Filmmaker Qasim Basir is no stranger to Sundance. In January 2018, his film A Boy. A Girl. A Dream: Love on Election Night made its debut at the festival. (BGN reviewed the film during its run at the American Black Film Festival in June of that same year.) Basir has an eye for focusing on interpersonal relationships between men and women and how those dynamics come into play within the sphere of influence that surrounds them.
In his latest film, To Live and Die and Live, Basir focuses on Muhammad (Amin Joseph), who returns home to Detroit to bury his stepfather, Khalid. There are some unpaid debts left behind that are causing some strain on the family, and, in the midst of all of this, Muhammad is a functioning alcoholic and drug addict.
As he tries to keep this hidden from his devout Muslim family, he escapes into the nightlife and meets Asia (Skye P. Marshall), who sweeps him off his feet and helps fuel his drug-induced lifestyle in an intoxicating romance. Asia has a secret of her own that is the reason why she medicates herself with narcotics to take away the pain of her own harsh reality. Meanwhile, Muhammad is trying to get his career together as everything is slowing falling apart and he’s coming to terms with the loss of Khalid.
Basir brings back actor Omari Hardwick, who worked with the director as the protagonist in A Boy. A Girl. A Dream: Love on Election Night. This time around, he plays a supporting role as Kevin, a construction worker who worked with Khalid, who was a building contractor. There’s unfinished contract work in the community, and Kevin believes that Muhammad is the best man for the job — after all, who knows the neighborhood better than a man who grew up with the people who live there? Sadly Muhammad is a man who lacks self-esteem. He hasn’t completely given up, but mood-altering substances are the only thing that give him some sense of normalcy.
Filmmaker Basir described the process of creating To Live and Die and Live as taking shape in his heart shortly after he moved from Los Angeles back to his hometown of Michigan. This was during the pandemic and shortly after the brutal murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. As he had his own struggles in the film business, the seed formed and the idea of Muhammad’s story was brought to life in this gut-wrenching narrative.
Tonally To Live and Die and Live is a downer, so you definitely need to set yourself up for an intense drama here. However, the payoff is a captivating story with some incredible performances. Joseph’s performance was tough to watch because Muhammad was a walking grenade about to explode at any time. There were moments when I as a viewer was in fear for this character’s life and knew there was nothing keeping him from danger. This cavalier attitude toward life reminded me of Nicolas Cage’s character Ben in the 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas. During various scenes of the film, Muhammad is drinking bottles of vodka like an athlete drinking Gatorade after a 2-mile run.
The story extends beyond Muhammad. There are some other key players and actors in the film, such as Cory Hardrict, Maryam Basir, and Dana Gourrier. However, what’s notable about this story is how Muhammad juggles all the setbacks happening around him.
The core of the film is how he deals with each character and each situation and does so in a unique way. For example, in some circumstances he grants more grace to people whom he barely knows than to his own family or people who have been in his life for years. In some moments, he shows compassion that is sincere, genuine, and authentic, and in the following scene he’s cold, withdrawn, and distant. This is a testament not only to Joseph’s excellent performance as an actor but also to Basir’s skilled character building. Their creative teamwork gives layer, depth, nuance, and substance to a story that could easily fall into the trap of being yet another trope of the drugged-up, tragic, struggling filmmaker just trying to get by. There’s more to Muhammad than meets the eye, and that’s what makes this film and story so compelling.
My only criticism of the film is that the pacing is a little too slow for my taste. It tends to drag in some scenes. But overall the art is what drives the film, and pristine art can take time.
To Live and Die and Live premiered January 20 at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and will be playing through the rest of the festival, which ends January 29.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.