Julisa Powell as Princess Nibira in Underneath: Children of the Sun.
No one can ever accuse David Kirkman of lacking ambition. While most first-time filmmakers keep the scale small, Kirkman had his sights set on Marvel and DC. He started his career with four well-received fan films based on the properties of Milestone Comics1 that didn’t skimp on the special effects or spectacle. And now, in his first feature, the writer, director, cinematographer, editor, and score writer—and current artist-in-residence with the Department of African and African-American Studies at Washington University—has crafted an Afrofuturist sci-fi epic that blends Black Panther, Star Wars, and…Django Unchained? Yes, really. And while his reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, it’s beyond impressive how a locally made film on a shoestring budget could give the multimillion-dollar Marvel movies a run for their money.
The movie opens in the distant past, where a man named Enki (Nahom Assefa) and his brother stumble upon a small glass pyramid; Enki touches the pyramid and absorbs power that allows him to travel to different worlds. Six minutes into the movie, Enki’s story is summed up in a series of text info dumps full of a television season’s worth of plot, a word salad of places and people that is more confusing than helpful. The gist of it, though, is that Enki traveled to a distant planet called Apkallu and had a family. As we go back to the film’s narrative, Enki is missing, the futuristic utopia Apkallu’s atmosphere is disappearing, and his children Princess Nibira (Julisa Powell) and Prince Khafre (Ezekiel Olukoya) set off with very different plans for how to save their world, but they both involve going to Earth to recover the aforementioned glass pyramid. As they set off on their separate missions, interplanetary warfare may well be in the cards.
The way in which the convoluted futuristic plot is dumped on the viewer in the early going of Underneath is honestly a bit overwhelming. There’s too much ultimately unimportant information shared, and the characters so far feel paper thin with little personality or motivation outside of the magical MacGuffin they’re all chasing after. The one big thing these early scenes have going for them is the introduction of Nibira and Khafre—we don’t really know who they are yet, but man, do they look cool, in their gold face paint, futuristic black-and-gold outfits, and hair styles that give them strong, unique silhouettes (a must-have for a good comic book character to set them apart from the rest). As the more villainous of the two siblings, Powell, in particular, has incredible screen presence, and commands your attention every time she’s on screen. We may not really know who she is or why she wants what she wants just yet, but she looks badass. That’s reason enough to stick around and see what she’ll do next.
Ah, but you’ll have to wait, as Underneath leaps back to the 1850s and transforms from a sci-fi epic to an intimate, uncomfortably real slave story for a huge chunk of its run time. Amir (Jordan Walker) is a recent acquisition of plantation owner Samuel Cartwright (George Hovis). Cartwright is a brutal master, but he takes a shining to Amir, as he’s better educated and in much better shape than Cartwright’s other slaves. We soon learn the reason why that is: Amir is from the present day, and has only recently found himself stuck in the antebellum era.
Huge chunks of screentime are devoted to Amir’s plight, which would seem a bit of a distraction from the whole looming-interplanetary-war thing that we’re supposed to be concerned with, but it doesn’t matter because this section of the movie is so effective. Walker brings such stoic intensity and inner terror to his role as a man out of time, the kind of performance where he doesn’t always say much with his mouth but what he says with his eyes speaks volume. And Hovis as Cartwright is a delectable villain, hitting that same mix of Southern charm and sadistic cruelty as Leonardo DiCaprio in Django, though it’s no mere imitation: Hovis has crafted his own unique bastard here. This portion of the film feels so real and lived-in, and everything from the sets to the costumes to the performances to the score is on point, with the tension amplified by Kirkman’s frequent use of a handheld camera in tight closeup.
But then, of course, it all goes weird again, as Amir’s connection to the Enki storyline is revealed and Khafre and Nibira arrive as ally and enemy, respectively. The plot and motivations are a little clearer at this point, but parts of the plot are still a lot more inscrutable than they should be. At this point, though, Kirkman is concentrating on spectacle. Translating the Afrofuturist style of Black Panther from superhero to space opera is no mean feat, and while there are occasional punches or sword fights that don’t quite feel as realistic, we get energy bolts and lightsabers and telekinetic powers, and you wouldn’t bat an eye at a small budget TV series that looked like this. You’ll still be spending the vast majority of this movie staring at the screen thinking how did basically one dude filming in Missouri, of all places, pull this off? (And Missouri itself is well-represented, with fights on downtown rooftops, the ancient past at an undisturbed creek, a park (maybe Elephant Rocks?) doubling for Brazil, and even a field trip to Cahokia Mounds.)
The perplexing plot could use streamlining, and the characters beyond Amir could use some fleshing out, but on balance Underneath is a remarkable achievement, and Kirkman’s drive to show the potential that independent cinema has to offer is very much in the spirit of SLIFF. | Jason Green
Underneath: Children of the Sun will screen at Galleria 6 Cinemas (30 St. Louis Galleria St., Richmond Heights) on Friday, November 4th at 7:15pm as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival with an appearance by director David Kirkman and local cast and crew. Further information about tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the SLIFF website.
1 Milestone is a comics publishing imprint founded in 1993 by a group of African American artists seeking to increase the representation of minorities in comics, both in stories and as creators. Their most famous creation is the superhero Static, who starred in the 2000s animated series Static Shock. The company was recently the subject of a documentary, Milestone Generations, streaming on HBO Max.