Ming of Harlem film review: an art house movie about a man who kept a tiger in his New York apartment

Steve Hogarty
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Ming of Harlem, pictured, lived in a small New York apartment
Ming of Harlem

For several years Antoine Yates kept a Bengal tiger in his fifth floor New York apartment, until the day the cat sank its carving knife sized fangs into the man’s leg.

Unsurprisingly, doctors weren’t convinced by Yates’s claim that he’d been bitten by his pet dog, and so the authorities were alerted. Back at his apartment the police also found an alligator, because why the hell not.

A short film documenting the kind of urban animal husbandry that would make even Judith Kerr flip a nut, Ming of Harlem is a detached and minimalist exploration of human-creature relations. Yates cruises around Harlem recounting his story, interspersed with quotes from his family and audio from the police communications at the time. The piece draws no conclusions and casts no judgement.

The film then turns from documentary to recreation, becoming whatever the tiger equivalent of an aquarium is. For 27 uninterrupted minutes we watch a trained tiger pace around an empty apartment, spraying his tiger juices on doorknobs and making these odd huffing sounds that tigers probably only make when they think we’re not looking. It’s curious, frightening and sad, this furry orange clash of the exotic and the domestic, and then it all gets a little boring.

Almost a solid half an hour of feline voyeurism with only a maudlin poem by an Icelandic philosopher to keep you on board. That’s a tough bean to swallow for some, but a bold statement about captivity nonetheless.

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