As recently as the 1960s, cinema featuring interracial love stories faced boycotts and banning in parts of the United States. Despite such opposition, filmmakers persisted in developing storylines with interracial couples. Today, interracial romances are commonly depicted on the small and big screen alike. However, these movies continue to use the trials and tribulations of racially mixed lovers as a platform to challenge racial constructs and racism generally.
Set in 1993, writer/director Peter Lee's 'Angelfish' follows Brendan (Jimi Stanton), a high school dropout who works at a deli in the Bronx to support his aimless younger brother, Connor (Stanley Simons), and New York's worst mother, the alcoholic Mary (Erin Davie, playing a borderline caricature). While Mary stays out late at dive bars, kicks the boys out of the apartment so she can bring home random blokes, and shirks all parental responsibility, Brendan tries to keep his brother away from the neighbourhood delinquents chugging beer on the street corner, the ones who may land Connor in prison.
One day at work, he notices Eva (Destiny Frasqueri a.k.a. Princess Nokia, in her on-screen debut) as she's being pestered by a Latin American creeper. "Look at this gringo," her unwanted admirer sneers at Brendan. After another chance encounter at the cinema, Brendan tries to get her attention again, and this time it sticks. While not the smoothest cat, the dude is persistent.
Eva has her own dramas back home. Although her family life is stable, she's dealing with guilt trips from her Puerto Rican mum, Altagracia (Rosie Berrido), who wants her daughter to go to college and become an accountant, even though Eva wants to pursue acting. Her mum also relies on her to help look after Eva's disabled brother, Julio, and much younger sister.
As their romance continues to grow, the couple faces challenges from those around them: Eva's friends question why Brendan can't get a white girl, Brendan's mother thinks Eva is only after her son's meagre earnings and talks about her in a denigrating manner, Connor gets in deeper with the wrong crowd, and Altagracia has a Puerto Rican suitor in mind for Eva, even though she's not interested in a guy who may or may not be talking to other girls behind her back.
Neither Eva nor Brendan has it easy, although their relationship never encounters the levels of societal hostility of, say, Spike Lee's 'Jungle Fever'. But among all the demands on their emotions, can these two kids still find time and space for each other? What follows is a low-key personal drama, as the two stories of their lives run parallel to each other like train tracks.
Lee keeps many of his shots of the actors close, enhancing the feeling of cramped apartments and the sense that the characters are trapped in their lives. But when Brendan and Eva are together, there's a lot of walking and talking outdoors - this is 1993, pre-internet, social media or smartphones. We get to know the pair as they travel across the north side of New York, Kingsbridge and Marble Hill, through the parks, bridges, bodega-lined streets, weathered old brick buildings and the elevated train stations.
When Brendan and Eva are together, there's a lot of walking and talking outdoors - this is 1993, before the internet, social media or smartphones.
The performances of the young central cast feel fresh. Stanton, handsome but appropriately weathered, is impressive as Brendan. Although the character is underwritten (not only does he seem to have no faults but also no friends?), Stanton's performance and physicality convey the sense of a boy forced into manhood too soon. He's supportive of Eva's creative ambitions (he encourages her to sign up to audition for a play), which is something she doesn't find at home. As Eva, Princess Nokia plays her character with a large degree of naturalism - she's smart, quieter than her friends, but still steely enough to shrug off any bullying from Brendan's mother. To be frank, Princess Nokia turns in the best performance from a rapper/R&B-singer-turned-first-time-actress that I've seen in a film since T-Boz in Hype William's 'Belly' way back in 1998. Not only does the dialogue between the two leads in 'Angelfish' sound believable, but the acting conveys a range of moods and subtleties, a study in working-class characters trying, succeeding, or failing at keeping their lives together.
Although it's less ambitious in scope and message than similar star-crossed lovers films like Anthony Drazan's 'Zebrahead', Lee's low-budget film is also far gentler and succeeds as a thoughtful look at an urban interracial romance. As a first film, 'Angelfish' is quite remarkable, and certainly Lee and his impressive young cast are people to watch for in the future.