“Dayveon”: Growing up poor and Black in rural Arkansas

Dayveon, the central character in Amman Abbasi’s new film of the same name, is a study in contrasts. He lives amidst great beauty and great danger. The at-risk African-American adolescent is coming of age in rural Arkansas. Lush landscape envelopes the meager shanty where he lives with his sister, Kim (Chastity Moore), and her boyfriend, Brian (Dontrell Bright). Kim and Brian try their best to instill value, discipline, and love.

The camera washes us in soothing shades of green, even as it marks Dayveon’s anger and confusion. Riding his bike through dirt backroads, he calls everything in his path “stupid.” He is bored and agitated, upset at being asked to help maintain the house, bothered by even having to live there. He seems unable to register the love and support offered by Kim and Brian, who work long hours at marginal, low-paying jobs that help support Dayveon. They don’t seem to be able to replace the loss of his idolized older brother.

Lurking outside this immediate circle, the local gang pounces on Dayveon. They rough him up, jumping him into their ranks. They offer him camaraderie, excitement, structure, and easy, though dangerous, money. As he is recruited for more difficult, dangerous gang work, tension ratchets up. Will Dayveon be yet another life lost to crime? Will he mature enough to realize the gang’s path is a dead-end? Will the heartfelt efforts of his sister and brother-in-law be enough to rescue Dayveon?

In his very first full-length film, Pakistani-American writer-director Amman Abbasi has delivered a fine story. The film is well-paced, advancing dramatic tension as it builds character. He extracts strong and nuanced performances from both principals and supporting cast. Although local dialect may prove challenging for some, the thrust of scene structure and action is clear.

Abbasi approached his work like a documentarian. He did careful research, interviewed gang members, and listened to the stories of involved youth. Experienced executive producers James Schamus (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Arkansan David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) were part of the creative production team.

The film achieves a fine balance of lyrical style with a rough authenticity. It wears its crystal cinematography and honest emotion on the tensile framework of a family’s struggle to survive and stay together. This is not a work that romanticizes the marginalized working class. But it is a film that brings clear-eyed realism. Dayveon is neither cynical, nor desperate. The roots of human nature offer a glimmer of optimism.

Hopefully, Abbasi’s future work will show us more examples of how we can nourish that hope.


Directed by Amman Abbasi

1h 15min; Opened Sept. 13



Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.