Many seem to be put off documentaries believing them to be a bit too high brow and frankly when it starts with a quote from (French) philosopher Jacques Derrida you know the topic is hardly likely to be about pop moppets, One Direction. So anyone expecting to see Ming of Harlem expecting to see the real life story of Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless having been exiled from Planet Mongo to New York’s Harlem district is going to be disappointed. Instead this is the true life story of Antoine Yates who kept a Bengal Tiger and a 7ft alligator in his 21st floor apartment….um……that’s it. Which is a shame as there is compelling story here which has been overlooked by film maker Phillip Warnell in favour of a more experimental approach where Yates has been filmed looking out of a car window as he’s driven round Harlem spouting home grown philosophies unable to understand why he was prosecuted and was banged up in prison for five months in 2003. Even now he tries to excuse what he did by equating keeping a bloody great tiger and a voracious alligator in a flat with keeping budgie in a cage and fish in a tank. Yates’ budgie analogy is fitting as frankly he seems have a head full of them.
As some sort of examination of the animal’s behaviour a vast tract of the film is spent with locked off cameras watching a tiger wandering around a purpose built replica of his flat. It’s a bit like watching animals plodding around their cages at the zoo except and there’s only a certain amount of time before the novelty wears off and you walk to the next enclosure. Here it just goes on and on and on and it’s a sure sign that you’re getting bored when the only moment of interest is when the tiger sprays a bathroom door with a hot jet of fresh pee and that’s a sentence I never thought I’d be writing! The sequence is as dull for the tiger as it is for the audience. What with that sequence and a number of static shots of nothing of any consequence which go on that little bit too long it drags the already plodding pace to a standstill which is saying something for such a film that is only just over an hour long.
At the time the story was something of a novelty in New York with local politicians supporting the well meaning but muddle headed Yates who later tried to sue the police for not using a warrant (which they didn’t need). It’s a story that deserves a better treatment than this which seems to be much more of a touchy feely approach whereas for many outside the US unfamiliar with what happened would like to hear about what the neighbours knew, how he got away with it for so long, how he was found out, the incident of the police marksmen having to abseil down the side of the building to shoot and anaesthetise the tiger. The only real moments of levity in it are in a caption towards the end when Yates wanted to know where his pet rabbit was to which the judge told him that as he kept an alligator in the same flat it didn’t take a genius to work out what had happened.
The documentary has won two awards at documentary festivals but in reality this is something of a missed opportunity by the film makers for what is undoubtedly an interesting New York story.
Here’s the trailer: