Episode 1-4 score- 4/5
Alonge Hawes proves that he’s no one trick pony in this insightful and honest portrayal of black identity in today’s America
Alonge Hawes seems to be nothing if not ambitious. His previous work, the web series Blue Collar Hustle; was about as successful as one could hope from a debut indie series. Critically acclaimed (the review site Indyred awarded its second season 4.5 out of 5 stars) multiple award winner, and picked up by many fledgling streaming platforms such as Seeka.tv, KweliTV, and Goindietv; Blue Collar Hustle seemed to possess all the stylings of a multiple season run. When the announcement was made that Seeka.TV had entered into a production agreement to produce more content from Alonge, many assumed that Blue Collar Hustle would be a part of that plan. Instead, Alonge went left and created an entirely new series, titled ‘Black On Both Sides’, of which for months there was little more than a few conceptual teasers (featuring Alonge’s nameless character and other young black people duck-taped at the mouth and shackled by handcuffs) and a vague press release from Seeka.TV that the series would “explore themes of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Pan-Africanism, and the ever evolving meaning of blackness in a post-Obama America”. No trailers, no interviews, no bread and circuses.
Besides a world premiere of the first episode at this year’s Minnesota Webfest, no footage had been made available, and now on the day of that first episode’s release to the general public via Seeka.TV (of which i’m told that the first season will be an exclusive of the platform) I was presented with the series first four episodes to watch and review. The episodes themselves are told in “Chapters”, and each chapter is titled after a famous novel written by a black author (i.e. Episode, or”chapter 1” if you will, is titled ‘The Spook Who Sat By The Door’ after the Sam Greenlea tome) and each episode follows some thematic element of the particular book’s title. After writing, starring, and serving as show-runner for Blue Collar Hustle; Hawes re-enacts all three roles for this series, adding on the responsibility of director (He is credited with directing the four episodes I viewed and is confirmed as director of all 8 episodes) giving the episodes a unified feeling of singular vision. Many of the cast members from Blue Collar Hustle pop up for roles in Black On Both Sides, but instead of seeming gimmicky or cheap, I found that the actors really made an effort to differentiate their roles and add an element of depth to the characters that might not have been present in the previous series. Amongst them is Julian Robinson, who really finds gravitas and meaning in a series co-starring role. The writing and characters are the best thing that this series has going for it so far. From the onset, Black On Both Sides has some serious topics that Hawes wants to explore. The premise of the series is that Hawes’s character (named Anansi, after the African trickster God) is attempting to ingratiate himself into the upper hierarchy at his job. He speaks proper, or “white” as some might say; going so far as to practice his tone and speech patterns before a big interview so as to sound note-perfectly vanilla in his delivery. He smiles, laughs at his boss’s corny jokes, and casually brushes aside the indirect racism of every white character’s unwillingness to pronounce his name (He is nicknamed “Andy” by his white co-workers) He is intelligent and perceptive, but quick to remind his bosses that he is there to “serve” them and the interests of the company. He is in effect, every bootlicking, tap dancing, wide eyed corporate climber that gives the rest of us black folks horrible mental images of the Amos ‘N Andy era.
And yet not all is at it seems. To avoid spoilers, I won’t go in to too much detail, but Anansi is not as he presents himself. He and his team of young black co-workers including his happy go lucky, anime loving cousin (Shani Hawes) Sarcastic, pro-black friend Henry Gill Scott Heron (Julian Robinson) and overworked, unamused new employee Maya Patterson (Kiara Woods) are all banded together to give the corporate entity that overworks, underpays, and under-appreciates them a taste of their own medicine. Along the way we get to spend time with each of these characters and get a glimpse into what makes them representative of the African American experience. Themes such as black health (one character deals with the ramifications of Sickle Cell) identity, culture, and upbringing are explored in some shape or form across these episodes. And I am happy to say that mostly, it is a satisfying experience. There are some cinematic choices between Hawes and Cinematographer Jairus Burks, that I found both appealing and distractive. For example, in episode “Chapter 2”, during a character’s flashback, there is a delightful usage of special effects to convey what black love looks and feels like. Experimentation such as this really enhances the episode. However, in “Chapter 3”, what should have been one of the more emotional and meaningful episodes is distractingly offset by the placement and construction of shots. The camera is placed squarely in a “close up” position on every characters face, making many scenes feel claustrophobic and devoid of human interaction, which I found a weird choice as two characters who are supposedly having a meaningful conversation are not both in the same shot, robbing us of the reactions. Everything comes together in “Chapter 4”, where the entire cast get to shine; but as I said before, it is Julian Robinson who mines raw emotion out of the tragic backstory of Henry. The secondary actors, including Lasada Lloyd as Anansi’s fierce and beautiful love interest, Scott Piehler as Anansi’s smugly charming and arrogant boss, and Quentin Williams and Roberto Cruz as a pair of not-so-nice loan sharks; all help to make the ensemble rich and interesting. I found it both ironic and impressive, that after playing such close knit friends on Blue Collar Hustle, that Cruz and Williams could so convincingly portray villains that harass and demean Hawes’s character, call it a testament to this group’s overall talent.
Overall I am very happy with the potential of Black On Both Sides premise. The series overall mystery of Anansi’s “true” motivations lay the breadcrumbs for some nice drama, but it is the honesty and insightfulness of how Alonge Hawes has chosen to explore the series central theme of what it feels like to be “black” in a world that allows everyone to define that term except African Americans that will hook the target audience. These first four episodes are not perfect, but perhaps that encapsulates the overall point. Perfection is something that we as black people have continually been told is beyond us, and yet the mere fact that we exist after so much strife is proof that we are magical.
Clear Creative Vision
Great acting from ensemble
Some sound issues in episode 1
Shot selection in episode 3 can be distracting
Some scenes end a little quickly leaving no room for the scene to “breathe”