Who am I? That's the question that Thomas Allen Harris asks himself
in That's My Face, a personal exploration of his own identity
as an individual and as an African-American, an exploration that ends
up taking him to Africa and finally to Brazil to find answers.
That's My Face is fundamentally a missed opportunity. The film
opens up a myriad of potentially fascinating topics. It could explore
the nature of African-American identity, both within the United
States and in Africa. It could follow the changing nature of the
Black experience over the course of time, from the 1960s to the
present day. It could look at what it means to be Black in different
countries: in Tanzania, in Brazil, in the United States. It could
tell the personal story of a young man coming to grips with his own
But That's My Face ends up doing none of those things. It
briefly touches on each of them, just enough to make the viewer
realize that there's a lot that could be said... and then moves on.
The film opens in a weirdly mystical way, with the narrator telling
us about his experiences as a child with a blurred "other
vision" that allows him to see beyond the surface of things, and
his early connection with strange spirits or perhaps ghosts. It's not
clear what we're supposed to make of this, but soon the narrative
seems to settle down, as the narrator, Harris himself, tells us about
his childhood and his family's experiences with Africa and their
search for an African identity.
This early-to-middle portion of the film seems promising, suggesting
that it will reveal a personal look both at the burgeoning
Pan-African movement and at the narrator's uncomfortable relationship
with mainstream culture back in the U.S. However, the focus of the
film is soon lost in a strange muddle of mysticism. Instead of
exploring the interesting issues that are brought up early on, Harris
becomes fascinated with his spirit dreams and their potential
connection to the ancient African gods. As the film progresses, it
becomes more and more introspective, even self-centered. In the end,
while Harris may have found personal revelations in his journey, they
remain too personal; he isn't able to intelligibly communicate what
he's found to the viewer.
It doesn't help That's My Face that the filmmaking style is
often rather disconcerting, even disruptive. Harris' narration is
intercut with comments from his family about their own experiences;
that's a perfectly fine technique, and it's interesting to hear other
perspectives, but many times the intercutting has been taken to an
extreme, so that a sentence that's begun by one person is completed
by another. It's a jarring effect that only serves to distract from
what's actually being said.
The visual footage appears to all be home-video material, often of
the narrator's family, sometimes of the events and people whom he
observes on his journey. Again, this seems like a good idea, as it
gives a personal touch to a film that's fundamentally about a
personal journey. Where it falters, though, is in Harris' fixation on
dreamlike, often random-seeming images; the camera will linger on a
single part of a person's body, zoom into the scene in odd ways, or
stay focused on a particular image for a long time without any
narration. A few tricks like this might be visually interesting, but
when it's combined with the unfocused, dreamlike narration, the
effect is to disengage the viewer from what's going on.
That's My Face is a film that's very difficult to rate in
terms of image quality. Since all its footage appears to be
home-video or archival material, it's naturally not going to look as
good as a film that uses fresh footage shot on modern film stock. All
in all, the image is watchable, though of course rather fuzzy and
with colors looking a bit "off" at times.
That's My Face is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect
ratio; it's a mix of black and white and color footage.
The soundtrack for That's My Face offers a basic but quite
satisfactory audio experience. Harris' narration is generally clear
and easy to understand, though a bit muted at times; the musical
score is handled well and doesn't overbalance the speakers.
There's not a whole lot of interest here. The main special feature is
an 18-minute section of outtakes from the film, with a commentary
from Thomas Allen Harris and his mother, Rudean Leinaeng. This is
actually much less interesting than it sounds; rather than talking
about the process of making the film, or why he chose not to include
this footage, Harris and his mother just talk about what's appearing
on the screen. "That's my friend so-and-so at his apartment...
That's my uncle..." There are few things as pointless as
watching a stranger's random home video footage, and that's what this
We also get a filmography of Harris, and a set of weblinks.
This 56-minute documentary is certainly distinctive, with its
dreamlike, highly personal account of one man's quest to find his
identity as an African-American. Unfortunately, That's My Face
is largely a showcase of missed opportunities, with the film evoking
interesting themes and issues but then leaving them untouched in
favor of an unsatisfying mysticism. It may be worth a rental if you
are in a very experimental mood, but in general it doesn't quite make
the cut, and I'll suggest just skipping it.