Equipped with a 16mm camera and $20,000, actor John Cassavetes stepped out of the frame and ventured into his first production in the driving seat. An improvised drama about racial tension in NYC, Shadows is heralded as a landmark for independent American filmmaking.
The loosely fictional story depicts the struggle of three black siblings living in rundown Manhattan. The paternal older brother Hugh (Hugh Hurd), a hopeful jazz musician, watches over messy-head Ben (Ben Carruthers) and nothing-short-of-beautiful Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), both of whom can pass for white socialites. Darker-skinned than his younger siblings, Hugh is embittered due to the limited opportunities open to him; his artistic potential wasted by being forced to play trumpet in the city’s seedy strip joints, just as a way to make ends meet.
All the while, Lelia hooks up with the beatnik art crowd, fluttering between them, teasing and flirting her way to the next free drink. She has an affair with Tony (Anthony Ray), a weedy young white guy, and, after a lot of convincing gives up her virginity to him. When the dime drops and Tony figures out her true ethnicity and background, he abandons her. With carefree Ben looming in the shadows the whole time, he spends his days carousing and desperately trying to keep in with the bohemian white crowd and hide his true identity.
Even though the improvisation is perfectly paired with the BeBop free jazz stylings of bassist Charles Mingus, Cassavetes’ guerilla filmmaking is the most impetuous element of Shadows. Characterised by extreme, often out of focus close-ups, the result is left imbalanced between expressionism and directorial recklessness. Either way, such vibrancy in the black and white frame exhibits Cassavetes as an eager and passionate director; more interested in telling a bold, if considerably dated story on societal prejudices rather than producing a polished picture. In the end, Shadows is a quintessentially personal movie. An example of maverick movie-making which elevates from its rudimentary construction and achieves a startling emotional sincerity.