Martine Syms’s delicious art-world satire The African Desperate begins with a scenario that will be triggering for many: the rolling out of cheese cubes, orange wine, and black olives for an all-white M.F.A. review board. Palace, the fictional 30-year-old artist making these preparations, appears tense. She knows what’s coming. She expects the barrage of references to theorists like Édouard Glissant and Fred Moten, the microaggressions, the intellectual swaggering that she will have to endure.
Palace, who’s played by the artist Diamond Stingily, sits patiently through the jury members’ criticisms—that her work is too figurative, that it’s not doing anything new when it comes to its depiction of Black femininity. Eventually, she gets fed up after being pressed on her career goals. “You want me to know,” Palace says. “But that’s not what Glissant says. He says to accept the unknown in others, and in myself.”
A minute or so later, somewhat to her own surprise, the board awards her an M.F.A. and quickly leaves. Her jaw hangs open. Then she cries and moves on with her day.
It seems barely a spoiler to say that by the end of the 24-hour period depicted in The African Desperate, Palace has left the school’s alpine setting—a thinly veiled Bard College campus where Syms herself received her M.F.A.—and departed for her mom’s house in Chicago. But that’s not before raiding the organic snacks housed in a friend’s well-stocked rural abode, accidentally doing too much ketamine, and sloppily making out with a quirked-up white boy first.
The African Desperate, which releases theatrically this week, is a parody of how M.F.A. programs try to fashion budding artists into preconceived notions of how the powers that be think these young artists and their work should function. It’s also an uproariously funny film about how, whether knowingly or not, young artists are constantly performing—or failing to perform—those ready-made roles.
That makes The African Desperate a worthy extension of themes that Syms has been exploring in her installations, videos, and writing for the past decade. She’s deeply interested in, and fascinated by, the ways in which her subjects are always acting, even when they’re being genuine.
Often, she focuses on Black women whose images are subject to the whims of digital technology. DED (2021), a video from her seriously good exhibition currently on view at Bard’s Hessel Museum of Art, features an avatar of Syms herself inhabiting a vacant landscape where she periodically suffers violent deaths. Whether Syms’s avatar can find a way to survive in this computer-generated desert remains an open question. She wears a shirt emblazoned with a phrase hinting at her hopeful state: “TO HELL WITH MY SUFFERING.”
The same attitude seems to guide Palace, who, as deftly acted by Stingily, is keenly aware of the attempts to bring her down. Yet she refuses to cave to the challenges that this day—an average one, in the grand scheme of things—bring her.
Periodically, she lapses into internet-induced fantasies that bring her out of the universe of this fictional school, Grio College, and into a world of her own making. (The word “Grio” seems to be a misspelled version of “griot,” the word for a West African oral storyteller, just as the film’s title seems to be a deliberately mangled version of “the African diaspora.”) Midway through The African Desperate, there’s a great sequence where Palace reveals her routine for going out. She smiles and faces the camera, and Syms arrays inset images of her using a jade roller and putting on eyeliner. The direct address to the ring-lit viewer is familiar to those who watch YouTube makeup tutorials, whose visual language Syms has ported over into a narrative film.
Stingily, like many other members of this cast, is not a professional actress, yet her performance is engrossing and smooth. She’s able to navigate experimental scenes like this one while also striking at the emotional core of more conventional sequences.
The same could not be said of some of the other nonprofessional actors here—not that that’s necessarily a problem. Syms’s New York gallerist Bridget Donahue and Donahue’s associate Erin Leland both figure prominently at various points; A. L. Steiner, an artist who once taught Syms, is a member of the M.F.A. jury in the opening scene. Their line delivery can at times be wooden or disjointed, but the awkwardness only enhances the college’s inhospitable aura.
The school appears most unwelcoming during the protracted party sequence that occupies most of the film’s second half, which plays out in a similar way to Gaspar Noé’s bacchanal-gone-wrong horror movie Climax (2019). As more and more drugs are imbibed, only some of them on purpose, Palace’s vision is blurred, and the evening becomes a nightmare. She hunts for an Android charger (no one has one); she’s asked if she knows Lil Uzi Vert (“Yes, I’m familiar,” she drolly responds); she confronts another student about plotting a trip to Chile and failing to show up once everyone arrived.
Syms and Rocket Caleshu’s screenplay skewers the insular culture of M.F.A. programs of small liberal arts colleges. The characters here mock their cohort, including Ezra, a perfectly average Adonis that has largely failed to court Palace. She jokingly asks if he can read, and a friend confirms that, yes, he mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird in his thesis presentation. “I’m no scholar,” Palace tells her, “but that’s a children’s book.”
Then there’s the case of art-world rituals, which Syms and Caleshu expose as hollow, exclusionary traditions. Perhaps the ultimate one: making the pilgrimage to Venice for the Biennale once every two years. We find out, matter-of-factly, that Palace is in the show this time around—a major feat for any artist, particularly one still in an M.F.A. program. She has yet to plan a trip to go see it.
“Bitch, you’re in the Venice Biennale. And you’re not going!” says one friend. “You’re crazy. You have to go now! It’ll be destroyed by November.”
“It bees dat way sometimes,” Palace replies.