In its methodical approach to mental health, To Live and Die and Live defies and exceeds emotional expectations.


Director Qasim Basir returned to the Sundance Film Festival to present his new feature film, To live and die and live. In it, he creates a beautiful love letter to Detroit, Michigan by exploring the intoxicants of nightlife and highlighting alluring landscapes. Amin Joseph stars as Muhammad, a black film director who carries several heavy burdens and even worse coping mechanisms. As a testament to its strong script, Basir’s latest tackles various themes related to addiction, religion and even manhood. And in its methodical approach to addressing mental health, To live and die and live defies and exceeds emotional expectations.

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After traveling to a rebuilt Detroit, to a community he once called home and now feels alienated from, Muhammad returns to face some family challenges after his much-loved stepfather has just passed away. Viewers first see Muhammad throw himself fully into the fast life, where he drinks heavily and snorts cocaine. Something has driven him to this love affair with secular vices as frequent interactions with his family suggest a strong Muslim background. Unable to shake off his despondency and find the will to live, Muhammad moves on while battling addiction in private, disappearing into a heady fling with the mysterious and vivacious Asia (Skye P. Marshall), who possesses an infectious desire.

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To Live and Die and Live Amin Joseph, Skye P. Marshall
Amin Joseph and Skye P. Marshall in To Live and Die and Live

Through Basir’s elegant yet emotionally wrenching features, Muhammad’s world slowly unravels to reveal the source of his mental anguish. Most of his interactions with family members and his stepfather’s business partners indicate an insurmountable list of tasks that he must perform for others. These exchanges rarely reveal concrete information about the supporting characters, which usually doesn’t work for a script of this nature. However, an important theme regarding Live and die and live is the detachment he feels from his community after being away for so long. Muhammad no longer knows or understands the society he used to be a part of and viewers will be taken on the journey to get to know them in real time.

With all the burdens that overtake his life, Muhammad refuses to confide in others. His coping mechanisms for enduring his crushing mental health are downing bottles of alcohol quickly and snorting cocaine frequently. These moments are not just to highlight Muhammad’s addiction to vice. Basir carefully times these sequences to show the toxic mindset of having to handle heavy burdens aloneā€”a consequence that often torments black men to the point of destruction. “I am a MAN,” Muhammad proclaims through tears near the end of the film to explain that it is his duty to shoulder the burdens of the family. This examination of manhood through a sensitive yet emotionally poignant lens is one of the many highlights of the film.

Amin Joseph and Skye P. Marshall in To Live and Die and Live
Amin Joseph and Skye P. Marshall in To Live and Die and Live

As presented in his current feature, Basir’s ambitious and authentic storytelling leaves a lot of ambiguity on the table, with only one important question posed inherently throughout. At what point is it critical to put aside toxic ideas about manhood and accept help? By asking this question through its script, the film also beautifully encapsulates addiction through the perspective of black people without focusing on crackheads as many other films do. You would think this should have been achieved (often) by now, but it isn’t. And Basir’s delicate storytelling feels like a therapy session that society so desperately needs.

To live and die and live is the kind of film that requires viewers to watch with an open heart. It is not always straightforward to portray its themes, but addiction, mental illness and loss are never easy to explain. Without the impressive and glowing effort from Snowfall‘s Amin Joseph, Basir’s script could easily have been lost to its ambitious multi-thematic venture. Yet his methodical direction and cinematography, paired with Joseph’s sensationally nuanced approach to scrutinizing manhood from the black perspective, is sincere and affecting filmmaking at its best.

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To live and die and live premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival on January 20. The film is 105 minutes long and has not yet been rated.

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