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Pretty Red Dress ★★★★



Director: Dionne Edwards

Cast : Natey Jones, Alexandra Burke, Temilola Olatunbosun

ReleaseLondon Film Festival 2022

Showbiz aspirations, family responsibilities and the impact of prison life collide in Dionne Edwards’ strikingly affecting feature film debut, Pretty Red Dress. The titular dress represents more than just a dazzling sartorial choice for a musical audition for this South London-based family when Travis, following his prison release, purchases it for his aspiring singer partner, Candice. What ensues is a darkly humorous, complex family drama starring an impressive Alexandra Burke in her acting debut. Pretty Red Dress is compelling from the outset as it releases the lid on the pressurised conventions of black masculinity nestled against Tina Turner songs and a coming-of-age dynamic. Pretty Red Dress explores those unspoken taboos that may occur behind closed doors within the black communities in a gripping London-focused tale.  

Pretty Red Dress fully immerses the audience in the passion of Travis and Candice’s relationship. Edwards does not unnecessarily provide a backstory and initially fragments their bodies with the camera angles focusing on feet as Travis walks out of prison and Candice’s arms and upper body as she warmly embraces Travis on his return. However, there is a deliberate omission within the family to discuss Travis’ stint in prison. The impact of an absent father resounds heavily within many black communities with families disrupted, given the disproportionately high amount of incarcerated black men. Pretty Red Dress does not dilute this aspect of criminality on London’s streets and observes Travis’ gritty reality by walking through the streets of South London in his ‘hood following his prison release.

This is where Pretty Red Dress deviates from other stereotypical London-based films starring a black male protagonist. Travis may be the film’s central character. Still, the perspectives of his partner, Candice and his daughter Kenisha, in a remarkable performance by newcomer Temilola Olatunbosun, are also taken into account. Whilst Travis had purchased the Tina Turner-inspired red sequined dress, in a romantic gesture, to help his partner audition to play Tina Turner, it is also an object he covets and touches admiringly. Parallels may therefore be drawn to Xavier Dolan’s film Laurence Anyways where its protagonist decided to dress as a woman to the detriment of his relationship. Still, in Pretty Red Dress, Travis never makes that deliberate decision. Instead, his secret is discovered in a gasp-out-loud moment, and he embraces a degree of plausible deniability to himself and his family with devastating effect.

Edwards sensitively depicts the lingering impact of Travis’ actions on the day-to-day life of his family members, which is accentuated by the conservative nature of many of the black communities, which may not be very inclusive. The film, therefore, portrays an accurate slice of life with its soundtrack and insight into the rituals that many of us perform to comply with societal norms but does not thoroughly delve into prejudice. Burke proves that she has the singing talent and natural acting ability in her role as Candice, with enjoyable chemistry between her and Natey Jones as Travis. Of course, this role may mirror Burke’s life, as there were reports that she had been selected to play Tina Turner in a film. Jones is a shining delight as the conflicted Travis in his moments of crisis and delivers such a nuanced performance, despite the character’s flaws in managing his attraction to cross-dressing honestly and courageously.

Edwards’ masterful direction of Burke, Jones and Olatunbosun ensures that the audience will remain invested in the plight and challenges Travis and their family faced. Travis may be utilising the power of his deep voice to instil fear and exert his masculinity. Still, behind closed doors, he wields a degree of submissiveness which may be the manifestation of prison life, for which his ankle bracelet remains that constant reminder. It is a complex dynamic to develop, and Jones deserves all the awards for his emotional but restrained delivery of a man in turmoil.

Pretty Red Dress does not wallow in the bleakness associated with its heavy themes. The film, therefore, retains a modicum of hope and positivity, enabling it to encourage and uplift audiences. The film’s soundtrack showcasing Burke’s songs also provides that degree of glamour, with other pieces providing that authenticity of the surrounding south London communities.

Pretty Red Dress is an astounding debut, and its unique perspective on black masculinity and likeable characters will delight audiences. Hopefully, more audiences will be able to view Edwards’ riveting debut as it is a must-see film that will certainly provide food for thought.       

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