This year, the Sundance Film Festival did not shy away from stories that provide an intimate look at Black male pain. Those narratives are magnificent, important and, at times, hard to watch.
To Live And Die And Live is no exception. The film, which follows Muhammad— a Black, Muslim Hollywood filmmaker in the throes of addiction— returning home to bury his stepfather, is a quiet portrait of a Black artist in peril. Director and writer Qasim Basir handles Muhammad’s story with the utmost care, portraying him navigating this colossal loss, its effect on the family (plus his already complicated relationship with them), and his own demons with intentionality, grace, and even beauty.
Though Muhammad’s reality may seem bleak, his world is filled with color. The film starts with a close-up on Amin Joseph, who portrays the tortured protagonist, among hues of dark blues and magenta. That color story remains throughout the film and compliments the physical backdrop of Detroit and the nature of Muhammad’s double life. Many scenes that show the film’s characters and Detroit with vivacious coloring follow.
Muhammad hides his addiction well from his family— or so he thinks. The film does a beautiful job of unpacking his “provider” role in the family, and while that’s not the sole contributor to his inner turmoil, it’s certainly not helpful. In many ways, his family doesn’t really see him beyond his success, and that aids in him keeping his addiction hidden in the shadows.
Interestingly, one family member does seem to penetrate his meticulously constructed walls— his step-sister, whom he met for the first time while saying goodbye to their father. Muhammad can’t seem to keep her at arm’s length, and even though she doesn’t push, she’s able to secure a closeness to him that his other family members cannot. The film could have gone deeper into their dynamic and explore the tension that may have arisen within the family.
Things are equally complicated in Muhammad’s career. Coming from his stepfather’s construction business (which he stays in Detroit to save), Muhammad believes that hard work with tangible results is the most valuable. Cut to his directorial career, which many find glamorous but it actually mostly consists of rejections and years-long waiting games. The film’s most successful scene comes around halfway through when Joseph delivers a powerful monologue about the truth of his line of work to a group of wide-eyed, bushy-tailed film students. The nuances of being the “one who made it out” and the disappointments of working in Hollywood are executed flawlessly and show audiences why Muhammad is in as much pain as he is.
Sandwiched in between chugging vodka bottles in bathrooms, agonizing over his reality and running around Detroit to try and settle his father’s debts are a compelling rendezvous with Asia, played by Skye P. Marshall. The pair’s torrid love affair is a complicated one— they meet up sporadically throughout the film and almost hook up, every time getting sidetracked by drug use and philosophical questions about what it means to be living (something they both think they’re doing, but are actually avoiding). As you can probably guess, these two don’t run off into the sunset together— there’s just no room for both of their issues.
To Live And Die And Live takes on a big challenge— exploring the possible rehabilitation of both Muhammad and a city that’s gotten a bad wrap in recent decades. Both secure a sparkle of hope by the film’s conclusion. In many ways it’s successful, but often time sacrifices engaging cinematic elements to do so. Though the film’s pacing can be slow, its realistic representation of addiction and its homage to Detroit make it worth a watch.