Unknown Soldier was written and directed by Ferenc Tóth. It is about an 18-year-old boy who, once evicted from their Harlem apartment after his father’s death, ends up on the streets. Tóth himself had lived in Harlem and wanted to make a film about those he knew there.
It begins in “set-up” mode. A party scene establishes the amiable protagonist as sociably “connected.” His father, an automobile mechanic, lends his son money for “the last time” when Ellison (“L”) has already exhausted his income from his new job at the pet shop. We watch the overweight father overeating fatty food and, huffing and puffing, barely making it up the stairs to his apartment. He is a heart attack, then, waiting to happen, and the broad, idyllic strokes with which the father-son relationship is painted, combined with the emphatic treatment of the state of the father’s health, help create an air of unreality. Redemptive: the unexplained absent mother. But something else reverses the clumsy first impression Tóth has made: Whereas earlier L had zipped through his tasks at work, now we see him lumbering through these. Because he is carrying the weight of his father’s loss, L appears prematurely old. Tóth expressively holds his digital video camera on the boy’s back as L, after work, slowly disappears into the night.
L’s scramble to survive includes trying to enlist in the Army. The long delay of this attempt shows L resisting the cliché that would certify his humiliation, and protesting the meager opportunities available for African-American youth. Ironically, L is rejected on medical grounds, because he is asthmatic, and in retrospect one wonders if asthma contributed to his father’s death. L slides into criminal activity. A subsequent decision, however, reverses the slide—morally, at least.
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