It’s been a good few years for silent film, which has enjoyed some popularity with movies like Blancanieves and The Artist, Michael Hazanavicius’s love letter to Old Hollywood that gained the adoration of critics and several Oscars statuettes. The movie’s charming sense of nostalgia was deemed an inspired, refreshing change of pace from the norm, a reminder that the image is paramount in what makes the storytelling of film work.
Of course, The Artist is only one in a long line of modern films that have attempted to capture the magic of the silent era. In 1989, a similar movie, this time by a black filmmaker, was greeted by its own flurry of adoration and applause. Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories, released in 1989, was a silent story set in gritty New York City but injected with the slapstick of Buster Keaton and the pathos of Charlie Chaplin.
Starring Lane, who not only directed but also wrote and edited the picture, it focused on a down-on-his-luck a sidewalk portrait artist who inadvertently becomes the caretaker of a toddler (played by Lane’s real-life daughter) after witnessing the murder of the child’s father.
The film was championed by critics like Roger Ebert and won several awards, including a Prix du Publique at the Cannes Film Festival.
But despite the initial fanfare, it has been largely forgotten in the years since its release, with the talented Lane having completed only one film (the black-man-disguised-as-a-white-man comedy True Identity) since. Now, over twenty years after its debut, a beautifully done digital restoration of Sidewalk Stories has premiered for the first time at the recent Tribeca Film Festival.
A clear riff on films like The Kid and The Vagabond, Lane’s story was as much a stab at emulating the work of silent films stars he admired as it was an interesting experiment in a sort of silent social commentary on New York at the time. The comedy of the film is tinged by a certain amount of melancholy.
Amid the comic gags are the harsh realities of city life – Lane’s “Artist” squats in a condemned building with no furniture and limited electricity, later he and the little girl are forced to sleep on the street. In one scene, Lane’s “Artist” comically shoplifts from a baby clothing store. When he’s caught, though, there’s a poignant moment when the owner of the store let’s him get away with it, realizing that he and the little girl he’s taking care of are in dire straits.
Like The Artist, there’s a moment at the end of the silent picture when sound is finally used, and the effect is stunning. Finally at rock bottom, Lane’s Artist sits amongst the homeless of the city as they call out for help, ignored.
“That moment was important,” Lane explained after the Tribeca screening this past weekend, “I wanted to give the homeless a voice in this film.”
While Sidewalk Stories may not have the glossy veneer of other modern day films that have tackled this genre, this new version of the film stands as a worthy and even important part of the black film landscape. Lane has revealed that he has several new projects in the works, and we can only hope that this time around audiences pay more attention.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.