Editor’s note: Disclaimer: Some spoilers.
As the phrase “representation matters” seeps through our veins, there is a slight odor of hungry desperation in the air that stems from lack. Because we have become accustomed to not seeing ourselves on-screen, we stretch ourselves reaching for the scraps that befall us.
As soon as I saw the trailer for Dayveon, I fell in love with its alluring cinematography. The way the sun shone against the characters’ deep skin was akin to nature’s kiss of life.
But it wasn’t until a friend of mine pointed out the uniqueness of seeing black characters in modern rural America that the primary significance became clear for me. The swaying of the tall green grass and stark roughness of the dilapidated shacks weren’t the backdrop of the usual slavery tale—the glaring smartphone screen certainly brought me back to a current reality.
Helmed by Amman Abbasi and co-written by Abbasi and Steven Reneau, Dayveon follows the 13-year-old titular character (Devin Blackmon), who attempts to process the trauma of his older brother’s death and falls into the luring pressures of the local gang in rural Arkansas.
The setting of Arkansas serves as another character in the film. I couldn’t help noticing the rehashed image of the bees swarming around Dayveon’s household tree, which appear to symbolize the very gang to which he is drawn. During one particular moment, a solitary bee flies over to Dayveon and stings him in a carnal close-up, and then—as nature would have it—subsequently dies. Maybe this is a foreshadowing or warning for Dayveon?
Because of the success of Moonlight, diving into the intricacies of a black boy’s emotional core has piqued the interests of the film community. However, Dayveon is a narrative that stands on its own. I would say that the unpacking of a black boy’s masculinity is where the similarity stops, and even then, it’s a distinct subcategory of examination. From the moment Dayveon—intimately referred to as “Day Day”—is “jumped in” by the peer-pressuring group of Bloods, the undercurrent of what it means to be a “man” is rampant throughout the film.
Dayveon’s parents are noticeably missing in the film as Dayveon resides with his sister Kim (Chasity Moore) and her boyfriend Brian (Dontrell Bright). We later learn that Dayveon’s mother went insane following the death of his older brother. Brian serves as a big-brother figure to Dayveon, despite the walls he’s firmly raised. There’s a gentleness to Brian that counteracts Dayveon’s curtness, and I really appreciated the balance.
Another aspect of brotherhood is with Dayveon’s good friend Country (Marquell Manning), a tall, lanky and lovable sidekick. I supremely appreciated the playful scenes between these two, since I’m always here for simple moments of #BlackBoyJoy. Moments where they are able to just ... be. I guffawed at the top of my lungs when they compared themselves to The Suite Life of Zach & Cody and reimagined themselves as the “Hood Life of Day and Country.”
One of the most visually effective scenes features the two friends as they practice Blood gang signs while skipping rocks. The softness of the setting sun provides an interesting contrast with the raw conversation they’re exploring: Dayveon’s reoccurring nightmares about his brother. In his recounting, he tells Country that his brother texts him over and over, and each time, he misses the call. It’s likely one of the most emotionally resonating moments of the film, even in its quiet subtleties.
The opening shot is painted with Dayveon’s voiceover as he rides his bike, exclaiming about the “stupid trees” or the “stupid rocks,” clearly a defense mechanism for his deep-seated pain. Dayveon has an acrimonious bark, and his walls are painted with a red as hard as his Blood initiation wardrobe.
The film cuts deep into Dayveon’s psychological journey, not with just the dialogue, but the way in which the camera shakes during extreme close-ups or the way actor Blackmon’s skin actually reverberates with his movement. It’s almost as if he is trying to purge the toxicity that is simmering in his gut.
Everything boils to the surface in a sensational climax, colored by the breathtaking piano-based score composed by the obviously multitalented Abbasi as Dayveon approaches his quintessential “coming of age” moment: armed robbery at a dice game that Brian is frequenting. This scene is especially potent as it trails Dayveon and Brian’s last conversation, which wasn’t too sweet: Dayveon’s last words to Brian before the robbery are, “You’ll never be my fucking big brother!”
The film’s conclusion is open-ended, and it’s essentially left up to the audience’s interpretation as to where Dayveon’s path will lead. After seeing this film, I can’t say for sure. But what I do know for sure is, he is no longer the boy from the introductory bike ride.
Dayveon is currently playing in theaters in New York and Los Angeles.