Another issue from Joe Nooft.

“I’m from where people get shot on a regular basis, and it’s nothing.” That place is not Pine Hill. No, Pine Hill is tranquil, painted with gold beams of sunlight that singe through a thick forest canopy, and where the bluebird song saturates the crisp air. In Pine Hill the pace of life is stripped down to pure existence, life and death. No, Pine Hill is not where Abu, the 300+ pound African American protagonist, is from, but it is where he is going.

I was initially skeptical about picking Welcome to Pine Hill as a Netflix subject. It’s a lightly reviewed film that I had honestly heard nothing about. The film’s noteworthy inspiration is what eventually drove me to press play. Welcome to Pine Hill evolved from, and also begins with, director Keith Miller’s original short film, Prince/William. Elongating a short into a feature length film is by no means an uncommon tradition, especially in the realm of indie films, but Prince/William is atypical in that it is an exact reenactment of a past, real life altercation between Miller and Shanon “Abu” Harper, who even play themselves in both Prince/William and Welcome to Pine Hill.

Welcome to Pine Hill: Trailer from K M on Vimeo.

The situation occurs when Abu catches Miller walking his long lost dog, Prince, who Miller has renamed William (an ironic pun?). Prince/William is really just a slow burn depiction of an eight minute argument about whom of the two deserved the dog the most. Where the dynamism of the film really lives is in the understated surfacing of the cultural, somewhat stereotypical, differences between Abu, a large black man from East New York City, and Miller, a middle class white man with slight sense of entitlement. Abu notes this, citing his self-proclaimed metamorphosis from a drug dealing criminal to a law abiding citizen, “We from two different worlds.” Gushing words that trickle into Miller’s paranoid ears, but they are only insecure threats from an already defeated man. In the end Abu agrees to part with Prince/William, using abandonment as his final action of severing ties with his troubled past.

For Miller, that authentic New York night that he met Abu must have been a humbling, if not life changing encounter. It compelled him to cultivate a relationship and collaborate with the man who he had unquestionably wronged; a man, so different from himself, who had shown him a slice of unexpected grace. He draws from that experience to fabricate a possible post-Prince/William life path for Abu in Welcome to Pine Hill. 

pine-hillAfter forfeiting his dog to Miller, Abu continues to take steps in the perceived right direction, hoping that a new future will vindicate his past. Abu is not quite the “rags to riches” hero we are so accustomed to loving. Instead, he’s more of a “rags to washcloths” kind of guy. He’s not aiming to become a celebrity, but he does have a respectable, low end job with an insurance company. He wasn’t invited to live in mansion with a rich white family, but he does rent out an appropriately adequate apartment. He’s not eating surf and turf for dinner, but he is putting food on the table. For the most part, Abu is doing a pretty decent job at creating his American Dream, swapping out his past identity for a more favorable one. His biggest transformational struggle lies, perhaps, in belonging to a community. The friends from his old world still cling to him loosely, using him chiefly for personal gain, and the inhabitants of his new world don’t quite know how to coexist with him, constantly asking him innocent but uninformed questions like, “What part of Africa are you from?” and “Have you ever been shot at?”. Abu is alone, but not terribly torn up about it. It’s just part of the process.

Welcome to Pine Hill’s most crippling blow comes pretty early in the film, when we learn that Abu has a very rare form of terminal cancer. In the film, this punch to the gut is delivered nonchalantly. The scene following Abu’s diagnosis is just a still shot of him waiting for a plate of leftovers to finish warming up in his microwave oven. While it is only a minute or two long scene, it drags on forever, symbolizing Abu’s now set-in-stone fate: with over half the movie yet to play, Abu is just waiting to die. From Pine Hill’s opening sequence, the Prince/William short, Abu carries with him this sense of doom that no matter how hard he works at shaping his life, something will eventually go awry, and now it has. Doom is no longer a sense, it is Abu’s reality.

He responds to his prognosis by quietly proceeding through life per usual. He doesn’t tell anybody, because he doesn’t really have anyone to tell, not even his distant mother, who he is mending a relationship with, is kept in the dark. Abu eventually does crack. While having a beer at a hipster-run bar where he occasionally bounces to earn extra cash on the side, two bar employees engage in a condescending conversation with him, intrinsically melting his life down to “what you hear in rap songs”. Abu, infuriated by this patronization, shows his first real flare of passionate emotion, smashing his beer bottle onto the floor before grabbing a taxi home. In trying to make small talk with his Ecuadorian cab driver, Abu finds that the driver speaks little to no English. Finally, someone he can talk to; someone who is not going to judge him for his past or dictate his future. Someone who will only listen, because that’s all the cab driver could do. Abu makes his first confession about his fate, “Get a pain in your gut and adios… it’s freaking stupid man, to die of something you can’t even pronounce.” As a viewer, those confessions provide relief, because now I know Abu does fear, he does feel the pain, he’s not just blindly accepting death. Now Abu’s life objective has again shifted, for the last time, from creating the ideal life into uncovering peace; he’s searching for Pine Hill.

While watching Welcome to Pine Hill, I wanted to cast anyone and everyone but myself as Abu: a family member struggling to find themselves, a friend who is going through in a transitional phase of life, or someone who is completely unsure/unconvinced that something like Grace is real, let alone acceptable. But when Abu finally makes his confession, when he finally feels the weight of his impending death, earnest and personal parallels to Abu’s story became apparent in my own.


Like Abu, I often believe my identity can be shapeshifted, remolded into the current ideal. I see what is working in the lives of others to make them smile, and forcefully strive for change in my own life. Often times this results in kicking out the circumstances that God has presented, whether they be enjoyable or challenging. It is not until I see the full brokenness of my being that I can humbly admit that I am a slave to my sins, as Christ says in John 8:34. The doomed fate is, like Abu’s cancer, gloomy to say the least. All the meticulous work I put into self-improvement crumbles to dust in the wake of John 8:34. But then, and only then, I am able to accept John 8:35-36: “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In those verses, I find my cab driver, who sees me, listens empathetically, and acts, upon my life. He uses the good and the bad of life to reveal the truth of who I am in Him.

We are set free from having to wear our created identities like mood rings in order to compensate for our impending doom, because there exists a God who knows full well what we deserve, but who, despite that, willing suffocates our doom with a love that identifies us as His children (1 John 3:1-3) and offers “Pine Hill”. I’m not sure that I will ever not be in the middle of an identity crisis this side of death, but I am thankful for truth of my real identity. (And I am also excited to hear more about identity at this year’s Spring Mockingbird Conference!)