Needs a Wake-Up Call: ‘The Sleeping Negro’ – 2022 SF Indiefest Opening Night Film

©The Sleeping Negro 2021

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time”
– James Baldwin, 1961 radio interview

When the above quote showed up at the start of Skinner Myers’ The Sleeping Negro, the much-awake Negro writing this review must admit that his interest was piqued. When the opening shot of the film was a Steadicam single-take ending with our nameless protagonist in a mid-air slumber, I was paying complete attention. When said protagonist is (for lack of a better word) “haunted” by an identical person who flickers Tyler Durden-like for a few frames, I was hoping for nothing less than the best.

Alas, the 2022 Opening Night film of SF Indiefest can’t live up to its own lofty ambitions. It isn’t limited by budget, but by narrative direction: its writer/director/lead actor lacks the objectivity needed to iron out the wrinkles of his project – specifically, the way it quickly stops becoming a narrative and just becomes a mouthpiece for Myers; a mouthpiece that subverts itself with its own ending. It’s not the worst SF Indiefest film I’ve seen, but the ambitious promise of that opening is wiped away by the self-destructive ending (which I won’t spoil here).

Skinner Myers in The Sleeping Negro ©The Sleeping Negro 2021

One of the main problems is that although I don’t know the history of the film, it definitely has the feel of a short film stretched out to feature length. Indeed, it barely has enough narrative to sustain its brief 73-minute runtime. The “story”, such as it is, revolves around an unnamed Black man (Myers) who has just turned 35 years old. He lives comfortably on $6,000/month in one of those stone-floored factories-turned-lofts that are all the rage these days. He’s engaged to the pretty white cousin (Julie McNiven) of his boss (David Fumero). But, as he narrates to us, he feels himself “slipping away” as time goes on.

What follows next is a series of bridge-burning outbursts of Black rage in which our pushes away those closest to him because the weight of the White Man’s World is too much to bear. First, it’s an old friend (Nican Robinson), also Black, who’s become a Born Again Christian and MAGAsshole – our man’s reasons for dropping him should be obvious. Next, he ends his engagement when he pushes his fiancée to call him “nigger”. He then has a supposed epiphany in which his other self – clad all in black and wielding a pistol – forces our man to commit a form of suicide in order truly live his new “woke” existence.

Then all that goes to shit in the last 20 minutes.

Julie McNiven as “The Fiancée” with Skinner Myers in The Sleeping Negro ©The Sleeping Negro 2021

In more focused hands, The Sleeping Negro could and have been a short with all the power of the best feature-length dramas. The scene in which our man argues with MAGA-loving friend, who openly blames Black people for not picking themselves “up by the bootstraps”, is the film’s highlight because every word of it feels real: you believe these two have history and you believe each is invested in their world outlook. The scene with the fiancée feels less real because our man goes from being a character to a recited list of talking points Myers wanted to say aloud. Their argument could have been a good way to add character depth – the fiancée has an unacknowledged fetish for Black men, but our man is an unforgivable asshole in how he forces her to admit it – that instead becomes a straw person argument.

Had those two segments both been shortened and followed by the scene with the other self, it would have been a tight story about righteous anger manifesting physically after frustration caused so much damage mentally. If were determined to be feature-length, it would have done better to, at the very least, show the fallout of our man’s bridge-burning outbursts. In fact, it would have benefited well from someone throwing both his hypocrisy and his righteousness back at him – preferably, a Black woman.

But Myers’ talent is drowned out by his own pretention. His self-assuredness that he’s doing “a great thing” blinds him to the fact that he’s not doing it entirely well. He and his film squander their potential by reducing Black civil rights to a series of slogans and hashtags. It’s a disappointing turn for him as a storyteller and a lackluster start for SF Indiefest.

GRADE:                              C-

More info about The Sleeping Negro can be found on its official site.

Categories: Film

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