Killing Lazarus

Dances With Films

Screened at Dances with Films in 2016 and more recently at the 2017 Pan African Film & Arts Festival,  Killing Lazarus (2015) is the auspicious feature debut from writer/producer/director Desmond Faison. With producers Jahmela Biggs who also acts in the film and Issa Rae, Faison examines how crime afflicts the African American community while injecting fantasy into his reality based tale.

Thurgood (Deji LaRay) is a drug dealer. He’s good looking, successful and makes no apologies. He’s a hardened criminal but not without a conscience. He’s not going straight immediately, just taking baby steps in that direction by donating to a church and helping to fund programs there. Rarely do we get a glimpse into the psychological makeup of a drug dealer. We learn of Thurgood’s troubled past and what motivates him. Faison, however, isn’t here to tell a conventional story. By the end, much of what we thought we knew gets turned on its head, our expectations confounded.

Wade Maurice Johnson Jr. and Robert Davis as the young Lazarus and Thurgood

From childhood, Thurgood has been with Lazarus (Tracey Dukes). He’s the bad influence that every parent, regardless of ethnicity, dreads. As kids, Lazarus gets Thurgood into mischief and suspended from school. As adults, Lazarus is still right beside him as the enforcer of their gang. Do bad influences rob people of their free will and overwhelm good intentions? Dukes plays it with evil, green-eyed charm, an Iago to Thurgood’s Othello. Lazarus is both best friend and worst enemy. That type of friendship is reminiscent of Boyz in the Hood (1991) but Faison gets deeper into the character’s psychology. At the Q&A, he said the film was cast from the black internet world, plus “audition tapes, Actors Access. Tracy’s the lunatic I played flag football with. I asked him one day when we were playing football, ‘Are you an actor?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’”

As T’s thirtieth birthday party approaches, the two partners are in conflict over business operations. Police may have infiltrated their ranks. Baxter (Billy Mayo), a black detective believes he finally has the goods on them. Under pressure from the top brass, Baxter is skeptical of Thurgood’s religious convergence and believes he’s “playing” John, the church pastor (Amanuel Richards). We in the audience also wonder about Thurgood. He seems completely sincere one moment, then does something unthinkable. Is that the mark of a master manipulator or is he a good man at his core? When Amy (Madia Hill), a black Desdemona from the educated class, moves in next door, she appears to offer him redemption. Lazarus has other plans.

The film gets the details and subtleties right. It makes a good case for people telling their own stories. Faison ended the Q&A by saying, “I wanted to have these two warring personalities and to make a huge collision in genre. At the risk of a Malcolm X soapbox, I don’t think that in recent times our stories are being told with any kind of depth. So, taking the idea of drama with black folks and putting a twist on it and doing it in a tasteful and huge way was really important. … In the way that the news portrays young black males, they make it seem like it’s a hobby for us or it’s something we decided to do on the weekend, and never examine where these people came from, how they got to where they were. I’m not saying this [film] is a typical story, but I’m saying that just like with everybody else on the planet, there’s a reason why people are like they are. We need to explore that as well without beating people over the head.”

First published in the Festival Pass column of Noir City Fall 2016