If a post-racial society is one in which we’ve passed all forms of bias, prejudice, and discrimination, what’s the opposite? You might call it “post-progressive”—when racial and ethnic groups are so diametrically opposed that any attempts at reconciliation or understanding have been permanently shelved, and all sides exist in a state somewhere between suspicion and outright animosity.
Detroit Unleaded, Rola Nashef’s film about a young gas station owner and attendant who dreams of escape, presents us with that kind of post-progressive culture, and the sad thing is that it’s far more realistic than any post-racial dream. In the ghettos of Detroit, somewhere south of 12-mile, he works at the run-down gas station his Lebanese father operated until being shot and killed in a robbery. Now Sami (EJ Assi) carries on the family business, with a mother who stays inside all day and talks to a portrait of her dead husband, and an entrepreneurial cousin, Mike (Mike Batayeh, an Arab Joe Pesci and by far the most charismatic actor in the film), who wants to expand the franchise across Detroit.
But underlying his life is the issue of race. The customers are almost exclusively black, and Sami stays inside his cage of bullet-proof glass. He and Mike lock and unlock doors with buttons, and the system is designed to keep them separated. Even when a long-time customer finds that there’s no coffee made, he knows he has to leave the gas station and wait outside while Sami comes out from behind the glass to brew a new pot. There can be no contact between black and brown.
Oddly, there’s very little commentary on this state of affairs. It’s mostly accepted as a necessary status quo by the characters and the filmmaker herself, and it makes both Sami’s world and the viewing experience very claustrophobic. He keeps a gun behind the counter (Chekhov would be disappointed, as it never gets fired), and others constantly warn him that three bullets could crack the glass, but this is life as usual in Detroit. In a way, it’s refreshing that Nashef chose to avoid any kind of cliché movement toward moments of racial harmony. In another, the lack of an attempt (minus a forgettable scene where Sami makes coffee with the long-time customer in the store) feels like the loss of hope. And maybe that’s appropriate in a depiction of America’s foremost symbol of hopelessness.
Sami falls in love with Naj (Nada Shouhayib), a beautiful fellow Lebanese-American who is at once innocent—she won’t kiss him—and also wise to the ways of the world. Her brother, Fadi (Steven Soro), is a domineering type who makes her look submissively at the ground when they argue, and he theoretically stands in the way of their budding relationship. But it’s a thinly constructed obstacle, and long parts of the movie are filled with the chaste and vaguely dull moments of courtship that take place inside Sami’s cage in lieu of actual dating.
Detroit Unleaded is described as a comedy, but there are very few moments that make you laugh. (An exception: When a girl from the suburbs gets lost in the hood and seeks directions at the gas station, Mike tells her to drive fast and not to stop at the red lights.) Mostly, you wonder if Sami will ever escape the dual yokes of the gas station and his mother, and then you wonder if you really care. There’s very little character development happening here, and their underlying psychological motivations remain ambiguous. The only signs of depth, oddly enough, come from the gas station itself; it’s treated as a living entity, and the film is at its best when it takes us inside the inner workings of what it means to run a place like that. If only Nashef had pulled off the same feat with the animate objects, the film might have been more than a curiosity.
Unfortunately, Detroit Unleaded is never quite thoughtful enough, either about the city itself or the people it portrays. Sami is squeezed in on all sides, but he’s far too comfortable with his existence. There’s no real anger and no real revolt, and when he finally makes his escape attempt, there are no stakes. Nashef’s film suffers from a lack of ambition; it’s a tepid comedy that lacked the insight to be a powerful drama.
Director: Rola Nashef
Writer: Rola Nashef, Jennifer Ginzinger, Heather Kolf
Starring: EJ Assi, Nada Shouhayib, Mike Batayeh
Release Date: Nov. 22, 2013 (limited)