PRINCE OF BROADWAY 4 stars
Elephant Eye Films, Unrated
Movies that tread on unfamiliar turf, delving into other cultures or social classes, tend to just not get it. In the case of movies about struggling working stiffs, especially nonwhites and immigrants, they narrow down characters into two stereotypical groups—sinners or saints. Until hi-tech moviemaking tools are readily available to the bottom-of-the-food-chain folks these films are about, any improvement in their social and cultural representations is in doubt.
So it’s truly fortunate that directors like Sean Baker and his stunning Prince of Broadway exist. Baker is one of only a few behind-the-camera minds who don’t see the economically and racially diverse world before them in mere black and white, or as personalities stripped of their surrounding historical moment, but rather a complex and more difficult-to-depict social palette unraveling before their eyes in multiple shades of gray as both sinner and saint.
Following his devastating dramatic portrait of an exploited undocumented Chinese deliver man in Take Out, Baker switches focus to African illegals hustling for a meager subsistence in the black market wholesale fashion section of Manhattan, in the downtown shadow of the garment district. More than just an insular spotlight on a particular immigrant community, Baker, as with Take Out, spins a contentious, emotional collage of a microcosm of humanity, as the restless ethnic communities that define New York City butt heads while negotiating the problematic journey of daily survival.
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Prince Adu is Lucky—in name only—a boisterous, young illegal from Ghana who finds a job of sorts hustling strangers on the street and luring them into the back room of a store to buy fake designer footwear and clothing. The business is owned by Levon (Karren Karagulian), a friendly, prosperous street-smart Armenian-Lebanese shopkeeper and himself an immigrant, who has entered into a green card marriage with a much younger woman where he traumatically mistakes a financial transaction for love.
Relatively comfortable with his bare bones existence as he optimistically stashes away his meager wages for a future education and gets involved with a loving girlfriend, Lucky finds himself a sudden supposed baby daddy when a Puerto Rican teen he barely remembers (Kat Sanchez) dumps her rowdy toddler (Aiden Noesi) on his doorstep and disappears. The scenes between Lucky—a freaked out, free-spirit with a serious allergy to fatherhood—and his nameless toddler—an irresistible miniature menace seemingly determined to make his life as miserable as possible—are a bittersweet joy to behold. As their bond begins to grow, it’s constantly challenged by betrayals, police raids and repugnant diaper duty. It leads to a frantic, radically nontraditional ghetto notion of family, where matching DNA hardly seems to matter—as the painfully ambivalent Lucky puts it, “I didn’t want to give him up because my father was always there for me, and I put him through hell.”
Prince of Broadway spins a gritty, soulful tale touching on the American Dream that self-destructs as callous fantasy. It could not feel more real, simply because Baker—as an outsider—allows his actors to spontaneously portray themselves, as to how and what they have to say. Baker’s hands-off approach, rather than forcing preconceived ideas in a sort of this-is-what’s-on-your-mind style of directing, lets the movie shine.