By Malcolm Woodard | Shadow and Act April 1, 2013 at 12:03PM
A decade or so after being deported from the United States, Ghanaian police inspector Boniface Koomsin (played by Yao B. Nunoo), desperate to return, pays his way towards obtaining a fake passport, only to have it immediately stolen. In an attempt to recover it, he enlists the help of the local cop on the pretense of a stolen pistol. The cop is also on case, chasing a murderer.
Upon further discussion, both men believe that their cases are connected, and, together, they follow several leads, eventually finding their common suspect, but only after he commits even more crimes, including murder. This further complicates matters, raising the stakes significantly higher, as Boniface embarks on a dangerous crime-laden journey to recover the one thing that can help him realize his dream – to leave a checkered past behind and return to the USA.
What most struck me about the film, which was directed by a white American, is how devoid it is of that dreaded western gaze, and just how ordinary (in a good way) it is in its representation of day-to-day life in a present-day African country (in this case, Ghana, and even more specifically Accra, the capital city); a depiction that isn’t at any of the most familiar extremes – notably war-torn, poverty-stricken, corrupt, etc. And it wasn’t until about halfway through the film that this realization came to me.
The country or its landscape aren’t necessarily characters in the film; the people simply exist, occupying the terrain, living out lives that aren’t all that unique, or different from the lives you and I currently live. Who knew??
And while the film's plotline is a riff on the familiar buddy/cop dramas we've all seen repeatedly churned out by Hollywood studios, this one is thankfully without the expected white half of the pair. In fact, you'd even find touches of a film like In The Heat Of The Night here - young, zealous "big city" cop in unfamiliar territory, teams up with older, local, respected veteran to solve case.
It may at first seem ridiculous to have to mention all of that, but it’s with reason. Here in the west, we are so bombarded with a few extreme images of Africans in Africa, and very little else between. I refer you to Chimamanda Adichie's The danger of a single story TED talk.
And neither is the cinematography; the camera documents, but doesn’t announce itself, absent of any embellishments or gimmickry, so the audience is almost forced to focus on the provocative narrative and the characters that populate this world.
However, this is also to the film’s detriment, because as the audience isn’t distracted, flaws in the core attributes, the narrative, and the performances notably, could become distractingly obvious, especially to the “trained” eye and ear.
The film was originally conceived as an homage to Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 masterpiece police procedural Stray Dog. And like the film it’s paying homage to, The Destiny Of Lesser Animals explores class conflict (Boniface’s “American” condescension towards his fellow Ghanaians), masculinity defined (Boniface’s conventionally manly qualities - physical strength, courage, virility - are all tested), guilt (Boniface’s self-serving actions lead to unexpected fatalities, and his conscience ensures he carries the weight), and doppelgangers (the suspect being hunted is essentially Boniface’s evil twin. Although, looked at from a Freudian science fiction POV, one could make the argument that both Boniface and the suspect (whom I noticed we never really quite see fully) are the same person – the superego and the id.
Where it falters most is especially in its performances, notably that of its star, Yao B. Nunoo, which felt uneven to me, and a surprise when I learned afterward that much of the cast is made up of veteran Ghanaian screen and stage actors, including Fred Amugi, Abena Takyi and Sandy Arkhurst. Although I’d say that the unevenness is maybe more stagy, artificial, exaggerated, as if in a play, which I suppose could be due to the fact that Nunoo got his start in the theater.
It’s certainly not a dominant theme throughout the film, so it’s not much of a distraction; however, I felt that the end product could have been much more engaging if the director had worked with his actors to fine-tune their performances, especially in key scenes, because there’s definitely an attractive, appealing plotline.
It’s a police procedural, so certainly nothing we haven’t seen before, but that it’s set in Ghana, a West African country barely represented on big and small screens worldwide, definitely gives it some freshness.
Overall, it’s a breezy, briskly-paced film, running at around 90 minutes – a character study of a Ghanaian deportee, coming to terms with life in a country he once left behind and never thought he’d actually have to return to. He longs for what he believes to be an easier life in a foreign land, lamenting the state of his home country, but circumstances encourage him to stay and influence those of younger generations, essentially leaving the past behind and looking ahead with promise.
The Destiny Of Lesser Animals was co-written and directed by Deron Albright. It’s been traveling the film festival circuit since 2011, but hasn't received an official release yet, here in the USA.
Watch its trailer below: