Ming of Harlem  Twenty One Storeys in the Air




The director Phillip Warnell is, understandably, described here not as a documentarian but as an artist/filmmaker.


Ming of Harlem Twenty One Storeys in the Air

Tiger beat


I approached this film aware of the fact that it features the Afro-American Antoine Yates who was arrested in 2003 when it became known that he was keeping a three-year-old Bengal tiger, Ming, in his high-rise apartment together with an alligator, Al, some seven feet in length. Add that the locals gave him their support recognising his genuine love of animals and dubbing him the Dr. Doolittle of Harlem and one can imagine that Yates would appeal as someone to place screen centre in a documentary.


But what we have here is not the kind of film that such material suggests, even if the first third of it is unconventional only in the time taken to capture the area as it is today. Yates proves to have an idiosyncratic outlook stressing that his set up in 2003 should not have been questioned because his apartment offered the most secure location possible and that any complaints about keeping the animals indoors would only have been justified if a fuss was made equally about birds in cages and fish in tanks. However, why Yates’s search for companionship took this bizarre form and how he acquired the animals and got them into his apartment on the twenty-first floor are matters never investigated.


Instead, at least half of the film offers an essentially wordless study of a substitute Ming and later a substitute Al in sets akin to the apartment specially constructed for this film. The soundtrack kids us that we are still in New York, but the fact that Yates bonded with his animals and that this footage, save for the brief unexplained presence of a young girl, shows the animals alone makes the relevance of this material dubious in the extreme. We do hear a poem translated into English, this being  “Oh, the Animals of Language” by the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, but that only confirms, as does a quote from Jacques Derrida, that this film is most likely to appeal to those who find significance rather than pretentiousness in Warnell’s approach. In the last third Yates does return, but we get more of the contrived animal shots as well so we never really get back to the tone of the earlier scenes. At 71 minutes the film is of modest length but it is quite long enough for one to recognise that it is at best an acquired taste.




Featuring: Antoine Yates.


Dir Phillip Warnell, Pro Phillip Warnell and Madeleine Molyneaux, Text by Jean-Luc Nancy, Ph David Raedeker, Ed Warnell and Chiara Armentano, Music Hildur Gudnadóttir.


Big Other Films/The Wellcome Trust/Picture Palace Pictures/Michigan Films etc.- Soda Pictures.
71 mins. UK/USA/Belgium/France. 2014. Rel: 22 July 2016. Cert. U.