Film Review: Harlem Aria

Entertaining debut film about a Harlem laundry worker who dreams of becoming a famous tenor.

Harlem Aria is a New York fable—about race and class, and a 28-year-old black man named Anton (Gabriel Casseus). A Harlem laundry worker, Anton is “slow” and child-like, and has lived with his aunt for most of his life. His secret ambition is to become a famous tenor.

Each night, Anton practices with the recordings of famous arias, but after he’s taunted by neighborhood boys for his sublime rendition of Pagliacci’s “Vesti la giubba,” he decides to run away from home. He sets out for Italy to learn opera, and to find his hero, tenor Fabiano Grazzi (Paul Sorvino). Dressed in an expensive tuxedo, Anton soon becomes the victim of a street hustler who swindles him out of the $183 that was to pay for his plane ticket.

Harlem Aria premiered at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival, received a smattering of openings abroad, and then was shelved after Viacom bought out the film’s domestic distributor. Writer-director William Jennings went on to become the head of a documentary program at Hofstra University and, like his protagonist, clung to his vision of himself as an artist. In his screenplay, Jennings obviously draws from his own experience in dramatizing the dilemmas that confront talented black men. And Anton’s aspirations are unusual—opera is, overwhelmingly, white. As the solitary man of color, even if he is a success, Anton will become an object of curiosity, held up by blacks as an example of achievement, and by whites as proof that racial differences do not exist. Other blacks will assess his “blackness,” and whites will measure his ability to “fit in.”

Anton eventually befriends Wes (Damon Wayans), the thief who stole his money, despite Wes’ needling that he’s not black enough, and that he prefers the company of Matthew (Christian Camargo), a white concert pianist and a victim of his own success. Matthew offers Anton a spot in his “street performances” in Washington Square Park. Both men exploit Anton by making money from his spirited, crowd-pleasing arias.

Matthew, whose girlfriend Julia (Kristen Wilson) is a world-renowned diva, has the means to help Anton but he doesn’t, and Wes continually points out Matthew’s racist attitudes in order to garner favor with Anton. The banter between Matthew and Wes, sometimes comic, sometimes biting, dramatizes Anton’s predicament, but also the lot of any successful artist in a society divided by class and race.

While Jennings has a gift for dialogue, the plot of Harlem Aria is uneven. How Anton made it from Harlem to Greenwich Village isn’t explained and, in order to keep his guy-flick perspective, Jennings pushes the women too far into the background. This presents a problem when Julia, absent for half the movie, arrives from a European tour.

Black men do not generally take to the road in American cinema, so Anton, despite the fact that he only gets downtown from Harlem, is a distinctive protagonist. He’s also a character out of American screwball comedy. There is a bit of Joel McCrea’s John L. Sullivan in Anton; the two share a certain nobility because their road trips are inspired by a conscious desire to improve themselves. In Sullivan’s Travels, a somewhat dull-witted Hollywood director sets out, against the advice of his associates, to experience poverty in order to craft socially relevant films. What he learns is that he already makes films which speak to the disenfranchised. In Anton’s case, the journey to Italy is about having the opportunity to study there, but his talent is already developed, and obvious to everyone who hears him. The road allows Anton to see the world more clearly, and it strengthens his resolve. In the end, Anton’s great soul also transforms Wes and Matthew.

It is rumored that Jennings made Harlem Aria for a few million dollars—and his economy of narrative is even more impressive. In just a few minutes, at the start of the film, he sketches Anton’s character with a wonderful tracking shot of the young man walking to work. There we see what Anton desires, but also what his aunt’s values saved him from, namely drugs and the other lures of street life. Overall, Harlem Aria is a skillfully edited, well-acted film.

Original music by two different composers, as well as heavenly Verdi and Puccini arias recorded with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, crowd the soundtrack, but their dissonance plays an important role. It exposes the bittersweet side of Anton’s future. Like Wes’ angry-black-man harangue throughout the film, the musical cacophony is a portrait of pathos, of “dreams deferred.” Anton’s “road” is a paved New York City street, but when the movie closes, he isn’t in Harlem anymore.