Movie: Yeelen (Brightness)
Director: Souleymane Cissé
Format: Streaming on MUBI
Yeelen is something I’ve never seen, a Malian superhero origin story. Set in an undefined time, some contextual dialogue gives us a clue that it was sometime prior to European colonization. Nianankoro is a young West African man with magical powers. He can take the bone from a horse’s leg, tie it up with some colorful string, pound it into an ant hill and give a couple of spits (like your superstitious grandma) and he unleashes bees and fire on his king’s enemies. Nianankoro comes from a long line of magical people who are sort of the Merlins of their time and region. But there is a problem. Nianankoro’s father is a powerful wizard, too. And he uses his powers for evil. He’s on a quest to kill his son. He does this by having two unfortunate dudes carry around a long pole covered in cloth while he implores his deity to help him find his son. The pole is a sort of divining rod that drags the two guys around.
Of course, there’s a final confrontation between the father and son. I won’t spoil it, even though no one will probably ever see it. However, if you have patience, the movie is quite rewarding. It’s slow and quiet and populated with obviously amateur actors. It’s a chase movie, but maybe the slowest chase movie ever. Though it’s obviously a low-budget affair, Cissé brings a professional’s eye to the game. There are long, slow dolly shots and intricately blocked scenes that you rarely see at this level. There’s no real budget for any FX shots, so those are pretty cheap-looking and leave much to the imagination. As slow as it was, it was worth every minute for two scenes. One, an older “shaman” tells the prophecy of oncoming slavery that will destroy the people and land. That was a gut punch, because up until that time this whole thing seemed to be set is a fantasy world. The other scene is the final, simple scene of a young boy retrieving his legacy and setting out to fulfill his destiny.