For a movie that begins with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., "Nola Circus" is impressively tone deaf on race. Written and directed by French filmmaker Luc Annest, the comedy traffics in stereotypes and uses hate speech with an embarrassing frequency. It features elements of a minstrel show in costume and performance that will make audiences cringe — without making them laugh.
Set against the backdrop of rival barbershops in New Orleans, Will (Martin Bats Bradford), is secretly romancing Nola (a miscast Jessica Morali), the sister of the volatile Denzel (Reginal Varice). When Will tells Denzel that a pizza deliveryman is the one dating Nola, Denzel begins fighting each one he can find. Will's lie starts a war with the local Italian restaurant, whose employees call in outside help to stop Denzel.
For all its problems of racist overtones, awful dialogue and scattershot plot, "Nola Circus" looks gorgeous. Annest has a great eye, as does his cinematographer Andrew Strahorn, with both interiors and exteriors boasting rich colors and nice framing. However, the strong visual style can't make up for a film that seems unaware of its cultural context and how it will be seen in 2017 and beyond. The flaws of "Nola Circus" aren't limited to its outrageous and offensive approach. It's that it never succeeds in bringing viewers onto its wavelength, which is probably a good thing for humanity's sake.
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: Arena Cinelounge Sunset, Hollywood