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Austin Film Festival: Summer of Violence (2023) Review

Nicki Micheaux’s latest offering sets us barely a year after the Rodney King uprising sparked nationwide conversations about police brutality and systemic racism. Using expressive cinematography to frame some fantastic acting, the debuting director centers her lens on Naomi. It’s the summer of 1993, and she’s about to learn about the power of poetry while discovering her sense of self and social consciousness. Combating gang violence with her fragile community of dreamers, Naomi defies her parents’ wishes for her future to discover a dream all her own. It’s a tone poem that I can only describe as boldly delicate in its treatment of character and story, eschewing melodrama to give slices of life that are hauntingly warm.

In my conversation with Micheaux, she mentioned how the entire film lives and dies on the actors’ performances; and while I plan to speak about the great acting, I actually think she was being a bit too humble. Even the best thespians can’t make up for a lackluster script, and thankfully these actors didn’t have to. What I appreciated most about the writing is how complex everyone’s character is. Even Naomi’s white boyfriend, Richie, feels like he’s playing the social role society conditioned him for more than being genuinely malicious. That sense of being defined by everyone but yourself feels like the real core of this movie. Understanding the boxes society places us in is the first step to breaking free, to reaching for something higher. It made me think of all the social constructs I’m complicit in and how I can challenge those structures. What’s most impressive is how the visuals reflect this thematic importance while showing Naomi’s personal growth.

Most of the shots are framed in a boxy aspect ratio, reflecting the barriers placed around of these characters; only at the end, as Naomi finally reaches California, does the image expand to encompass most of the screen. As if to place us in her perspective, a lot of the lighting here is soft, creating an almost daydream quality. Alternating between natural light and wildly expressive pops of color, the visual language in this movie is intimately tied to our sense of character. Cinematographer Ben Kitchens grounds us in a sense of place while spinning images so beautiful they help audiences see that, despite all the ugliness in the world, there’s still so much to appreciate.

Human connection, friendship, and family feel like north stars for this film’s moral compass. Micheaux never shies away from how difficult it can be to find a purpose in a world so bent on destruction; but in the creative process, in organizing beside your fellow humans, she finds a way to show how, despite it all, life is such a delicate gift. The best way to use that gift is to try and make the world a better place, to connect with people and express yourself. I’m glad to have seen this movie, and urge you to keep an eye out for it! If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more! I'll be posting more interviews and reviews from AFF this week, so there's never been a better time to join!

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