In his new Netflix series, Aziz Ansari presents a warm and comedic episode titled “Parents,” which has been praised for highlighting the experiences of immigrants and their American-born children. Indeed, it’s odd that there aren’t more stories like this, in an America where so many of us were born in another country, or are first generation citizens. Film and TV narratives that take on these elements are long overdue, which makes Takeshi Fukunaga’s feature directorial debut Out of My Hand (presented by Ava DuVernay’s film collective AFFRM) a welcome addition to what will hopefully become a large genre of similar, diasporic stories.
When we first meet Cisco (Bishop Blay in his first feature role), he is at work, extracting latex from a tree on a rubber plantation in his home in Liberia. Fukunaga’s lens takes its time here, as it does throughout the entire film, so that the audience can get a true sense of the world from which Cisco is coming, and the world to which he’s going. The director is in no rush to take us to America, introducing us to Cisco’s wife, children and fellow workers, who soon go on a strike over low wages and long (as in, sun-up to sundown) hours. The gorgeous cinematography (courtesy of the late Ryo Murakami, who tragically contracted malaria while working on the film) captures the beauty and, in some scenes, the desolation of Cisco’s home. Blay plays Cisco as equal parts brooding and loving: He’s a realist, but he still wants more out of life. While others fantasize about the living his cousin is making in America, he maintains that the so-called land of opportunity offers a life no less difficult than the one they lead in Liberia. Still, when his cousin returns for a visit, he finds himself applying for a visa and moving to New York to work as a cab driver.
Although there is plenty of interaction with other characters, Out of My Hand is really a portrait of one man and a journey that, oddly enough, seems to have little impact on his character. Although Blay is certainly capable of carrying the story, it would have been interesting to see some of the others—like his cousin, or his wife, or the man from his past who troubles him in New York—some heftier material. Ultimately, the point of this story is not to witness a change in Cisco as he transitions to life in America, but to see how there is a steadiness in his character and presentation, in spite of the transcontinental move. Cisco’s story is not one of stagnation, or of a stereotypical fish-out-of-water stubbornness: Fukunaga and Donari Braxton have written a man who protects his privacy at all costs, and the film—almost as if it were a documentary—seems to follows his lead, going so far as to veil a dark past from the audience. The idea, it seems, is to present a man who we are not quite able to categorize. At times he seems good, but there are powerful, brow-furrowing scenes that insist we do not know him fully, and may not get that satisfaction. As a result, Out of My Hand has a surprising thriller/mystery feel to it—a darkness reminiscent of the 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things, but with even less resolution in the end.
This is an apt reflection of the bigger, irreconcilable issues that are both subtly and ambiguously presented in Cisco’s tale. At the beginning of the film, we see his son wearing what are, to him, fancy American boy shoes—flip-flops, whose manufacturing journey began on a rubber plantation like the one on which his father works, barely able to feed his family. Later, the people of this village gather for Sunday church service, singing and shouting as a blue-eyed white Jesus looks down on them from the walls. Fukunaga offers no interpretation for these issues of capitalism and colonialism, nor does he provide a happy (or even, completely satisfactory) conclusion. The result is a compelling story whose lead character is presented in such a way that the so-called immigrant experience—though complex and unique—must also be read as, simply, human.
Director: Takeshi Fukunaga
Writers: Takeshi Fukunaga, Donari Braxton
Starring: Bishop Blay, Shelley Molad, Charles Justo, Timothy Laurel Harrison, Zenobia Kpoto, Duke Murphy Dennis
Release Date: November 13, 2015
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor and a film critic at Paste, as well as a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.