Review by Daniel Lima
The line between a genuine portrayal of emotional honesty and heavy-handed “tell, don’t show” storytelling can be very faint. African Giants, the directorial debut of Omar Kamara, attempts to stay on the right side of that divide, delving into the unique contours of the relationship between two brothers. While it is not entirely successful, it does manage to strike some poignant notes with enviable clarity.
Dillon Daniel Mutyaba and Omete Anassi star as the two brothers, first-generation Sierra Leonean Americans. Mutyaba, the elder, is a driven and charismatic man in his late twenties, looking for his big break as an actor in Los Angeles. Anassi, far meeker and more passive, has just finished his first year of law school and has come to visit his brother for a weekend. They hang out, argue, reflect on who they are as black men and immigrants, and reveal themselves in ways that one only can with family.
Much of this film rides on the performances of Mutyaba and Anassi, and they are fortunately up to the task. The brothers have an obvious dichotomy, but rather than leaning into their different personalities to the point that they become caricatures, the leads find unspoken nuances that go beyond what is written. That they have such an easy chemistry certainly helps; one would be forgiven in assuming that the two are also brothers in real life. The naturalism they bring to their roles creates a whole history that extends beyond the screen and goes a long way in making their conversations feel organic.
Sometimes, that’s simple enough. The pair have insecurities and tumultuous parts of their lives that neither is in a hurry to litigate, even though they share an understanding that should, on paper, make them each other’s best confidante. Mutyaba puts on a brave face about his struggle as an actor and is estranged from his father for several reasons; Anassi is envious of his brother’s seemingly effortless charm and is unsure that he wants to pursue law. The tensions between them lead to a number of confrontations that run the gamut in intensity, and these are the moments the film is at its best. These aren’t merely contrived conflicts engineered by a hack screenwriter; they are the natural result of who these people are and the circumstances that have brought them there.
The same cannot be said for when the film gets didactic. Kamara is himself a Sierra Leonean American, and it’s clear that this film comes from a very personal place. There is a clear desire to grapple with the cultural identity of being a first-generation American, particularly as a Black man from Africa, even more particularly from Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, this is explored in a decidedly blunt fashion, with the brothers rehashing how they were treated as children in American schools, how African culture is treated within American culture, how distant they feel from their African roots, whether they are bad Muslims, and more.
On the one hand, these conversations do happen. As a child of immigrants, I’ve certainly found myself having many a talk with friends who are also children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves, about how our identities have complicated our relationship with the world around us. It’s not unusual to imagine two family members of a similar age having these open dialogues. However, next to the remarkably lived-in moments the duo share, within the decidedly conventional visual style of the film, these broad chats reduce the characters to mouthpieces of the filmmaker — clumsily exploring contentious parts of his own upbringing.
Despite that, the cultural specificity of African Giants does set it apart from a sea of similar dialogue-driven indie debuts. Beyond the obvious addressing of an experience that isn’t often represented, it provides the two leads with a solid, idiosyncratic foundation to root their powerful performances. Hopefully, Kamara will be able to draw on his own experiences to even greater effect in the future.
African Giants screened at the 2024 Slamdance Film Festival, which ran from January 19-25 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 22-28.