careful not to typecast, Green’s cinematic truism lies in his inventive work in sequencing the story so that it flows like a trilogy of three distinct narratives, yet harmonizes them to illustrate the portrait of a family.  In this novel movie, the Bronx is its own complex character, captured and depicted well by Gun Hill Road’s alleys and corners for marking identity and reclaiming one’s self, its’ congestion of buildings, the parks where people make and break relationships, serving as an oxymoronic mattress of rest, and even its brilliance in sunrise and twilight I fondly remember witnessing when growing up there in the 70s and 80s.

Getting Behind the Vision:  An Actor’s Just Due

The cast transcended acting well.  They brought to life characters so convincing they reminded me of the people I pass on my way to work in schools in the Bronx.  Veteran Judy Reyes and breakout actor Harmony Santana do hard work to convey with balance and integrity the vulnerable and resilient spirits of their characters without indulging caricature and stereotype.  The supporting cast complements their work, from the beatdowns to the buildups of the lead characters, with realism.  A special “shout out” has to go to Esai Morales, who as the main character and supporter of Green got behind the potential of this movie, and as an inexhaustible dynamo brought it to fruition.  A veteran actor who has garnered acclaim for working in several movies and television shows, and recognition as a self-defined “actorvist,” his talent is given full bloom and due justice in this film.  An actor who surgically brings out the grit and grim of Enrique, yet portrays his vulnerability and frustration with equal precision, Morales’s performance should receive the highest acclaim during award season.

Conclusion: Our Stories, Our Lives

Gun Hill Road is a must see movie.  As an audience member, I found myself intrigued and engrossed within minutes.  The movie unapologetically and unhesitatingly thrusts you into a world of mistakes, misguided intentions, and devotion.  Viewing this movie is an unflinching experience where Green, Morales, the cast, and The Bronx make you privy to the joys and pains of life.  It is a rare film that provides you intimate access to the inner workings of relationships:  those recoiled and renegotiated between family members, those individuals reconcile within themselves, and those carefully (and at times carelessly) brokered and navigated with the world.  The familial and personal skirmishes are not oversimplified.  They illustrate the workings of humans and spirits trying to come back to center.   The movie is one of contrasts, relentless in its confrontation of bitter hard truths and the beauty of life, while relaying both reverently and tastefully.

Spoiler alert: the movie does not dishonor or disrespect the audience with a conventional Hollywood story or ending.  It shows homage to life on an urban landscape, and delivers as such.

Gun Hill Road is currently in limited release in New York City and Los Angeles.  It’s important to support this film, so please spread the word.  We need to seem more films like this, with minority filmmakers who know how to tell their own stories.

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