“My Name is Myeisha” is a rare film amongst the canon of strong urban dramas in that it’s specific to the experience of young African-American females. These films largely focus on the hardships of young men – or a mixed ensemble – and it’s refreshing to see a perspective that feels largely absent from cinema. However, it would be a disservice to the film itself, regardless of what it does or does not accomplish, to champion it solely on baseline victories. Gus Krieger’s film is a transfixing experience that combines spoken-word poetry and hip-hop to tell its story.
That story would be about the titular Myeisha (Rhaechyl Walker), a nineteen-year-old girl who fell asleep in her car with a gun in her lap and was shot by police on December 28, 1998, in the Inland Empire. Not unlike Joe Gideon in Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz,” Myeisha takes the audience on a series of musical interludes and comic asides that chronicle her life up until this point, all while bouncing back to the moments leading up to her untimely death.
Krieger’s film is not a “message” movie. It’s not the feature-length version of that terrible Super Bowl commercial where a kid says, “I could have been [insert goal here], but then I died.” Instead, it’s a movie that exists to provide context, that behind every police shooting of a young person of color is a human being gone too soon, with a life they’ve left behind and a future that will never happen. For all of its entertainment value, one of the strengths of “My Name is Myeisha” is that it never lets the audience forgets the hard truth, and it does so in a way that doesn’t feel like you are sitting through a lecture.
The biggest strength of the film, even with all the visual flair and engaging wordplay, is Walker. The entire film stands on her shoulders. She is asked to rap, asked to play a self-conscious pre-teen, then a cocky, confident late teenager, then back to being scared, alone, and fearful for her life, and then repeat. There’s dancing, there’s beatboxing, there’s rapping, and she does all of it. There’s no denying that Walker will be coming up in the next couple years, and she’s a name to be looking out for.
Krieger and Walker keep the energy pumping through the film’s 80-minute runtime, and the loose structure is both a help and a hindrance. Sitting in the theater for the film is a lot like watching a standup comedian perform: you can feel when the audience is into it, and when the audience is slightly turning, but they end with a solid joke (or in the case of “Myeisha,” a harrowing and realistic gut-punch). When the film takes the time to discuss Myeisha’s softball skills before going into a dance number, or go on a tangent about the greatness of BBQ restaurants with the exception of the pale, limp white bread that goes with it, it shines brightest. And the juxtaposition of her life story with transitions to a beatboxing coroner explaining her bullet wounds could be done in a less jarring fashion, but again with the standup analogy, there’s another scene around the corner that immediately pulls you back onto its wavelength.
The only time that “My Name is Myeisha” truly trips up is when it dips its toes into popular culture, whether it is directly referencing the time period it’s set in, or when it accidentally drops an anachronism. There’s a scene in which Myeisha talks about looking up to Aaliyah about her dance movies and is expecting her to really take off in the next few years. It’s cringe-worthy, as is when she says that she should really ditch R. Kelly because she has a bad feeling about him. Another scene has Myeisha smoothly (and quite humorously) comparing Denzel Washington in one movie to Wesley Snipes in another. It’s an enjoyable scene until one of the Denzel movies mentioned is “The Hurricane,” which wasn’t out for another year. Playing the accuracy police is no fun and, frankly, sounds a bit like nitpicking. But, when you are creating the illusion of the time period, it’s important to keep these things straight.
“My Name is Myeisha” doesn’t pull any punches, and isn’t afraid to remind members of the audience that the issues depicted in this film are not universal. There’s one moment where Myeisha recalls the police coming up to the door, and she stops to say, “It doesn’t happen often, but what I’m thinking right now is, ‘Man, do I wish I was a white girl.’” It’s often said that movies are empathy machines, and empathy is what “My Name is Myeisha” has in abundance. Krieger could have gone the route of making an indie issues movie, but instead he – and paired excellently with Walker – went for something ambitious, energetic, and disarming. It announces both Krieger and Walker as exciting new talents to watch and reminds the audience that every single shooting is much more than a politicized moment (on either side). It’s a life lost too soon. [B]