In its reflection of the state of the film’s characters, one of the most important shots throughout Amman Abbasi’s Dayveon is the recurring image of bees swarming around a newly built nest.
From a few steps away, a wave of bees looks solid and controlled. There’s a harmonizing order to their buzz. Only upon moving in closer would you see what might appear to be frantic movement in every direction. That’s the story of the film’s title character, Dayveon, a 13-year-old boy still reeling one summer in Arkansas, some time after the death of his older brother.
From ten feet away, Dayveon is a bees nest—a steady paced slice of southern life, rooted in the mundanities of poverty. There are overnight shifts at the job, precious leftovers in the fridge, gang initiations on the block, irritable trips to the mechanic, gunfire at the corner store and stick-ups at the gambling spot. Everything is what it’s supposed to be; the unifying screech of black folks forgotten.
About halfway through the film, though—once viewers poke the nest—we realize the story, just as black folks everywhere, is far less monolithic than that. With one brother taken from its protagonist, Dayveon is a film about the chaos of protection, as black men swarm each other to shield themselves from a world intent on their extinction.
It’s a survey of the types of mentors we have to choose from once we come of age. Some have fraternal mentors, gifted to us through blood and parentage. But if we’re stripped of those, either through misfortune or ill will, we seek out surrogate mentors. Sharing the womb of struggle, Devin Blackmon delivers a naked performance as two men, Brian (Dontrell Bright) and Mook (Lachion Buckingham) vie for positions of influence in Dayveon’s life.
Kordell "KD" Johnson and Devin Blackmon appear in Dayveon by Amman Abbasi, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Brian, boyfriend to Dayveon’s older sister and father to her child, confesses to the boy, “me and your brother was tight, and I know how you felt about him.”
Gently and awkwardly, but nonetheless directly, he continues: “I feel like it’s my duty to be here for you. That’s what I wanna do. I know how much he meant to you. So anytime you wanna talk to me, feel free to come to me...I can be like a big brother or something.”
Not yet ready to replace his actual older brother in such literal terms, Dayveon responds with fury—”you’ll never be my motherfucking big brother.”
Mook, the leader of a local gang Dayveon falls in with, reaches out to him much more subtly, as bad influences usually do. “Imma teach you how to make it on this block,” he explains.
“I see a lot of me in you, Day-Day. I really like you, so imma keep you under my wing...I’m trying to help you understand. I don’t give a damn if you thirteen or whatever. I had to do it too. I know how it is to see pain. My big brother just like yours. He got killed too. Found him in the woods dead. That same day, I went and bought me a pistol. I went and found who did it...they gotta feel my pain. I’m teaching you this shit so other motherfuckers can feel your pain.”
Mook and Brian’s differences in approach manifest in more than just their deliveries—they’re apparent in their intentions. As Brian hopes to shield Dayveon from the elements that murdered his brother, Mook aims to arm his mentee. The former through care and confidence, the latter through vengeance and violence. In a stunning, beautifully written twist, those competing intentions collide, sending the bees nest that is a boy’s choice of camaraderie crashing to the ground.
Understandably, comparisons have been drawn between Dayveon and Moonlight. But where Moonlight pulls up, allowing mentors to die offscreen, Dayveon drives down the lane, forcefully exploring the ways in which black men raise each other.
Debuting September 13th, this film is a valuable piece of storytelling, transcribing pivotal moments in the lives of many of our boys.