By Don Simpson | January 28, 2012
Director: Keith Miller
Writer: Keith Miller
Starring: Shannon Harper, Keith Miller, Ernest Bastien, Brian Ketover, Lily Jayne, B.J. Rubin, Manuel Maya, Mary Meyers, David Williams, Jaiden Kaine, Mark Anthony Hackett, Junior Adolphe, Willie Meyers, Margaret Meyers, Jay Williams, Thom Jude, Mark Read
Keith (Keith Miller) is out walking his pit bull puppy one night. Abu (Shannon Harper) approaches Keith while forcefully stating “That’s my dog!” A long and heated discussion about the rightful ownership of the dog ensues. Fueled by the two men’s most glaring physical (body size and race) and economic differences, the scenario becomes increasingly tense.
I am not sure how Hollywood would have handled such an opening scene — which was initially released as a short film Prince/William — but I can promise that the issues of race would not have been handled as adroitly as they are here. Writer-director Keith Miller adapted this scene from the actual discussion he had with Shannon Harper upon their initial meeting. Both men handled what could have very easily been an explosive situation quite maturely, eventually coming to a point of mutual respect and appreciation for each other. Then Miller met up with Harper the following day and proposed that they shoot a short film together. The rest is cinematic history…
As Welcome to Pine Hill progresses, we learn that Shannon’s character Abu is juggling two jobs — by day he works in an office as an insurance claims adjuster, by night he is a bouncer at a hipster bar. Abu’s heavy workload functions as a desperate attempt to distance himself from his shady, drug-dealing past; which means paying off past debts and separating himself from the negative influences of his friends. Eventually, Abu decides to escape Brooklyn altogether, so he flees deep into the Catskill Mountains to the backwoods town of Pine Hill…
The winner of the Grand Jury Sparky Award for Feature Narrative at Slamdance 2012, Welcome to Pine Hill is the most naturally positive portrayal of a black character that I have ever seen dedicated to film — and I am incredibly embarrassed to say that if I knew that a white guy directed Welcome to Pine Hill, I probably would not have even bothered watching it. But the outsider perspective actually works in Miller’s favor, and it certainly helps matters that he avoids all of Hollywood’s racial stereotypes. Most importantly, Miller does not approach Welcome to Pine Hill as a film about race; though he understands that our world is far from being colorblind and race-related issues are inescapable. (An alternate title for Welcome to Pine Hill could be: The Embarrassing Things That White Guys Say to Black Guys.)
Most impressive, however is Shannon Harper. As I commented to Miller, Harper never once seems like he is acting. Harper (who had never acted before in his life) essentially pulls off something that most seasoned actors have been trying to do for their entire careers. He never allows the camera (technically, three cameras) to compromise his amazing presence, and his resulting performance is one that I will probably never forget.