When I was 5 or 6 years old my father gave me his stamp collection. Consisting primarily of stamps issued by Britain and her former (and, in some cases, then current) colonies and dependencies, his collection sparked an obsession with geography and history that’s never left me: I wanted to find the mysteriously named Straits Settlements, Tristan da Cunha, and Orange Free State on a map and then learn as much as I could about them.
Though I’m no longer an active philatelist, I still have those stamps, and my interest in geography never ended. Consequently, I get special pleasure from films produced in smaller countries not generally associated with ‘the business’ — and this week I’m getting my kicks courtesy of Play the Devil (screening at Pacific Film Archive at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 22, as part of the series ‘African Film Festival 2018’) , a co-production from the Caribbean nations of the Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago.
Written and directed by Bahamian filmmaker Maria Govan, Play the Devil takes place during the days before Carnival, an annual Lenten celebration occurring immediately before Ash Wednesday. Elements of Trinidadian Carnival include stick fighting, steelpan drumming, and the daubing of copious amounts of blue paint, which plays a pivotal role in a ritual known as ‘Jab’.
18-year old Gregory (Petrice Jones) is a top student with a budding stage career and a talent for photography. Grandmother (Penelope Spencer) is bound and determined to see him succeed where elder brother Fayne (Nickolai Salcedo), a small time drug dealer with a wicked temper, has failed.
The unexpected intervention of wealthy businessman James (Gareth Jenkins) offers Gregory some new opportunities, but also adds complications to Grandma’s plans for her best boy – especially when a mutual attraction develops between the two men. With few legal protections, queer Trinidadians keep their private lives on the down low; the culture’s conservatism means that Gregory has some difficult and troubling decisions ahead of him.
Almost entirely self-taught, director Govan’s filmmaking experience extended no further than a gig as a Hollywood personal assistant before she made her first feature, Rain, in 2008. Her relative inexperience isn’t reflected by what we see on the screen in Play the Devil, which looks as good as — if not better than — many films produced by expensively trained American film school graduates.
Though I wasn’t particularly taken with Jenkins’ low-affect performance (he also came to the film with minimal experience), the rest of the cast is more than adequate. Jones and Spencer are excellent, Salcedo glowers convincingly as the angry and resentful Fayne, and Akil Nicholas and Che Rodriguez leave their respective marks as Gregory’s best friend and his estranged father.
Though reflective of its director’s personal life — Govan grew up in Nassau, where she came to terms with her own sexuality in a sometimes hostile environment — Play the Devil’s story is entirely fictional. An excellent little film that deserved much wider exposure than the brief run it received on the festival circuit, this one comes highly recommended – even for those of you who don’t collect stamps.