‘Bronx Gothic’: Film Review

Andrew Rossi’s documentary ‘Bronx Gothic’ focuses on Okwui Okpokwasili’s acclaimed dance-theater piece.

Bronx Gothic is both the title of performance artist Okwui Okpokwasili’s one-person show and Andrew Rossi’s documentary based on it. As seen in numerous excerpts, the former looks fairly unbearable. The latter, receiving its world premiere at New York City’s Film Forum, has some interesting aspects, assuming your BS detector doesn’t go off by a performer who refers to her body as a “vibrating channel” and to her show’s goal of “growing our empathic capacity.”

Rossi, who previously explored such institutions as The New York Times (Page One: Inside the New York Times) and the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute’s annual gala (The First Monday in May), is clearly a fan of Okpokwasili’s show. Perhaps it plays better when seen live. In the film, it comes across as the sort of affected dance-theater piece that garners critical raves and institutional grants while sharply dividing audiences.

The Bottom Line

It’s hard to get past the pretension.

Chronicling the show’s final tour culminating in the NYC borough that provides its title, the film begins with a scene of Okpokwasili weeping copiously after her closing night performance. The piece itself begins with the performer dancing with her back turned to the audience, her body erupting in spasmodic convulsions resembling not so much a “vibrating channel” as an epileptic seizure. The intense movement displays an impressive, precise physicality, but its meaning proves elusive even as the viewer becomes concerned for the performer’s safety when she pounds her head and body into the floor. The rest of the piece largely concerns two adolescent African-American girls dealing with such issues as their burgeoning sexuality while growing up in the 1980s, with Okpokwasili voicing both characters.

Besides its numerous excerpts from Bronx Gothic, the documentary includes behind-the-scenes footage; interviews with the performer and her husband, Peter Born, who expound on the show, which he directed; footage of the performer taking part in Q & A’s with audience members, many of whom are clearly deeply moved by what they’ve just seen; and, most amusingly, an interview with Okpokwasili’s African-immigrant parents, who seem at once proud of their daughter’s accomplishments and not quite in tune with her aesthetic. Asked if she wants to see video footage of Bronx Gothic, her mother asks warily if her daughter will be naked. When assured that she keeps her clothes on, the elderly woman sighs with relief. “OK, go ahead,” she instructs. Pleased by what she sees, she gets up and performs her own dance.  

Feminist and racial issues are front and center of both the piece and the documentary, with the latter featuring a montage of videos — many of which are now sadly familiar — in which police officers are seen using excessive force on African Americans.

Despite some undeniably powerful moments, Bronx Gothic, both the show and the film, suffers from an overall pretension. That the piece begins with the performer dancing alone, even before the audience starts to file in, tells you all you need to know about the self-absorption on display

Production: Abstract Media
Distributor: Grasshopper Films
Director: Andrew Rossi
Producers: Andrew Rossi, Okwui Okpokwasili
Executive producers: Andrew Coffman, Ian Hultquist, Peter Born, Josh Braun, Tom Efinger
Directors of photography: Bryan Sarkinen, Andrew Rossi
Editor: Andrew Coffman
Compose: Ian Hultquist

91 minutes