When people get out of the pen, they usually want to start life over and do better than they did before. At least, that’s how popular movies seem to make of former prisoners. But what of people who just fall back onto old habits, in order to get something (or someone) lost to them? That’s the abstract premise of, “Hunter Gatherer”, starring Andre Royo and George Sample III, centering on a con-artist who just got out and is back to his old tricks in order to get back to his lost love and maybe get rich in the process. A simple premise that produces funny, affecting and even oft-kilter results, resulting in one of my first genuine movie-going joys of 2017 (yes, I know this movie was apparently released in 2016, but I got it late from a small movie theater in a rapidly gentrified neighborhood, so…yeah).
But your enjoyment of the film is going to depend on your tolerance of seeing scumbags get away with stuff, and of how likable the movies make scumbags seem. Andre Royo’s performance is one of absolute charm even at his character’s lowest moments. The movie opens with his character, Ashley, walking around in his robe and underwear while calling various people to invite them to the party (no one comes). Then we see him engage in a protrated plan after reluctantly doing chores for his mother, which leads to him running into Jeremy (played by George Sample III) and roping him into one convoluted scheme where he gets rich in the process…while also trying to reunite with a lost love (played by Ashley Wilkerson) who wants absolutely nothing to do with him. And…that’s kinda it, at first. As the plan gets bigger, Andre’s character is shown to have more than a few cracks: for example, it’s revealed that he’s illiterate, so he enlists the help of a third grade teacher to help him (whose help he later detracts).
Meanwhile, Jeremy has problems of his own, involving a sick and dying grandfather, and his survival turns out to be dependent on Ashley’s scheme succeeding. It all gets worse as Ashley’s entire scheme is exposed and falls apart. George Sample III brings a perceptive naitivety to his role, in that while he eventually goes along with Ashley’s plan, he does so with reluctance and even a bit of cleverness. There is a scene where Jeremy discusses with Ashley how he gets his money: by doing extensive medical testing involving magnetized patches attached to his skin, with Ashley rebuffing him and calling him a, “test tube baby”. Later on, Ashley sees Jeremy with multiple patches and decides to try one of them on, only to find himself unable to handle it. The two actors form a bond that is adversarial and also reciprocal, even though Ashley is the one pulling the strings most of the time, and their central relationship is both the heart and microcosm of the movie’s theme of getting into things one cannot get out off even if one wanted to.
Of course, being that this a black-centric movie set in Los Angeles, one can’t help but wonder if there is a larger, sociological point being made from all of this. The answer is that it’s kind of hard to say. Sure, we see dirty urban areas, but none of the characters are seen being completely unhappy. In fact, these characters go through stuff like any normal movie character goes through: anxiety about relationships, family, love and money. On one hand, it’s revelatory to see a movie with black folk that allows them to simply breathe, to not have to justify their very existence as explicit political props or as examples of, “Black Excellence” that our current civilization seems to demand black folks to be in order to even get a small bit of humanitarian comfort.
On the other hand, given that one’s very existence as a black person in said civilization is inherently a political act, one can be left wanting. Is Jeremy’s subplot of being a guinea pig by a medical corporation run by white folks, along with his struggle to save his grandfather, a sly point about the exploitation of lower class persons of color at the hands of the medical industry, or could it have used more time in the oven? Is Ashley a pitiful example of what uneducated black men have to resort to just to survive in America, or is he as full of shit as his mother suggests he is? In other words, there are multitudes, and then there are mere hints at something more. As much as the movie sucked me into the tiny world these characters inhabit, one can’t help but think about the wider contexts that make such a story possible. Plus, well, it’s set in Los Angeles, California. I mean, come on, making a movie set in that city without examining the political structure is like discussing the Rolling Stones without mentioning their blues music influences.
But that doesn’t take away from the goodness itself. If we are going to get a lot of movies featuring black characters that seem to be aimed at the Sundance/SXSW trendy festival goer set, I can only hope that they are at least as creative, funny and affecting as this. Definitely catch this one on DVD/Blu-Ray or streaming.
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