A film as convoluted as its title, To Live and Die and Live is a poetic exploration of a new Detroit facing the same problems as the old one. Rust Belt cities throughout the country are undergoing a similar transformation: once built by a hard-working middle class that got their hands dirty and made things, they’ve been hollowed out and rediscovered by a new generation of gentrifying hipsters who eventually build breweries on every corner.
Films exploring this transformation of Rust Belt cities have primarily been the domain of under-resourced filmmakers working on under-resourced film productions, the kind of work Muhammad Abdullah (Amin Joseph) seemed to escape making by moving to the coasts. Returning to Detroit for his step-father’s funeral, Muhammad stops first at a night club for a cocaine-filled bender where he encounters Asia (Skye P Marshall), a party girl who lives like she may die young. A multi-hyphenate creative in Hollywood directing film and TV, Muhammad enjoys clout in town as the local boy who made good.
His stepfather also had demons of his own. A contractor who instilled a back-breaking work ethic in Muhammad, he’s left a series of debts in his wake that fall on Muhammad to shoulder in order to keep the illusion running. Like father, like son, Muhammad is in over his head, retreating to drugs, alcohol, and Detroit’s new party scene to escape while his family, including a sister, start to see through the illusion.
Written and directed by Qasim Basir, To Live and Die and Live never quite finds its footing, taking numerous detours that frustrate as Muhammad’s life falls apart. Part of the issue is we never quite see what makes Muhammad so brilliant apart from monologues about his love of Detroit despite its problems. Often residents of small (and large) cities get stuck in the kind of rut best described by the episode of the Simpsons when they put the glass dome over Springfield. A moment with Asia later in the film is heartbreakingly accurate as an exploration of frustration in cities like Detroit.
There’s much the film gets right, including a captivating scene wherein Muhammad stumbles through what should be a softball visit to his alma mater’s film class where he doesn’t demystify his success. It’s a shame the film’s plot, which contains a series of familiar beats, gets in the way of what might have been an interesting character study. Dragging in passages as egos and baggage consume the grieving process, one wishes Basir was a bit more focused, not feeling the need to increase the stakes in a way that feels artificial. The mood created by Basir, who also photographed To Live and Die and Live, is far more interesting than any over-the-top, formulaic family drama the film boxes itself into.
To Live and Die and Live premiered at Sundance 2023.