In today’s world people are quick to judge before knowing all of the facts. “Guilty until proven innocent,” is the tagline for director Rhyan Lamarr’s newest film, Canal Street. Canal Street, like Beale Street, figuratively speaking, is a road in life where people upon opposite paths happen to come across each other. Canal Street stars Bryshere Y. Gray, Mekhi Phifer, Kevin Quinn, Juani Feliz, Mykelti Williamson and a plethora of radio personalities playing themselves. Set in his native Chicago, Lamar and his team wrote the script for the film in 2005 and the film still rings true 14 years later. The film follows Kholi Styles (Bryshere Y. Gray) as he tries to prove his innocence in the death of Brian Sudermill (Kevin Quinn).
Lamarr’s storytelling shines throughout the tension of the racial-drama that takes place in the film. While the film is self-aware of itself at points, there’s even a funny exchange of dialogue where a character comments on how Brian Sudermill looks like Zac Efron. The weaving of the radio talk show hosts as they commentate on Kholi Styles’ ongoing trial feels authentic. Just like in real life, we get to see various opinions by media figures on whether Kholi Styles is guilty of the murder of Brian Sudermill. The talking heads include: Charlamagne Tha God, and Angela Yee of The Breakfast Club, Yandy Smith, Rickey Smiley, Headkrack, Chicago’s very own Mancow and Kendra G, and more. As details of the trial come out, the commentary adds to the tension as those figures from different backgrounds give us their thoughts, it truly captures the diverse views of American society.
For an independent film that was shot over 16 days, the veteran actors bring some legitimacy to the small budget film. Mykelti Williamson shines as Jackie Styles, the father and lawyer of Kholi Styles. On the other side of the aisle is Mekhi Phifer as Prosecutor A.J. Canton, and his character adds another layer to the drama. A.J. Canton is a black man from the south side of Chicago, like Kholi Styles, but as a prosecutor, Canton’s job is to get a conviction in this case and he pulls out all of the stops. Canton bends the rules during the case and disregards ethics because all he cares about is winning. Canton’s brother, Ronald Morgon, played by Michael Beach and he does not agree with his brother’s tactics as a lawyer. One of the most authentic scenes in the film is when Canton returns to his brother’s barbershop on the south side of Chicago and the patrons have a real barbershop conversation with him about the case. Canton lets them know that he’s just doing his job, and that he won’t be the first black prosecutor to prosecute a black teen and he won’t be the last. Ronald lets his brother know that he’s not an honorable man like Harold Washington, the first African-American to be elected as mayor of Chicago. The film interweaves footage of Washington while Ronald is recounting the positive influence that he had as a pioneer of the city.
Some of the film’s production does not feel worthy enough to be featured on the big screen. There are times where the lack of a budget hinders the movie and makes it look like something that you would stream on Netflix or watch on television. There are filmmaking choices that don’t fit the tone of the movie when it comes to capturing a particular character’s reaction during a tragic scene. There are casting choices where minor characters look a little too old to be high schoolers. Those are minor things that you’re able to look past because the biggest problem is that the movie pauses its storytelling to preach to the audience. Sometimes Canal Street is able to weave its preachy message into the story elements, but most of the time, there are scenes where characters might as well be looking directly into the camera and reading a sermon to us and this becomes nauseating by the time the movie ends.
The mystery-thriller elements of the film are underwhelming, to say the least. The narrative of the film is to figure out who killed Brian Sudermill, and before the big reveal happens, Canal Street doesn’t do a good job at keeping the audience on their toes. Around the halfway point, the film telegraphs who the killer is, so you’re just watching it and hoping the movie hurries up and follows up on it. Instead, the film trips over itself and by the time the true killer is revealed and the events happen that lead up to it, the movie feels like one long episode of Law and Order. There’s not much suspense and when the tension rises in the film it’s predictable, so you’re not left with much to keep you entertained.
Canal Street deserves its praise for its concept because there are ideas in the film that work well. It flawlessly pulls off an accurate representation of the way people are guilty in the court of public opinion before the court of law. For a 15 year old script, the film’s social commentary is just as relevant today as it ever was, and that says a lot about the way we view “change” over the years in our society. Outside of the film being preachy and shoving the Gospel down our throat in every other scene, the film is run-of-the-mill when compared to some of its 2018 counterparts. Canal Street has elements that are found in Blindspotting, Blackkklansman, and If Beale Street Could Talk, which are all films that do a fantastic job at exploring the plight of being a black male, yet this one has an underwhelming execution. There are moments where this movie hits the right notes. Performances by lead actor Bryshere Y. Gray, Mykelti Williamson, Mekhi Phifer, and Michael Beach are heartfelt. Juani Feliz does a great job as a love interest. Somewhere in Canal Street lies a good film and I think that the writer and director, Rhyan Lamarr, can create a more compelling drama than this. There’s definitely talent there, and the Chicago native shows it at times, but overall Canal Street flounders and the film reaches what seems like a dead end by its conclusion.
[All Mames Wey]
Canal Street was released in theaters January 18th, 2019.