Zeinabu Irene Davis’s inspired debut feature, Compensation, may very well find a place in cinematic history for its originality in form and content. Davis has both created a breakthrough exploration of black, deaf culture and reinvented “silent film” as a cinematic form for hearing and non-hearing audiences alike.
Inspired by the 1906 poem by African American writer, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Compensation tells two parallel love stories, set in turn-of-the-century and present-day Chicago, both about the relationship between a deaf woman and a hearing man.
Romance blossoms one day on a sandy shore when Malindy, an industrious and intelligent woman who struggles against segregation at her school for the deaf, meets Arthur Jones, an illiterate migrant worker from Mississippi. Similarly, modern-day Malaika and Nico meet on the beach; after a fitful series of encounters, they eventually fall in love. Both relationships promise lifelong happiness until the two couples are threatened by the epidemics of their eras.
The same actors are featured in both stories, articulating the timeless nature of the obstacles they encounter. Davis’s lyrical narrative adopts as its aesthetic the sensibility of deaf people, empowering the film with a quiet and enormous strength. A vintage Chicago is vividly recreated through an impressive combination of archival photography and ornate title cards, and a complex audio design of ragtime piano and ambient sound. Compensation is a layered and groundbreaking film about human beings caught up in a powerful and redemptive love that still cannot eradicate the presence of death.