Stand in the Place Where You Live
Max Nelson on Field Niggas and Tangerine
Some of the most energetic scenes in American independent cinema have been of people not doing much—loitering, lolling, posing and hanging out in the street. One tends to find them equally in documentaries, fiction films, and movies that seem to incorporate fictional elements with observational footage taken on the fly: the many shots of children lounging on stoops, dressing up in costume, or sprinting down the sidewalks of Spanish Harlem that fill James Agee, Helen Levitt, and Arthur Loeb’s In the Street; the conversations and diversions that lengthen Mookie’s pizza delivery route in the Bed-Stuy of Do the Right Thing; the baseball game among preteens in Brooklyn near the start of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s Little Fugitive. But no loitering scene can ever be truly fictional. Whatever other purpose they serve, these spontaneous street portraits are primarily about how people carry themselves, their postures and speech patterns, their ways of ambling and reclining, and the textures of the environments in which they move. They act as solvents on character and plot, loosening the ties that hold the elements of a fiction movie together, making room for moments in which people can play, relax, mug for the camera, and put a hold on their duties to a narrative.
Let in too many scenes of loitering and hanging out into your movie, and the film’s structure might thin to the point of dissolving. Fiction filmmakers often seem to police their films with what amount to cinematic loitering laws—to see characters who hang out in the street less as harmless passive presences than as threats to their movies’ active, ongoing circulation. For certain nonfiction filmmakers, loitering scenes are easier to justify. They can be treated as observational data, illustrations of how specific people occupy a place. But they are still risky elements for a movie, in part because they can only be filmed in populated outdoor urban settings on which traffic and passersby intrude. It’s particularly refreshing when an American director chooses—as the New York-born filmmakers Sean Baker and Khalik Allah have both recently done—to take street loitering seriously rather than suppress it, and to let a movie’s plot and characters emerge from the chance encounters and unexpected collisions streets allow.
Allah and Baker both devoted their most recent films to figures vulnerable to criminal loitering charges, and in both movies the police are a palpable, hovering threat. A still photographer and member of the Five Percent Nation, the religious group that originated from the Nation of Islam in Harlem during the mid-sixties, Allah compiled his first feature documentary Field Niggas (2015) from footage he’d taken of the men and women who congregate at night on the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York. Some are homeless; others, many of whom live in the neighborhood or the nearby South Bronx, make a point of clarifying that they hang out on this corner in East Harlem out of choice rather than need.
One man—none of the movie’s characters are identified—candidly confesses that he’ll rob whomever he finds sleeping with money in his or her pocket. Another, a young woman, brings her two children, who mug for the camera in some of the movie’s liveliest, lightest moments. In the voiceover track that lasts the entire film—a chorus of voices that often doesn’t correspond to the faces onscreen—two men reflect on their time in prison, while several others rue their dependency on K2, the dangerous synthetic they smoke to avoid being caught with marijuana. Allah takes care to intersperse these speeches and conversations with sterner, less casual shots of the police themselves, who are among the movie’s few white subjects. But his allegiance rests with those who belong to the group Malcolm X identified in the speech that gives Allah’s film its title: the “field Negros” who, in contrast to the comforts the “house Negros” enjoyed, “lived in huts, had nothing to lose. They wore the worst kind of clothes. They ate the worst food. And they caught hell. They felt the sting of the lash. They hated their master. Oh yes, they did. If the master got sick, they'd pray that the master died.”
The NYPD officers Allah films stare him down suspiciously, as if his camera’s presence had put their authority under threat. The rest of Allah’s subjects are less inhibited. They preen and pose, explain their tattoos, scars, and, in one man’s case, a skin condition, smoke, and languidly encircle the block’s storefronts, often in slow motion and in step with the snippets of rap, electronica, and gospel music on the film’s soundtrack. This is loitering imagined as a sustained, dancelike performance, made riskier and subject to greater pressures and threats by the way the police seem to orbit suspiciously around the periphery of the space the film covers.
Field Niggas suggests the visual and dramatic advantages of treating street-side loitering as a movie’s primary subject rather than a sprinkling of local color. Allah, who also edited the film, gives it a kind of distended, stretched-out sense of time in spite of its brief shot lengths and frequent cuts. He gracefully establishes the layout of the block, then distorts it; traffic lights, storefronts, and street signs that seem close at hand in one shot get lost in a blur of headlights and human movement in the next. Allah needs the freedom to lavish attention on the way people move in space. It would disrupt the movie’s rhythm and betray the trust between Allah and his subjects if there were dramatic devices in Field Niggas shuttling the film along or rebuking the characters for wasting time. “We got a lot of faith in what you doing,” one man tells Allah.
You see, we’re helping you; we don’t help nobody else. They can’t take no pictures. Cause everybody think we shitty anyway. When they walk past they think, oh, we bums. I got house keys in my pocket . . . This is my neighborhood; this is my zip code. But people misconstrue and stereotype you. “Oh, he’s a bum; he’s a crackhead; he’s a dope fiend, ‘cause he spends all night outside.” That’s a misconception that a lot of people have.
Considering the way it loiters along with its characters—in the rhythms of its cuts and the drift of its images—Field Niggas is in a good position to dispel that misconception. In fact, Allah’s film is only frustrating or inadequate when it doesn’t loiter enough. Allah has good reason not to include his characters’ names. But why so rarely indicate who’s responsible for the speeches we hear? When we hear a character insist “this is my zip code,” it’s natural to wonder whether the speaker is the tall young man we see playfully extending his arm to a woman his age during the first half of the speech; or the wide-eyed mustachioed man to whom Allah cuts immediately thereafter; or the middle-aged man with a rare skin disorder who enters the frame after that; or whether he appears onscreen at all. Refusing to attribute the movie’s recorded speech seems to me a missed opportunity on Allah’s part to more clearly realize his subjects. It’s as if the long hangout sessions the film records have been overlaid with a fabric of sound disconnected from the bearings and presences of the people onscreen—the kinds of bearings and presences that documentaries about loitering have an especially wide berth to capture.
Midway through Tangerine (2015), the second of Sean Baker’s fiction features to center on sex workers in Southern California, after his 2011 drama Starlet, a stern LAPD officer rebukes a black trans woman caught in a tussle with a white, middle-aged husband who refused to pay her for the sexual favors she’s just reluctantly given him. The encounter ends in a humiliating reprieve. Calling Alexandra (Mya Taylor) by her male name, the officer makes a show of letting her off, with a tolerant sigh, “because it’s Christmas.”
That scene can be taken as a sign that, although the movie’s characters often allude to arrests, fines, and imprisonments, the police in Tangerine will be a bullying and threatening but mostly passive presence. For the length of the movie, no arrests will be made nor time served. No holds will be placed on Alexandra’s movements, or on those of her more reckless, impulsive best friend Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), who spends much of this frantic, buzzing film tearing across downtown L.A. to confront the pimp who cheated on her during her recent prison stint with another of his girls. Finding the young woman in question—white, straight, and significantly less dignified than she is—at one of the motel rooms the city’s older men frequent as brothels, she drags her back across town to the all-night donut shop her pimp uses as a base of operations. Tangerine makes you wonder to what extent a fiction film can let its central characters loiter and show off without registering them under the jurisdiction of a plot. How many irrelevancies, digressions and improvisations can be crammed into a fiction film? What provisions does a fiction filmmaker need to make to maximize the time that a movie can spend loitering or in transit?
Baker is forty-five—more than a dozen years older than Allah—and grew up in suburban New York, but he shares with Allah an ability to integrate without condescension into subcultures that are often closed to outside observers. He and his regular cinematographer Radium Cheung shot Tangerine on a handful of iPhones outfitted with Steadicams and additional sound recording equipment, which gave them relative freedom to follow the boisterous improvisations of their two leads. Most of the film’s cast consisted of professional actors who had appeared in Baker’s previous movies, but Rodriguez and Taylor were both L.A.-based sex workers when Baker met them in 2014 and convinced them to act in a film based on their lives. It was Taylor, Baker insisted in an interview with Film Comment, who pushed the film’s tone into the broadly comic, screwball register it eventually assumed: “If you just make a heartstrings thing,” she told him, “where it’s all doom and gloom, then I won’t want to watch this.”
In the same interview, Baker remembered telling his two stars that he “didn’t have anything” except the vague sketch of a plot that would take place in one day. Even that, he claimed, was only to cut costs. But Tangerine does, in fact, have a plot developed enough to make demands on the rest of the movie. In addition to the revenge story that keeps hustling along the film’s action, there is a secondary narrative involving an Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who leaves his family at home on Christmas Eve to pursue Sin-Dee and Alexandra across the city, as well as a tertiary plot centered on Alexandra’s campaign to recruit her friends to come to her cabaret show the same night.
Characters accumulate—the driver’s tolerant wife and his irate mother-in-law; the miserable woman Sin-Dee abducts to bring back to her pimp like a war trophy; the various, mostly grotesque johns that enter the movie and leave it once they’ve served their illustrative purpose—and weigh the movie down with dramatic obligations. From the film’s first scene, in which Alexandra accidentally alerts Sin-Dee of her pimp’s infidelity, it’s established that Sin-Dee will spend the movie plowing ahead of her reserved friend, hectoring her coworkers for news (the word “bitch” occurs in Tangerine like punctuation, used both aggressively and lovingly), while Alexandra hangs back and politely passes out fliers for her performance. The movie feels similarly split between two impulses: Baker’s inclination to let the film’s lead performers linger and loiter and goof off is always being checked or opposed by an equally strong need to arrive at some kind of successful dramatic resolution.
These are characters unable to loiter in any one place for too long. Much attention is given to the calculations these sex workers have to make: where it’s safest to stop in a customer’s car; where in the motel the “party room” has been set up this week; in which bathrooms you can safely take a hit from a crack pipe. In one of the film’s most relaxed sequences, Razmik goes down on Alexandra in the front seat of his cab while the vehicle moves through a car wash, reducing the windshield to a swirling pattern of colored light and the soundtrack to the suggestive thrusts of brushes against metal. (Even that moment, however, is made to seem like stolen time; barely have they finished before the car emerges from the wash and they have to straighten back up.) In daylight hours, openly circulating in the street can be a risk, and staying in motion can be a kind of self-defense. It can also be a thrill. Some of the most exhilarating shots in Tangerine are of Sin-Dee strutting down open sidewalks relishing the sexiness in taking confident possession of a public space.
The nasty punchline of Tangerine is that, for Sin-Dee, all this busy forward movement ends in an anticlimax. It takes her to a confrontation with Chester (James Ransone), the dim-witted, amateurish, self-styled gangster for whom she’s been exerting herself across town, and to a chaotic showdown in which all the movie’s major characters, including Razmik’s family, converge on Donut Time. (This setup suggests a screwball comedy like His Girl Friday, including the enraged mother-in-law who needs to be forcibly carried away.) Immediately after that hectic sequence, a rowdy group of passengers in a passing car—another disruptive force from the street—make Sin-Dee the victim of an arbitrary hate crime. She ends up at a laundromat with Alexandra putting her wig through the wash, her forward movement arrested for the kind of tender hangout moment she’s spent the film avoiding.
Baker’s movie might be too tightly plotted a comedy for its “documentary” aspects to fully emerge; it’s too concerned with maintaining its breakneck forward momentum to show its characters doing something as dramatically inert as loitering or staying still. And yet you imagine that the actors with whom Baker worked on Tangerine wouldn’t have felt comfortable hanging out lazily even if the film’s plot had given them the space to do so. By circumstance or temperament or a combination of both, they’re locked into threatened, constant movement. In the case of these subjects, Baker’s duties as a fiction filmmaker—to keep the plot moving, to develop characters briskly—would happily align with the responsibilities he would have as a documentarian, to show his subjects carrying themselves at their accustomed pace and tempo.
Early in Tangerine, Baker films Sin-Dee sitting at a bus stop in extreme agitation for more than thirty seconds. In a sequence of cramped, claustrophobic tight shots, we see her smoking and peering around anxiously to the unlikely accompaniment of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. When she mutters “fuck it” and storms off the bench to the sudden intrusion of a raucous electronica song, it might be the film’s way of recovering from a hiccup in its dramatic movement—a kind of hiccup that Field Niggas, with its drifting rhythm, its thin dramatic structure, and its many pockets of space, can accommodate more naturally. But it might just as well be that, like many of the subjects in Allah’s movie, she was fed up with sitting still.