Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys In The Air (Phillip Warnell)

by Amadeo Gandolfo

Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys In The Air

A couple of months ago, after much hesitation, my girlfriend and I decided to adopt a little dog. A puppy, one of those terrible living beings that spend their time running from one place to another and chewing things non stop. This meant putting up with pee at home, barking in the morning and marks on the walls. The dog is also an addition to our two big and fat cats; they all live together in a two-bedroom apartment. Of course, our friends and family thought this decision was crazy. To all of them, I would recommend watching this film by Phillip Warnell.

The documentary reconstructs the story of Antoine Yates, and African-American who was born and has lived in Harlem his whole life, who decided to raise a tiger and a crocodile of almost two meters long in his five-bedroom apartment, with concrete floors and steel doors.

First wise decision: to take a case that would generally be reduced to a simple mention in the miscellaneous section of the newspaper and of digital news sites and to extend it to an exploration of a philosophy of life and a particular perspective as regards the relation we establish with these animals that keep us company and makes us happy. Because the film never presents Yates as a delirious person nor proposes that his actions were imprudent and worthy of his confinement and separation of his great beasts. Quite the opposite: throughout its initial and final parts, the film presents Yates as an urban shaman who meditates and fasts on Sundays, a casual philosopher who wonders how real is the idea that animals are more free and happy in a wild environment about to disappear due to the action of men, where they are threatened by hunters and smugglers. And, above all, the film shows a man who loved those animals and even today feels that a wound has been opened, a piece of him ripped off when they separated them from him.

Second good decision: the structure of the documentary is unusually bold. Far from turning into a mere chronological reconstruction of the facts, filled with “talking heads”, the films prefers to lose itself in the exploration of its character’s words. With some beautiful cinematography, Yates is shot while on a car that moves around the streets of New York. He smiles when he recognizes places from his childhood, talks with the driver and goes to the supermarket to buy meat. The film is also filled with static inserts of towers in Harlem, shot from the sky, that give a new dimension to the repeated expression: “concrete jungle”. But its most daring part is in the middle of the film, when a tiger is followed for 15 or 20 minutes while it walks all around an apartment (it actually is a set built for the occasion) without dialogue, without rush and without testimony. Even though at times this “tour de force” risks falling into drowsiness (and has a Derrida-like poem recited by a tired female voice that is somewhat presumptuous), it is capturing because it gives an answer to the question all of us who own pets have once made ourselves: What the hell de they do when we are not home? Do they get bored? Do they conspire? Do they speak ill of us?

When Yates enters the scene again, it is to reminds us of his loss and to stand like a Zen master under the railways of the elevated train of New York. Because the film also establishes a reflection about the way of life we have become used to in the big cities, the sacrifices we make to live on top of each other and, ultimately, wonders if we are so alone, so caged and sad that we look for a connection with any living being at all costs, look for the unconditional love they provide us, without measuring the risks and the sadness it produces when they abandon us.