Movie Review: An arch African melodrama set in African American “Hyde Park”

“Hyde Park” is a romantic dramedy with a court case as its backdrop set among affluent African Americans and African immigrants in the Chicago neighborhood that bears the same name as the more famous “Park” in London.

Pitched as an LGTBQ melodrama, as the story’s inciting incident is a shooting stemming from African intolerance for homosexuality, it daintily dances around the subject, avoiding engaging with it in any realistic sense.

The resulting movie, having the slimmest “African” slices of the life of this cultural melting pot, with courtroom scenes almost wholly consisting of ill-constructed and recited opening arguments that suggest the screenwriters did their homework by watching not one, but TWO whole episodes of “Law & Order,” looks polished but is quaintly amateurish, a tenth film that plays like a stumbling debut feature from director Mark Harris.

Eric and Tyler (Xavier McKnight and Vonzell Scott) step out of a revival house cinema and into an Uber, which is Eric’s undoing. The traditionally-clothed/close-minded African driver gets his nose bent out of joint by having two two guys almost kiss in his backseat. He comes at them with a baseball bat, and Eric shoots him.

That takes us into the legal world of David (Kenneth Okolie) and Lola (Dawn Halfkenny), fellow lawyers at a big Chicago firm. David’s angling for “partner.” Lola’s angling to make David her partner.

But he’s a Nigerian, with haughty “You need to be with a Nigerian woman!” parents. Lola is American, taking advice from sassy BFF Aja (Erica Hubbard) on how to move David towards commitment.

Maybe, with her staying in his apartment while hers is renovated and them thrown together on this case — the State is ready to deport trigger-happy Eric — that’ll happen.

Their friends are mostly folks they met in college and law school, with Sam (Corey Hendrix) a somewhat funny guy about to open a comedy club and prosecutor Santiago (Javier Villamil) ready to put the moves on old classmate Lola.

The best scenes in “Hyde Park” make use of the group dynamic and the cultural frisson such a neighborhood offers. Sam’s coming on to a Liberian “queen” (Love Weah) who isn’t having his attempts at African speech.

“We have thousands of languages and dialects. Which one are you pretending to do?”

“Wakandan and Zumundan!” Yeah, some Americans think “Black Panther” is a documentary.

But those playful culture clashes take a back seat to some some of the clunkiest courtroom scenes I’ve seen in a while. The cast seems experienced enough, if uneven in the quality of experiences. Okolie’s clumsy and uncomfortable attempts at lawyerese/legaese and making compelling courtroom arguments make one wonder how David could be up for partner, and how the director didn’t hear the many grammatical stumbles that strip the guy of any sense of law school polish.

No, you don’t have to “print” the first take. Give your actor a few chances to get through the lines so it doesn’t sound like an ESL exercise. Or were the lines this agrammatical on the page?

The screenplay takes a detour into Eric’s “secret,” which we know and the lawyers cannot figure out, and which apparently never came up in his criminal trial for the seemingly justified shooting. Say what now? Old Country “shame” is one thing. But his smart lawyers, his earlier felony trial lawyers, or the shooting victim, would surely have gotten around to exposing that in open court.

There’s great dramatic potential in using African, African Muslim and African American homophobia as a backdrop to drama, in or out of the courtroom. “Hyde Park” keeps this at arm’s length, with even the third act turns towards its subject feeling very 1985.

And for the love of Chicago, DON’T set your movie in a courtroom if you haven’t done more homework than this, if you have no knack for writing courtroom drama, if you haven’t run your script by a real lawyer to at least elevate the dialogue into real legalese.

There’s a better movie in this setting, and a better-acted and written “Law & Order” in this court case.

Rating: unrated, violence, adult situations

Cast: Kenneth Okolie, Dawn Halfkenny, Xavier McKnight, Erica Hubbard, Corey Hendrix and Javier Villamil.

Credits: Directed by Mark Harris, scripted Marvin Nelson and Lotten Yeaney. A Lot10 release.

Running time: 1:29

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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