Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air could have been a stellar documentary given its subject. Alas, it’s not. The film’s principle voice – and limited success – lies with the eminently watchable, animal-loving Antoine Yates, who, in 2003, was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment for housing a Bengal tiger (Ming) and alligator (named Al) in his spacious twenty-first floor Harlem apartment. The presence of said predators only came to light when Ming took a fancy to, and chomped down on, his master’s leg and a 911 call had to be made. It is a story that sounds almost too bizarre for fiction, let alone a factual expose.
Striving for a contemplation of man and nature’s symbiosis, the disparate and incoherent blend of opening scenes, initially intriguing, becomes symptomatic of a piece that is frustratingly pretentious. A quote from French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida gets the ball rolling: “Thinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry.” So far so leftfield, but that’s OK. Getting inside the psyche of a tiger sounds interesting. Next up is library footage of renowned tamer Mabel Stark; an excerpt of her training methods and recollections of injuries sustained underline the pitfalls of hanging out with a savage beast for those viewers who would look upon a tiger as just a big cuddly cat. A transcript of police traffic then overlays a black screen: there are suspicious goings on in a Harlem tower block and units need to respond.
Hoping that these opening elements will intersect or fuse at some point, it soon becomes clear that director Phillip Warnell was uncertain as to where to focus his documentary. Mabel doesn’t reappear and police chatter cuts in intermittently but Ming of Harlem is at its best when focused on the enigmatic Yates. How he came by the animals is never made clear, and the why is also left up to supposition but that is unimportant. He speaks with an eloquence and logic which presents a number of interesting, albeit idealistic, hypotheses: why should some animals be caged and others not? A budgie is less likely to bite your leg off but it’s an interesting point by a genuine Doctor Dolittle whose soul is left bereft by the absence of his feline pal.
Just as the post-colon Twenty One Storeys in the Air embellishment of the title feels surplus to requirements, so does the second half of an already brief seventy minute runtime. Derrida’s musings are intoned with such soporific dullness by a female narrator that little of the philosophical ramblings hit home. Static cameras observe the animals, enclosed but in no way distressed, content to amble around a recreated apartment at their leisure. Like us, they simply seem bored and unfulfilled.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens