Baker is a well-oiled cog in the empathy machine that is cinema, and his work continues to impress with each subsequent entry in his oeuvre.
Filmmaker Sean Baker made waves in 2015 with his smash indie hit, Tangerine, which prompted cinematic and cultural conversations regarding the film’s gorgeously guerilla cinematography (it was shot on an Apple iPhone 5S with a Moondog Labs anamorphic lens adapter) and its considerate insight into the lives of two transgender prostitutes who tear their way across Hollywood on Christmas Eve. These waves evolved to tidal-like proportions with 2017’s The Florida Project, which observed the lives of homeless tenants at a motel on the outskirts of Disney World. The film earned Willem Dafoe an Oscar nomination for his supporting turn as the motel manager, and it cemented Baker as a serious face of 21st century independent cinema.
However, anyone paying attention to Baker’s earlier works would’ve discovered his aptitudes long before his breakout films entered the socio-cultural hivemind. Baker has always been a pioneer of strikingly realist independent cinema that strives to shine a light on under-represented issues and individuals in America, and his three works preceding Tangerine are undeniably evident of such prowess. Take Out (2004), Prince of Broadway (2008) and Starlet (2012) are a trio of curious and compassionate films that tackle tough topics with overwhelming empathy and warmth. Much like Tangerine and The Florida Project, Baker’s dexterity in crafting authentic environments and characters through neo-realist filmmaking techniques and inquisitive kindness has always been a common thread in his filmography.
Take Out, a fully-realized masterpiece that Baker co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou, follows an illegal Chinese immigrant named Ming Ding (the magnificent Charles Jang) as he attempts to pay off an enormous smuggling debt after being threatened by a loan shark’s lackeys in the film’s opening scene. A delivery bicyclist for a small Chinese restaurant in downtown New York, Ming Ding rides around the city with a depressive, desperate and determined demeanor, attempting to borrow money from friends and gather enough tips to accumulate the $800 he owes by end of day to prevent his overall debt from doubling. Shot on a Sony DSR with an estimated budget of just a few thousand dollars, Take Out is immensely absorbing despite its modest production. It feels like an unfair falsehood to highlight the film’s scruffy technical specs as insufficient, as they ultimately feel like triumphs when you consider just how much Baker and Tsou are able to accomplish with such minuscule funds.
Filmed on the fly using real locations and non-professional actors, Take Out uses its visual and aural design to craft a universe of constant chaos and motion. Wheels on bikes spinning, doorbells buzzing, apartment doors being knocked on, rain pouring down and splashing against the pavement, taxis honking, woks being shuffled over open flames, the ca-ching of a cash drawer opening—the movie is a whirlwind of sound and image that never slows down, immersing you in the desperate plight of Ming Ding and making his small world feel astoundingly gigantic and lived-in. It’s hard not to find yourself cheering on our protagonist as he revels in the small victories of each subsequent tip he makes, battling language barriers, casual racism and dismissive rudeness in the process. It’s also difficult not to become stressed, sad, angry or a combination of all three when Ming Ding’s success becomes threatened. Baker and Tsou invite us into this character’s world and challenge us with every observational moment, and the overall impact of the film is extraordinarily profound.
Prince of Broadway is an excellent follow-up and companion piece to Take Out, focusing once more on an immigrant’s survival on the streets of New York City. The film follows Lucky (Prince Adu), a street hustler who pushes name-brand knockoffs for a storefront owned by another immigrant, Levon (Karren Karagulian, a mainstay in all of Baker’s films). When an ex-girlfriend (Kat Sanchez) shows up touting a baby she claims is Lucky’s son, the swindler’s life is turned upside down when she simply puts the baby in his arms and leaves. Once again filmed with realist authenticity that uses the Big Apple as its stage, Prince of Broadway is at once a warming tale of a potential father and son and an expert exposé of immigrant life in America. Baker uses the NYC environment as a character on par with what Martin Scorsese accomplished in movies like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, where the city is defined as an atmosphere of disordered beauty that at times overpowers the citizens who walk its streets.
In Starlet, one can discern that Baker is working with a greater budget and better equipment (it was shot on a Sony CineAlta PMW-F3 with Lomo Lenses), but the fullness of Baker’s observational care remains consistent with his previous works. The film follows the surprise relationship that grows between 21-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway) and the elderly Sadie (Besedka Johnson) in California’s San Fernando Valley. While the relationship’s inception stems from somewhat shady territory, and Jane attempts to hide from Sadie the fact that she works as a porn star, the way the two women’s bond evolves is movingly natural and rich. The film appears as a stepping stone into Baker’s recent visual style as certain sunny aesthetic qualities begin to ring out through his cinematography and editing (Baker carried out the duties of Director of Photography for Take Out, Prince of Broadway and Tangerine, and has served as editor for all of his films). As editor specifically, Baker takes just as much care to highlight his characters as he does through his writing and direction. These are individuals he truly cares about, and his storytelling techniques are always evident of how he feels about their journey, relationships and emotions.
And that’s the constant thread of all his work: empathy. Out of all the independent filmmakers today, Sean Baker seems like the most appropriate artist to discuss when considering the following Roger Ebert quote:
“We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
Baker is a well-oiled cog in the empathy machine that is cinema, and his work continues to impress with each subsequent entry in his oeuvre. Ming Ding was born as he was. So was Lucky, and Jane, and Sadie, and every individual in the impressive ensembles of both Tangerine and The Florida Project. Baker is fully aware that these people are more than immigrants, prostitutes, porn stars and the impoverished. It’s our job not to look away from these portrayals, and that’s exactly what Sean Baker does. He simply sits back and observes, never judging, and lets these characters speak for themselves. In a current climate where immigrants are villainized by certain individuals in power and those different from us are often misunderstood by people unwilling to reach out and relate, Baker’s art is a force of unyielding good.