Monday, June 29, 2020

Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of the late Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki bouki (The Hyena’s Journey) and its seminal place within African cinema. A debut feature made for thirty thousand dollars by a self-taught twenty-eight-year-old director who had previously made only two shorts (albeit remarkable films in their own right), Touki bouki won the FIPRESCI prize at the 1973 Moscow International Film Festival and single- handedly challenged stale critical assumptions that African cinema was inextricably wedded to social realism and immune to experimental narrative strategies. Of course, Mambéty’s film is fascinating for the way it harnesses many of francophone African cinema’s traditional antinomies—the conflict between tradition and modernity, rural versus urban sensibilities, and the ravages of the colonialist inheritance that coexist with the corruption and bad faith of neocolonialism. But the film’s singular accomplishment is its success in recasting and recontextualizing these motifs in a truly startling fashion.

Even the work of a brilliant enfant terrible does not exist in a vacuum, however, and it’s crucial to emphasize that the Senegalese film industry that produced this remarkable talent experienced something of a golden age during the sixties and seventies. With the release in 1963 of Borom Sarret, Ousmane Sembène’s pathbreaking debut short, the former dockworker, union organizer, and novelist began a distinguished career and earned a worldwide reputation as the country’s preeminent filmmaker. Unlike either Hollywood movies or European political cinema, Sembène’s films refused to choose between a focus on the individual and an exaltation of the collective will. This could be viewed as a distinctively African strategy, since the continent’s communal ethos has traditionally nurtured an emphasis on the role of the individual within a greater collectivity. Sembène, the “father of African film,” inspired a vibrant second generation of directors, animated by equally vigorous aesthetic and political ideals. Mahama Johnson Traoré’s films, particularly The Maiden (1969) and The Lady (1970), were preoccupied with the plight of Senegalese women. Moussa Yoro Bathily, who served an apprenticeship as Sembène’s assistant, became known for innovative documentaries.

Yet as Manthia Diawara demonstrates in his book African Cinema: Politics & Culture, this golden age was ridden with contradictions, inasmuch as efforts to forge an aesthetically vibrant and politically acute African cinema were tinged with the same vestiges of neocolonialism that many of the most influential films of the era vigorously critiqued. Since the lion’s share of the most notable Senegalese films of the sixties were made possible by French production money, the government formed the Société National de Cinéma, an adjunct of the Ministry of Culture, in 1973, to nurture local production and subsidize Senegalese filmmakers. But even this organization was marred by the fact that, although it funneled money to homegrown directors, it failed to provide financial support for a local film infrastructure, meaning that the industry was still dependent on France for purchasing film stock and renting equipment, as well as for film processing and editing facilities. Many of these facilities eventually closed—including the one that housed the materials needed for the restoration of this print of Touki bouki—and an important cinematic legacy became endangered.

Given Sembène’s preeminent place within Senegalese and African cinema, it is perhaps not surprising that his legacy has inspired a pronounced “anxiety of influence” among the generations of African directors that have followed him. The key to Sembène’s complex appeal to filmmakers who continue to wrestle with his legacy resides in his dual focus on both the inequities of Western colonialism and the tendency of African elites to internalize the same colonialist mentality, replete with corruption and class stratification, which inspired a wave of liberation movements in the post–World War II era. Even though there are clear affinities between the plight of the eponymous protagonist of Borom Sarret and Antonio’s downward spiral in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), Sembène’s tale of a destitute cart driver who loses the vehicle that earns him his livelihood is both more militant and less concerned with life-affirming humanist bromides.

While Mambéty’s equally impressive sophomore short, Badou Boy (1970), is frequently viewed as his personal reworking of Borom Sarret, many scholars tend to pit Sembène, the elder statesman, against Mambéty, the fiery upstart. Film historians continue to promulgate the view that Sembène represents a “realistic” tendency in African cinema while Mambéty’s work embodies a less “analytical,” more “poetic” and modernist strain. Indeed, from a superficial perspective, Mambéty’s experimental style is far removed from earlier examples of African social realism, whether exemplified by Sembène’s ostensible debt to neorealism or Safi Faye’s synthesis of documentary and autobiography. (I made more or less the same assertion in a 1995 article on Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyenas, in Iris.) On closer examination, however, although the stylistic chasm between Mambéty’s and Sembène’s work is still indisputable, I’d argue that the opposition between a “realistic” Sembène and an intransigently “modernist” Mambéty is slightly simplistic.

Sembène’s Xala (1975), supposedly the work of an intractable social realist, includes certain scenes, particularly a bravura finale in which a hapless businessman is spat upon by beggars, that wouldn’t be out of place in a Luis Buñuel film. Conversely, Mambéty shares most of Sembène’s political and social preoccupations. Both directors, whether explicitly or opaquely, recapitulate Frantz Fanon’s belief that decolonization often breeds a paradoxical compulsion to mimic the behavior of the deposed colonizer. This polemical thrust is especially apparent in Mambety’s Hyenas—a film that recasts many of Touki bouki’s themes—highlighting the behavior of avaricious African villagers, whose greed mirrors the economic malfeasance of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

It’s also undeniable that a modernist strain is part of Senegal’s postindependence legacy. After all, Léopold Senghor, who served as the country’s president from 1960 to 1980, was present at the creation of African modernism. As one of the key contributors to the journal Présence africaine, founded in Paris in 1947, he was part of a literary movement that synthesized such European intellectual currents as surrealism and existentialism with Pan-Africanism and a variant of black pride known as Négritude. Ironically enough, Mambéty’s brand of African modernism mercilessly dissects the failure of Senghor’s Senegal to employ an African socialist model to alleviate the plight of the country’s poor.

A heavy drinker with a rebellious streak, Mambéty tried his hand at acting as a young man but was quickly fired after a short stint at Dakar’s Daniel Sorano National Theater. While his films were no less radical than those of his compatriots, literal-minded nationalists occasionally attacked him for a supposed overreliance on Western motifs and source material. Yet Mambéty’s films demonstrate that European modernism and indigenous African modes are not irreconcilable polarities. Hyenas is based on The Visit, Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 tragicomedy, and Mambéty was certainly not sheepish about expressing his indebtedness to a European writer; at the time of the film’s release, he proclaimed that “it is a joy for me to pay tribute to Friedrich Dürrenmatt.” Mambéty’s adaptation, however, is more a slyly subversive appropriation of Western modernism than a concession to its homogenizing lingua franca.

Although Touki bouki has been compared to such outlaw-couple movies as Pierrot le fou (1965) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the bare-bones plot, which revolves around the exploits of a larcenous rebel, Mory, and his efforts to flee the country for an idealized France with his girlfriend, Anta, is merely the departure point for a jaundiced look at Senegalese modernity and its discontents. The film’s playful deployment of kinetic, associative editing, accompanied by a frequently poetic disjunction of sound and image, confirms that Mambéty was as inspired by Sergei Eisenstein and avant-garde traditions as he was by post–New Wave road movies. The eccentric spatial and temporal shifts crystallize essentially unresolvable tensions between rural traditions and urban anomie. Even before the opening credits appear, the transition between a pastoral scene in which a young boy, possibly Mory, herds cows and the bloody floor of an abattoir accelerates the contrasts between a premodern agrarian milieu and bureaucratized, industrialized modernity. When Mory finally emerges in Dakar, he’s astride a motorcycle adorned on the front with a steer’s skull and long horns and on the back with a Dogon cross—a symbol associated with Malian religious traditions. The film’s syncretic impulse manifests itself in these images of cultural cross-fertilization, a maneuver that recalls scholar Robert Stam’s memorable phrase “atavistic modernism.”

Touki bouki refuses to endorse either a nostalgic view of the African past or a blinkered enthusiasm for contemporary mores and the ideology of progress. Although Mambéty’s idiosyncratic editing patterns generate a certain amount of head-scratching, the puzzlement is always productive and never gratuitous. A sequence of staggering complexity, in which shots of Mory chained to a truck by Anta’s disgruntled classmates (she is apparently abandoning her revolutionary duties by consorting with him) are intercut with scenes of Anta’s aunt denouncing the renegade as a ne’er-do-well and a shot of the aunt skinning a goat, highlights Mambéty’s tendency to eschew superfluous dialogue and heavy-handed rhetoric. As with most sophisticated examples of montage, the precise significance of this agglutination of images must be determined by the viewer. In general terms, the sequence can be viewed as the director’s backhanded, slightly mischievous tribute to his invigoratingly disrespectful protagonist. Neither a sloganeering pseudo-revolutionary like Anta’s classmates nor a moralistic traditionalist like her aunt, Mory is a shape-shifter whose status as an outsider and an inveterate trickster links him to the hyena (bouki), an animal that in African oral tradition represents wiliness and an ability to both deceive and be deceived.

Like many of his rebellious counterparts in American and European films, Mory’s rampage is fueled by hunger for money and the lure of a false paradise: France, an elusive object of desire throughout the film (evoked repeatedly by Josephine Baker’s paean to Paris on the soundtrack), is, in reality, far from a refuge for discontented youths but rather a country still riddled with racism and colonialist values. (The film’s multilayered soundtrack, a skillful amalgam of ambient sounds, Western pop tunes, African drums, and avant-garde jazz, provides aural commentary on the couple’s oscillation between African values and the West.) But unlike with the outlaw couples in films like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands (1973), Mory and Anta’s lust for money is never merely narcissistic; their restlessness corresponds to the fate of countless Senegalese young people who yearn to extricate themselves from poverty, and the encroachments of stifling traditions, but find that exile breeds an even more profound sense of alienation. Mambéty employs dark humor to drive home these quandaries. In a pivotal scene, Mory makes a comical attempt to steal the proceeds of a wrestling contest, earmarked for a memorial to General de Gaulle; when the trunk that supposedly contains the loot is eventually opened, a human skull pops out. Even after Mory successfully snags some cash by robbing a wealthy friend, his European dreams are contrasted with the bigoted chatter of departing French visitors, who cannot wait to flee a country they sneer at as a backwater.

In a fanciful sequence toward the end of the film, Mory and Anta are feted in a parade as they flaunt their newfound wealth in a Citroën emblazoned with the stars and stripes of the American flag. Despite being sullied by these foreign influences, Mory yearns to commune with the drums of a nearby griot. While the griot, or storyteller, has a responsibility to serve as the conscience of a community, Mory aligns himself with this legacy as traditional bonds of communal solidarity are eroding. Mambéty was a staunch admirer of his antiheroic protagonists. As he remarked in one of his last interviews, “I am interested in marginalized people because I believe that they do more for the evolution of a community than conformists. Anta and Mory . . . dream of finding some sort of Atlantis overseas. Following their dreams permitted me to follow my own dreams.” While Hyenas, one of the most critically dissected African films of the 1990s, was sadly Mambety’s final feature, two subsequent shorts, Le franc (1994) and the posthumously released The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (1999), succinctly encapsulate his tragicomic sensibility. His early death from lung cancer in 1998 was an irretrievable loss for the international film community.

A film long cherished by cinephiles and Africanists, Touki bouki can now be appreciated by a much wider public. The film is lauded in Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a documentary that gently chides film buffs for overlooking the riches of African cinema. The World Cinema Project’s gorgeous new print, which restores the film’s brilliant saturated color scheme, should be an added incentive for contemporary viewers to rediscover a modern classic. --Criterion

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Göran Olsson, 2011)

For three decades, the film canisters sat undisturbed in a cellar beneath the Swedish National Broadcasting Company. Inside was roll after roll of startlingly fresh and candid 16mm footage shot in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, all of it focused on the anti-war and Black Power movements. When filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson discovered the footage, he decided he had a responsibility to shepherd this glimpse of history into the world.

With contemporary audio interviews from leading African American artists, activists, musicians and scholars, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 looks at the people, society, culture, and style that fuelled an era of convulsive change. Utilizing an innovative format that riffs on the popular 1970s mixtape format, Mixtape is a cinematic and musical journey into the black communities of America.

At the end of the '60s and into the early '70s, Swedish interest in the U.S. civil rights movement and the U.S. anti-war movement peaked. With a combination of commitment and naiveté, Swedish filmmakers traveled across the Atlantic to explore the Black Power movement, which was being alternately ignored or portrayed in the U.S. media as a violent, nascent terrorist movement.

Despite the obstacles they encountered, both from the conservative white American power establishment and from radicalized movement members themselves, the Swedish filmmakers stayed committed to their investigation, and ultimately formed bonds with key figures in the movement.

This newly discovered footage offers a penetrating examination — through the lens of Swedish filmmakers — of the Black Power movement from 1967 to 1975, and its worldwide resonance. The result is like an anthropological treatise on an exotic civilization from the point of view of outsiders who approached their subject with no assumptions or biases. --PBS

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Sit-In (Robert M. Young, 1960)

Sit-In (1960) is filmmaker Robert M. Young’ (Nothing But A Man, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez) seminal documentary on how the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students of Fisk University desegregated the lunch counters in Nashville, TN. Produced as part of NBC's White Paper series, the hour long show is a masterpiece of film journalism. Interviewing Nashville citizens on both sides of the struggle, it captures the true spirit of the Civil Rights Movement and marks the very first TV appearance of (SNCC leader and future politician) John Lewis. --Reelblack

Friday, June 26, 2020

Human Zoos: America's Forgotten History of Scientific Racism (John West, 2018)

Human Zoos examines the horrifying history of the American effort to dehumanize an entire class of people in the name of science. In the 1900’s leading men of science from Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia University were stating that Africans were midway between an orangutan and human being, so now 100 years later it should not come as much of a surprise that many people still cling to these racist notions of European superiority and African inferiority.

The film begins in 1859, three months after Charles Darwin published his book The Origins of Species. Here we see how American promoter PT Barnum unveiled a new attraction at his popular museum in New York City. It featured what was described as the “what is it” or “man monkey”. Visitors were told that the creature had been captured by hunters in Africa who discovered a race of beings roving amongst the trees and branches like apes and monkeys. It was claimed that this creature was a connecting link between African blacks and lower animals. However, in reality, Barnum’s so-called “man monkey” was an African American man named William Henery Johnson. Johnson spent much of his life on stage as an evolutionary missing link, and sometimes even in a cage.

In September 1906, nearly two hundred and fifty thousand people gathered to the Bronx Zoo in New York City. Here they lined up to see a new exhibit in the Zoo’s Monkey House, but it was no monkey on display it was a man by the name of Ota Benga. Benga was a pygmy from the African Congo and shockingly he was exhibited in a cage alongside monkeys.

As you can start to imagine, these were no isolated incidents of blatant racism but rather just two accounts of people being put on display and touted as “missing links” between man and ape. These public displays were arranged by those of the most elite members of the scientific community and were promoted by the leading American newspapers of the time. In this film, you witness how much of the racism seen in today’s society stems from this shocking past. However, we also hear of the courageous African-American ministers in New York City who tried to stop what was going on.

Human Zoos also attempts to expose how some organizations are still trying to cover up their involvement in what happened and re-write the past. --DH

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Strong Island (Yance Ford, 2017)

On April 7, 1992, in Central Islip, a Long Island suburb of New York City, William Ford, Jr., a twenty-four-year-old man, was shot and killed by Mark Reilly, a nineteen-year-old auto-body-shop employee. Reilly had held onto Ford’s girlfriend’s car for longer than the couple had expected the repairs to take. His tow truck had hit them two months before, and a deal was struck whereby the auto shop would fix the damage if they didn’t file a police report. After an argument over the delays, Ford again went to the auto shop and was killed. The grand jury declined to indict Reilly for manslaughter, accepting the district attorney’s findings that, afraid for his life, he had shot Ford in self-defense. More than twenty years later, the investigating officer on the case assured Yance Ford, the director of “Strong Island,” that he had left no stone unturned at the time; it was just an “unfortunate thing.”

In Yance Ford’s powerful, disturbing, and very personal documentary, details are important. What happened in 1992 was the murder of Yance’s own brother, a black teacher, William Ford, Jr., who grew up in the black enclave of Central Islip. He was shot in the chest with a rifle by Mark Reilly, a young white man. The shop’s owner had a record of running a shady business. William Ford had no record and was about to take the entrance exam to be a corrections officer. Ford’s mother, Barbara Dunmore Ford, an educator who founded Rosewood, a school for women on Rikers Island, says in “Strong Island” that she will believe until her dying day that the grand jury of twenty-three white people did not return a true bill because her son was a black man. As the documentary makes plain, the grand jury didn’t care to find out what really happened. The police and the Suffolk County district attorney’s office shielded the white youth immediately, never doubting his testimony that he was frightened of Ford, a short but stocky young black man. As Yance Ford observes to the camera, William Ford, Jr., became the prime suspect in his own murder.

“Strong Island” is the story of a black family that could not sustain the blow of racial injustice and fell apart. They were doing everything right, and then were destroyed by all the things that they thought they’d left behind in black history. Barbara Dunmore Ford remembers that Yance Ford’s grandmother had been forced to leave school in the fourth grade, in South Carolina, to go to work stripping tobacco. Dunmore Ford was herself a girl when she taught her own mother to read and write. The experience gave her a love of teaching. Her father died of an asthma attack, unattended in the colored section of a hospital waiting room. When Dunmore Ford recalls how much she and her husband, William Ford, Sr., loved New York City, implicit in that is their escape from the segregation of nineteen-sixties Charleston, South Carolina.

William Ford, Sr. had hoped to be a draftsman, but in order to take care of his family he gave up school and became an M.T.A. motorman, working the night shift. He wanted to get his family out of the city, and real-estate developers in Central Islip were looking for black government employees who could afford to be homeowners. Dunmore Ford tells us that she didn’t like it. The elderly Jewish women in Brooklyn had been neighborly; for her, Islip was moving back into a segregated community. “It draws a line around your life,” she says. The children had a good time, while the parents labored to keep them in Catholic schools, because, in reality, the public schools weren’t good enough, although the property taxes were high. “My father just believed in my mother’s ability to do anything,” Yance Ford says, and the children were brought up to believe that “our principal job in life was to love each other.” William and Yance’s younger sister Lauren Ford remembers how protective her brother was, and that she was the first person to tell her that she was pretty.

Since Trayvon Martin’s killing, we have become familiar with the testimony of black parents concerning the talk they must have with their teen-age sons, the one that tries to prepare them as young black males for encounters with the police. It’s a talk rooted in black history, and it cuts across class lines. The generational exchange that was once portrayed in black drama as beaten-down old heads pleading with defiant, reckless youth has been revised as a responsibility of black tutelage, a passing on of necessary survival techniques. Don’t talk back; above all, don’t run. It is heartbreaking to hear Ford’s mother reproach herself for not having had that talk with her older son, for telling her children to judge people by their character, not by the color of their skin. She wonders how she could have been so wrong. “I did William a great disservice in raising him the way we did,” she says. Perhaps she means that she hadn’t warned him about what white people could get away with when it came to their dealings with black people. Her son had become frustrated as a customer, forgetting all about inherited white resentment of black anger.

“Strong Island” tells either of a racist coverup or of the racism that determined which questions the white investigators asked in William Ford, Jr.,’s killing. His friend Kevin Myers, who was outside the body shop when the shooting occurred, was prepared to testify in court that the auto mechanic had had no reason to be fearful during either of his two confrontations with Ford, even though Dunmore Ford herself had been “disrespected” by the mechanic when she and Ford’s girlfriend came by to check on the car. Ford and Reilly were never alone in the shop; Ford was not armed, but during the first confrontation at the business he had picked up and brandished a car door, to some laughter in the shop. Detectives seemed only interested in asking the friend how much he himself weighed, and how much Ford weighed—as if to gauge how much of a physical threat they were. Early on in the film, Yance Ford says, “I am unwilling to accept that someone else gets to say who Williams was. And if you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions, you should probably get up and go.” Racism is character assassination.

The family understood that what a D.A. tells a grand jury is crucial. Outside of the courtroom, they were the targets of intimidation by an unfamiliar car that often parked across the street from their house, and by phone calls in the middle of the night, every night; nevertheless, inside the courtroom they expected justice. What do you do when the system fails you? The tragedy left the Fords in some deep way unable to comfort one another. We get the feeling that parts of them retreated inside themselves, away from family connection. William Ford, Sr., suffered a stroke the year after his son’s killing. He died before Yance Ford began work on “Strong Island,” and his is the other absence mourned in this film. Dunmore Ford died during the making of the documentary, an event that becomes a part of story. Yance Ford’s documentary is about trying to establish what happened the night that William Ford, Jr., was killed, and what happened during the investigation, but also what happened to the Ford family afterward. The easiest way to deal with black people is to ignore them; the easiest way to cope with pain is not to speak of it, even to the self.

The day he was killed, William Ford, Jr., had been a witness at a high-profile trial. A white assistant district attorney in Brooklyn had been shot during a holdup at an A.T.M., and it was William Ford, Jr., who had chased and tackled the gunman. It would be an insult to call this an irony. It’s impossible to ignore who the surviving Fords in “Strong Island” are: Barbara Dunmore Ford, Lauren Ford, and Yance Ford are gripping in everything they say. A summary of the case gives no sense of the experience of watching “Strong Island,” in which the visual narrative, put together with subtlety and refinement, unfolds from the story itself. That story is handed from person to person, tied together by the voice of Yance Ford, who, at different moments in the film, reads from the last pages of William Ford, Jr.,’s journal, and from his autopsy report. Here are home movies, sixteenth-birthday parties or college graduations, and photographs from the nineteen-seventies and eighties, Polaroids that have turned into a family archive. Those are Yance Ford’s hands shuffling the photographs, laying them out, and Yance Ford’s voice interrogating the past, face tightly framed. It would be cowardly of the viewer to look away. The film is a form of justice. “Strong Island” is so quiet, so dignified—if that is not too Booker T. Washington a thing to say. There is no hint of Rodney King or the gangsta rap of that time, 1992, the year of William Ford, Jr.,’s death. Respectful attention must be paid, because grief is in the room. --New Yorker

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files (David Olusoga, 2019)

Historian David Olusoga looks at the background to the 2014 Windrush Scandal, whereby hundreds of people from the Caribbean who had lived in the UK for decades suddenly had their citizenship called into question. In some cases, 50 years’ worth of continuous documentation was demanded as proof of the right to stay. In The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files (Monday, 9pm, BBC2), Olusoga uncovers a story of racial prejudice at the highest levels of government, dating from the moment the Empire Windrush docked. 

It all began with the 1948 British Nationality Act, designed to permit the free movement of citizens of the newly constituted British Commonwealth. Olusoga argues that it was always intended for the benefit of those countries with large white populations, such as Canada and Australia. The influx of immigrants from Jamaica, described as an “incursion” by Clement Attlee, was a wholly unintended consequence of the Act. Olusoga shows how the arrival of the Windrush immediately caused a flurry of anxious interdepartmental documents. It was feared black immigration could damage the “harmony, strength and cohesion” of the nation. “One boat! One boat! It’s not a flotilla,” scoffs historian Dr Denise Noble. 

Arrival documents show that the men on the Windrush were plumbers, machinists, carpenters and electricians, trades desperately needed in Britain after the war. The most shocking revelation contrasts the treatment of the Windrush and subsequent Caribbean arrivals with that of the white European Volunteer Workers, displaced persons from the Balkans and Germany, including prisoners of war. Being white, EVWs were welcomed, even though some were former members of Waffen-SS regiments. Olusoga contends that it was government policy to give preference to men who had fought against Britain over men who were veterans of British forces, “and all because those veterans were black”. 

Former soldiers returning to “the mother country”, such as Allan Wilmot, who can still remember his RAF number, talk about the abrupt change in attitude. He slept in Tube trains, at depots and washed dishes at the Cumberland Hotel. Nevertheless, Olusoga’s interviewees remain a cheery bunch, with many even laughing over their treatment at the hands of the system. But indignation bursts through. One woman recalls a stranger spitting in her face. Another protests: “I’ve paid my taxes and I’ve paid my National Insurance — then I was British, wasn’t I?” 

Olusoga traces the rapidly proliferating legislation that led to the so-called “hostile environment” rules to trap illegal immigrants. He demonstrates that the belief at the highest level that “Britishness was fundamentally a racial identity” existed long before Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech. Churchill, for example, warned the Postmaster General that employing too many “coloured people” could cause social friction. The programme has a bittersweet finale as some of the interviewees gain the citizenship they didn’t know they lacked. Their resilience is admirable; it’s a tragedy it needed testing. --FT

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Jim Crow of the North (Daniel Bergin, 2019)

Why does Minnesota suffer from some of the worst racial disparities in the nation? One answer is the spread of racially restrictive real estate covenants in the early 20th century.

Daniel Pierce Bergin’s Jim Crow of the North details how the Mapping Prejudice Project, a public history initiative, is revealing this obscured history of systemic racism. The project’s cutting-edge research is documenting, mapping, and presenting data on restrictive covenants in Minneapolis.

The story charts the progression of discriminatory policies and practices from the advent of covenants after the turn of the last century through to their final eradication in the late 1960s. It also illustrates how African-American families and leaders resisted this insidious practice, and how they built community within and despite the red lines that these restrictive covenants created.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Equality Under the Law: The Lost Generation of Prince Edward County (John Barnes, 1965)

In 1959, Prince Edward County, Virginia, closed its public schools rather than integrate them. White children went to publicly aided private schools while black students went to free schools staffed by volunteers. In 1964, the Supreme Court ordered the schools opened to all, but 90 percent of the whites stayed in private schools. The film shows a whites-only prom off-campus in a private club. Lots of poignant interviews by director John Barnes, with people fearing mixed marriages, etc. The film was co-written by Barnes and Linda Gottlieb. From EB's 'Our Living Bill of Rights' series. --Archive

Sunday, June 21, 2020

16 Shots (Rick Rowley, 2019)

When Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald 16 times in the middle of the street, he couldn’t have possibly known all of the repercussions. After all, before the smoke had really cleared, all of his colleagues were designing a defense of his actions. Before defenders of the Chicago P.D. come raining down on the comment sections, these statements are indisputable. Van Dyke shot McDonald, who was armed with a knife, and who Van Dyke claimed was charging him with that knife. All of the police officers on the scene used the exact same language in their reports (emphasis on the word “attacking” for what McDonald was doing with his knife and body language) and a few of them went to a nearby Burger King and erased 86 minutes of security camera footage. Eyewitnesses claimed then and now that the officers they spoke to that night pressured them into changing their stories. You can say that Van Dyke and his colleagues realized the incendiary times in which we live in terms of police and civilian relations necessitated these actions to control the narrative of a justified shooting. Or you can use the phrase spoken by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and highlighted in Rick Rowley’s “16 Shots,” opening limited today and on Showtime: “Code of silence.”

“16 Shots” isn’t as much about the actual shooting of Laquan McDonald as one might expect. We don’t hear from his family and friends. Instead, it’s about the ripple effect that transformed a city that night. And if you’re not from Chicago, you might think that word choice to be hyperbolic. It is most definitely not. Before the story was even close to over, the Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department (Garry McCarthy) had stepped down and the State’s Attorney (Anita Alvarez)—who did not bring the case forward as people thought she should have—was voted out of office in an electoral upset. Most shockingly, Emanuel chose not to seek re-election, and nearly everyone in Chicago believes that choice was a direct result of the fallout from McDonald's death.

On October 20, 2014, police responded to reports that a young man was breaking into vehicles in a trucking yard on the South Side of Chicago. One officer spoke to McDonald, and even walked him toward Pulaski, where other officers responded. McDonald reportedly had PCP in his system (toxicology reports would later confirm this) and was waving a knife as he walked down the middle of the street, away from officers. When Officer Van Dyke arrived on the scene around 10pm, he emerged from his vehicle and shot McDonald 16 times in roughly 15 seconds. We know this not because of reports or eyewitness testimony but because of a dash cam video that makes it disturbingly clear. McDonald was walking away and was not “attacking” anyone. When the video hit the public consciousness, the reaction was instant and angry. Protests began, and the aforementioned political ripple effect started happening, and led all the way up to Officer Van Dyke being convicted of murder as well as aggravated battery for all 16 shots.

“16 Shots” is a very deliberate, ominous documentary, filled with views of the Chicago skyline and a pulsing score, but Rowley makes several smart decisions as a storyteller. First, he presents both sides. McCarthy, Van Dyke’s attorney, Alvarez, and a few spokespeople for the FOP are on-hand to defend their actions and further elucidate on the difficulties faced by police officers in the ‘10s. This is an argument that I’ve personally never understood. One can believe that police officers have difficult, dangerous jobs, and also believe that one committed murder. They are not exclusive thoughts. And yet it’s clear that all of Van Dyke's defenders see an attack on one cop as an attack on all cops. And yet they’re downright offended when the subject of a “Code of Silence” comes up. What’s most amazing is how people can see the video and come out with completely different reactions to it, and Rowley understands that this skewed, protective perception is at the root of so many of the problems between police officers and those they protect. Two people can watch someone be shot 16 times and have completely different reactions. How can we work together when that's the case.

Most effectively, Rowley imbues his film with a simmering undercurrent of anger. He speaks with activists and community leaders, all of whom express doubt that anything would come of this situation, especially not a conviction of an active police officer. After all, cases like these have come up in the past in other cities and no one who pulled the trigger went to jail. Why would this one be different? And Rowley understands that the main reason this one was different might have come down to luck. One of the attorneys for the McDonald family expresses surprise that his subpoena for the video worked, wondering if whomever was in charge that day really knew what they were sending. If that dash cam video doesn’t get out, it’s very likely that this case never gets national attention.

But it did get out. And “16 Shots” feels like an impassioned, intelligent document of a major moment in the history of Chicago. Since the McDonald case, there have been signs of improvement in terms of crime and police relations in my hometown. What people like McCarthy—who can’t finish a thought without reminding you how difficult it is to be a cop nowadays—never seem to understand is that those of us who want justice for McDonald also want police officers to be safe and effective. Blanket condemnation of all police officers is as damaging as believing men in blue can never do wrong. Van Dyke is in jail (although for nowhere near as long as the jury that convicted him believed he should be), and a lot of the major players involved in the case are out of power. The question all of us, on both sides, need to ask ourselves is—what now? --Ebert

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Finally Got the News (Stewart Bird, Rene Lichtman & Peter Gessner, 1970)

Finally Got the News is a forceful, unique documentary that reveals the activities of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers inside and outside the auto factories of Detroit. Through interviews with the members of the movement, footage shot in the auto plants, and footage of leafleting and picketing actions, the film documents their efforts to build an independent black labor organization that, unlike the UAW, will respond to worker's problems, such as the assembly line speed-up and inadequate wages faced by both black and white workers in the industry.

Beginning with a historical montage, from the early days of slavery through the subsequent growth and organization of the working class, Finally Got the News focuses on the crucial role played by the black worker in the American economy. Also explored is the educational 'tracking' system for both white and black youth, the role of African American women in the labor force, and relations between white and black workers. --Icarus

Friday, June 19, 2020

Let the Fire Burn (Jason Osder, 2013)

"This is war. I’ve never seen it, but I lived through it today.” So says a woman from the West Philadelphia neighborhood under assault in Let the Fire Burn, a sorrowful, enraging documentary composed solely of archival footage surrounding the 1985 confrontation between the city’s cops and the African-American radical community MOVE. A long-stoking, deadly afterburn of the neo-revolutionary violence that arose in America 20 years previously, the tragedy is seen here as a combustion of two forces, both guilty of arrogance, excess, and abuses. The final battle—ended, after 10,000 rounds of police ammunition fired, by a bomb dropped on the MOVE house, resulting in 11 deaths and 61 residences destroyed by fire—answers the question of how much worse the consequences are when the stewards of public order operate according to their most callous and hateful instincts. Lastingly worse, in a way that kills civic self-respect as well as innocents (five of the fatalities were children).

Director Jason Osder anchors the narrative in a pair of legal proceedings: the hearings of a commission appointed to investigate the events, and the deposition of 13-year-old Michael Ward, the only child from the MOVE headquarters to survive. The immediacy of the testimony, halting or furious, and the fresh psychological wounds of the witnesses justify Osder’s decision to forego original interviews; while they’re edited into and contextualized by news clips, there’s blunt force in the anger of two MOVE women insulting their interrogators, monotonal policemen skating around self-incrimination, and young Michael, burn scars visible on his face, recounting the spartan life of children in the communal home and his precarious hours of refuge during the May 13 shootout and inferno. The testimony is uncolored by nostalgia, haziness, or the studied quality often acquired from years of retrospection; self-revelation comes spontaneously. When a black minister expresses inability to comprehend a police tale of fugitives reentering the burning house, a cop blurts, “How could you? They’re MOVE members.”

On a socio-political level, local news excerpts suffice for chronicling the central feud in Let the Fire Burn; there’s little nuance in this ideological clash, from MOVE’s primitivist lifestyle (with symptoms of malnutrition seen in their swollen-bellied, unclothed kids) and profane harassment of black working-class neighbors by loudspeaker, to the Philadelphia authorities’ aggressive “pushback” tactics, lingering after the mayoralty of strong-armed Frank Rizzo to inform his theoretically more tempered successors’ rhetoric and actions. (After a 1978 skirmish that left a Philly cop dead, DA Ed Rendell, a future Democratic mayor and governor, is heard praising the “commendable restraint” of the PD, just as we see police repeatedly kicking a prone man in the head.) As the investigation proceeded up the chain of command, the fire and police commissioners traded accusations on whether an order to extinguish the blaze was ever received, implicating Wilson Goode—the city’s first black mayor—as either a liar or perhaps just someone whose reign was held in no respect in the city’s other power centers.

Osder not only breaks from the fashionable historical-doc template with his all-archival choice, he captures the true heart of terror with scenes of TV reporters and, most piercingly, local citizens crouching, running, and cowering as tear gas and smoke billow through residential streets, suddenly faced with the unchecked violence of rogue “law and order.” Long before a title card emphasizes that no one was ever criminally charged for the destruction unleashed upon West Philly, the grim tapestry of lies, loathing, and violence that marks the MOVE saga is a damning legacy for urban governance to transcend. --Slant

Official Free Streaming link (higher quality): 


Thursday, June 18, 2020

Murder In Mississippi (Joseph P. Mawra, 1965)

I've now watched three films by Joseph P Mawra, if you count Miss Leslie's Dolls, directed by Joseph G Prieto, who might be the same person. Drive-in grindhouse movie producers of the 1960s did not leave comprehensive paperwork behind. Either way, this is more of a chance than I'll give some legitimately great directors, so what gives? After all, the first thing I saw from him was Shanty Tramp, a film which treats lynching and interracial sex as equally shocking and taboo. I realise this kind of exploitation movie is meant to shock and discomfort, but I'm not sure the aim is to leave you firmly convinced that everyone involved in writing, producing and directing this is a piece of shit.

But Mawra is not a criminal! It's society that's the criminal, man! Murder in Mississippi suggests that Mawra only made Shanty Tramp because the demand for racist pornography in 1960s America was so intense that if he hadn't filled it, someone else would have. This is not, I grant you, much of an excuse, but putting the disengaged, half-arsed Shanty Tramp next to the dynamic, relentless Murder in Mississippi makes it easy to see which story lit a fire under the director. It's the latter, and it's an explicitly anti-racist story.

Obviously Murder in Mississippi is still thousands of miles south from tasteful. Tarantino would blanche at the amount of racial slurs, and any violence meted out on its female lead reliably ends up ripping the neckline of her dress down to the bra. The pressures of the poverty row production often show - there's one scene where a character misses his mark falling over and ends up in the shadow of the camera. But there are also tightly constructed montages of looming, leering racists in vivid noir lighting, and the plot - involving racist Southern policemen trying to cover up their murder of a civil rights activist - is both tawdry enough to work as a sleazy Z-movie and genuinely provocative.

It ends in exactly the way Shanty Tramp doesn't, with a speech from Lyndon Baines Johnson about the evil of racism. There are also lengthy scenes where the heroes register African-Americans to vote, and persuade them that voting can make a difference. I imagine a lot of the original audience would have regarded this as rank filler, but viewed with over fifty years' difference it's a lot less dull than the endless whipping and slapping that pad out Mawra's other films. There is a real anger to this, and its tasteless aspects amplify, rather than undercut, the moral fury. --Graham Williamson, Letterboxd

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Slavery by Another Name (Samuel D. Pollard, 2012)

Slavery by Another Name challenges one of America’s most cherished assumptions: the belief that slavery in this country ended with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. This documentary tells a harrowing story of how in the South, even as chattel slavery came to an end, new forms of involuntary servitude, including convict leasing, debt slavery and peonage, took its place with shocking force — brutalizing and ultimately circumscribing the lives of hundreds of thousands of African Americans well into the 20th century. It was a system in which men, often guilty of no crime at all, were arrested, compelled to work without pay, repeatedly bought and sold and coerced to do the bidding of masters. The program spans eight decades, from 1865 to 1945, revealing the interlocking forces in both the South and the North that enabled this “neoslavery” to begin and persist. Using archival photographs and dramatic re-enactments, filmed on location in Alabama and Georgia, it tells the forgotten stories of both victims and perpetrators of neoslavery and includes interviews with their descendants living today. The program also features interviews with Douglas Blackmon, author of the Pulitzer Prize- winning book “Slavery by Another Name” and with leading scholars of this period. --PBS

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Classified X (Melvin Van Peebles & Mark Daniels, 1998)

Melvin Van Peebles (a key black filmmaker who was acknowledged in a 1967 Festival tribute) narrates this documentary, made for European television, on the history of African American screen images. Van Peebles describes what to him is more than a travesty, but a tragedy: as a boy, he learned shame while sitting in movie theaters. (As an adult, Van Peebles would powerfully address these very images in his film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.) Classified X traces the progression from the "old Negro" stereotypes, to the "new Negro" of liberal postwar Hollywood, to the "no Negro" of today. And it shows, with simple irony, how very much alike they are. Witnessing the early all-black cinema's attempts to "buy a few precious seconds of black humanity on screen," then seeing Leslie Howard portraying a Negro, we have to ask, along with Van Peebles, How does Hollywood get away with it? --BAMPFA

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Tulsa Lynching of 1921: A Hidden Story (Michael Wilkerson, 2000)

Illuminating a mostly forgotten but deeply chilling event, “The Tulsa Lynching of 1921” documents what is probably the worst race riot in American history. Director Michael Wilkerson tells the harrowing story cleanly and very effectively, using a combination of recollections by now-elderly witnesses, commentary from historians, celebrity voice-over readings of contemporary accounts, and an impressive collection of black-and-white photographs and some film depicting the destruction of an entire black community.

In 1921, Tulsa was considered the “Oil Capital of the World,” and the black community was among the most prosperous in the nation. The Greenwood section of town was known both as “Little Africa” and as “The Black Wall Street.” The film does an excellent job of concisely laying out the various conditions that set the stage for the riot, from the return of unemployed (and heavily armed) veterans from WWI to the popularity of the film “Birth of a Nation” and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan.

The catalyst for the violence was a misunderstood incident where a black man named Dick Rowland accidentally fell onto a white female elevator operator, who screamed for help. As historian Don J. Guy points out, though, this wasn’t the real incident — that occurred at the local newspaper, The Tulsa Tribune, which published an afternoon article distorting the event and calling for a lynching. By that evening, crowds of white men were gathered at the jail seeking blood, and violence soon broke out between them and a much smaller group of blacks.

Supposedly to keep the public order, the sheriff began deputizing any white citizen who wanted to join the police force, and soon hundreds of Klansmen, now representing the law, began organizing what, in the words of historian and retired General Ed Wheeler, was effectively a military operation.

By the next day, over 300 blacks had been killed, over 1,200 homes had been burned, and the surviving African-American population of Tulsa was forced into confinement. Those who were vouched for by whites were released, but made to wear ribbons that immediately bring to mind the later yellow stars used by the Nazis to mark the Jews.

The newspapers continued to refashion the incident, and all copies of the initial incendiary article disappeared. The city council passed laws that effectively made it impossible for the black community to rebuild, and a tent city was created to house the impoverished homeless population.

Wilkerson presents a fascinating story, which is even more horrific for its having remained under-acknowledged. The eyewitnesses who were children at the time relate some specific details that make the story even more vivid — a white man, for example, telling of a young girl happily handing out gum that clearly had been looted from a black store. The written accounts, read without any ornate interpretation, give a strong sense of the total shock of the incident. This is a film that could certainly become a staple of history classes. --Variety

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)

The most electrifyingly timely movie playing in New York was made in 1965. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is famous, but for some time it’s been available only in washed-out prints with poorly translated, white-on-white subtitles. The newly translated and subtitled 35-millimeter print at Film Forum is presumably the version that was privately screened in August for military personnel by the Pentagon as a field guide to fighting terrorism. Former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski volunteered this blurb: “If you want to understand what’s happening right now in Iraq, I recommend The Battle of Algiers.” I wonder if these politicos are aware that Pontecorvo’s epic was once used by the Black Panthers as a training film? In fact, not much in the current Iraq situation is historically comparable to the late-fifties Algerian struggle for independence dramatized in The Battle of Algiers, but its anatomy of terror remains unsurpassed—and, woefully, ever fresh.

The movie’s original U.S. distributor inserted the disclaimer: “Not one foot of newsreel or documentary film has been used.” That disclaimer might still be helpful to first-time viewers. The Battle of Algiers has often been compared to Potemkin as an example of incendiary, documentary-style political filmmaking. But Eisenstein’s classic was a flurry of highly theatrical techniques; there was a formality to the revolutionary chaos he unleashed, with carefully patterned crowds surging on cue. Pontecorvo’s approach is much looser and more caught-in-the-moment, although everything is carefully choreographed. What perhaps accounts for the extraordinary realism is a combination of Pontecorvo’s chief neorealist influences, Rossellini’s Open City and Paisan (the movie that inspired Pontecorvo to become a filmmaker), and his own wartime experience as an anti-Fascist partisan who commanded the Milan Resistance in 1943. The Battle of Algiers is a movie made by a director who knows (in both senses) whereof he shoots.

Co-written by Franco Solinas, who would later write Costa-Gavras’s State of Siege, the film was originally intended as a piece of agitprop for the cause of anti-colonialism. (De Gaulle pronounced Algeria an independent country in 1962, so the struggle was still fresh for audiences.) Subsidized by the Algerian government, the movie began as a sketchy screenplay written in a French prison by Saadi Yacef, the rebel leader of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). Upon his release, Yacef approached three filmmakers: Luchino Visconti, Francesco Rosi, and Pontecorvo (demonstrating that, whatever else might be said about them, some revolutionaries have good taste in movie directors). Yacef not only became the film’s producer but also stars in it as El-hadi Jaffar, the military leader of the FLN. The existential ramifications of this casting are breathtaking: When we witness the bombings of civilians in the cafés and dance halls of Algiers’s European Quarter, or the hit-and-run assassinations of French policemen, we are seeing re-creations of what Yacef himself perpetrated. When Jaffar is trapped and about to be blown up by French paratroopers in the casbah, Yacef is acting out his own arrest. What must have been going through his head on the set?

The other rebel protagonist is Ali La Pointe, played by Brahim Haggiag, an illiterate peasant chosen by Pontecorvo for his riveting, prole-hero features. Ali—his eyes, to be exact—is the fervid center of the movie. A petty thief, he is radicalized in prison by the executions he witnesses, and recruited by the FLN upon his release. (To test his mettle, and to make sure he’s not a spy, Jaffar orders him to assassinate a French cop.) Ali is not a character, exactly; he’s the embodiment of downtrodden Muslims clamoring for liberation. Pontecorvo has a great eye for faces that carry within themselves a depth charge, and in Ali he gives us an unforgettable mask of suffering and rage. There is destiny in that acetylene glower of his; it tells us that time is on his side.

His adversary is Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin—the film’s only professional actor—and modeled on General Massu, the military commander of Algeria. (Ironically, Martin, primarily a stage actor, had once been blacklisted in France for signing a manifesto against the Algerian war.) If Ali is fire, Mathieu is dry ice. He represents military efficiency at its most draconian: His lecture to his paratroopers about how to decapitate the FLN is an object lesson in the calculus of anti-terrorist warfare. When a press conference is staged with a captured FLN leader, and his words begin to stir sympathy in the room, Mathieu shuts down the show. He may represent Pontecorvo’s paradigm of colonialist thuggery, but as is so often true with movie villains, he gets the best lines. This man, who fought as a hero on the side of the Resistance and served during France’s recent defeat in Indochina, is given his due—if only to reinforce a deeper point. When Mathieu tells the reporters that they must accept the consequences of war if they want France to win, he is exposing the ugly truth behind all policing; people in power prefer not to know about the dirty work—the torture—that keeps them there.

Pontecorvo makes it clear that terrorists must also face their own moral reckoning. The strongest scene in the movie comes when three FLN women drop their veils and assume a Western look in order to infiltrate the European Quarter and plant explosives in two cafés and an Air France ticket office. We see tired businessmen at a bar, passengers waiting to board buses, teenagers dancing, and, most pointedly, a baby licking an ice cream cone—all soon to be blown to bits. Is Pontecorvo saying that these people are tragic casualties of a necessary war? Perhaps. But in the end, the horror unleashed in The Battle of Algiers cannot be fitted into neat partisan formulations, which is perhaps why so many disparate groups, from the Panthers to the Pentagon, have tried to claim the film for their own agenda. What reveals Pontecorvo as an artist, and not simply a propagandist of genius, is the sorrow he tries to stifle but that comes flooding through anyway—the sense that all sides in this conflict have lost their souls, and that all men are carrion. -NYmag

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Baldwin's Nigger (Horace Ové, 1968)

In this black-and-white cinéma-vérité documentary, writer James Baldwin and comedian/activist Dick Gregory debate passionately in front of an overwhelmingly black British audience. The film shows something exceptional for that period: an uncensored conversation about the black experience, as if no white people were present. This open-hearted, almost intimate public debate tackles many important themes in the US and UK. With the majestic eloquence that characterises not only his literary style but also his speaking, Baldwin provides subtle and critical commentary on complex problematic issues such as race and colour. An insightful document that is still relevant in substance and urgency. --IFFR

Friday, June 12, 2020

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (Charles Burnett, 2003)

"In the days before his execution, Nat Turner will agree to tell his story. But after his death, his words will become the property of others, as his body was during his life."

Someone please explain how Charles Burnett keeps making these thought-provoking, emotionally powerful masterpieces in such bizarre formats. A Disney TV film, a 12-minute short film, a neorealist 80-minute feature where nothing happens, and now this 60-minute PBS/History Channel documentary on the Nat Turner rebellion.

Burnett looks at how the task of telling the story of Nat Turner is a treacherous, slippery, and morally complex one. Because Turner's "confessions" of 1831 were channeled through a white lawyer named Thomas Gray, we can never know for certain who the "real" Nat Turner was. All historians can hope for is the nuggets in the Confessions which can sound like Nat (nuggets which are few and far between). This gives artists a plethora of material to work with: to reshape, reclaim, and refashion Nat Turner to serve their own desires. But this also means that we can never understand Nat Turner from a truly historiographical point-of-view. Thus, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property becomes a brilliant investigation on the shortcomings of historical interpretation, of artistic license (best seen through its extended treatment of William Styron's controversial fictional novel The Confessions of Nat Turner), and of the blur between reality and fiction in representation. From major players--from Styron himself and slavery scholars Kenneth Greenberg and Eugene Genovese--to border players who have lots of stakes in the issues--Ossie Davis, black and white Afro-American-studies professors--Burnett interviews a slew of fascinating folks who give their insights into how they interpret Nat Turner. All have equally legitimate claims. All have points where they easily contradict one another. All have moments where we disagree with them based on what someone after them says. No one is ever "more" right", and Burnett keeps the proceedings electrically objective and still Wiseman-ly subjective. The most fascinating, telling, damning, interesting quote comes from an old white woman who is a Southampton County museum curator, the location of the Nat Turner Rebellion: "All I'll say is this. Slavery....was so wrong. But wrong, too."

When a documentary-with-recreations such as this becomes as important a historiographical tool as the actual confessions of the slave himself, you know you're in deep over your head in knottedup matters that not even the Seasoned Historian can untangle. In its final ten minutes, Burnett (like Charles Willson Peale in his Artist in his Museum, or the titular Wizard in L. Frank Baum's tale) pulls back the curtain of his own fantasy, his own complex mixture of truth and fiction, and we're blown away when we see the Wizard at work making the story happen. This is necessary viewing for anyone who wants to know more about America's history of slavery (which I assume includes every thinking-living-breathing American).

I would also recommend watching this AND reading Kenneth Greenberg's excellently compiled The Confessions of Nat Turner and Other Documents before tackling the upcoming behemoth of 2016 independent cinema that is The Birth of a Nation. Burnett's documentary and Greenberg's anthology give us important insights and interpretive lenses on how to best approach the increasingly complex story of Nat Turner. Brace yourself. It's about to get even trickier. --Letterboxd

Note: The actual film ends at 56.13 in the video below, though the youtube video, which I assume someone ripped from their TV, continues past that point. 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Statues Also Die aka Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Chris Marker & Alain Resnais, 1953)

As comprehensive analysis of the institutional mechanisms of museologics, Les statues meurent aussi’s (Statues Also Die, 1953) prime contention is, in effect, that anthropology and ethnology have their Schroedinger’s Cat; that the removal of an object from its spiritual context-in-community, it’s enslavement and caging in the museum and it’s sacrifice to the white deity of Art, cannot but change it’s state. The black cat, once its museum-box is opened, is always found dead. Astoundingly, in what is only his second film, Marker starts with a cogent and prescient discourse, a formulation of race politics before the days of the civil rights movement, before the rise of post-colonial “third world” studies, and well before semiology and cultural studies established themselves as recognised academic disciplines.

Where could such an unprecedented assemblage have arisen from? Les statues was not the first “anti-colonial” film, though undoubtedly a very early example. France at the time was still a major colonial power, with a history of colonisation throughout the world on most every continent, stretching back to the 17th century and encompassing, at various times, over a hundred colonies of various sizes. The colonial “possessions” were the pride of the nation, celebrated in major exhibitions, the most famous of which was held in Paris in 1931 and attracted 33 million visitors from around the world. This is not to say there was never any opposition to this state of affairs. The Communist Party mounted a small counter-exhibition to the 1931 “Exposition Colonial Internationale”, entitled “The Truth on the Colonies”. Alas, it attracted but 5,000 visitors. Clearly, any countering of the status quo was an extreme minority viewpoint.

French interest in the culture of their colonies stretched further back, and the Musee D’Homme, whose collection features prominently in the film, had its roots in the Musee d’Ethnographie du Trocadero, established in 1878. The influence of the colonies’ cultures and artefacts on the French avant-garde through time was also considerable, the championing of what was considered ‘primitive’ art by the Fauves and Cubists being but the best known. The “Africa” of the avant-garde, however, was largely a fanciful exoticised ‘other’, as exemplified in the work of Raymond Roussel in the 1910’s. Andre Breton and the Surrealists’ lionisation of African art is also fairly well known, but even their seeming espousal can be seen to be but an extension of the negrophilia which came to prominence in Parisian life in the initial decades of the 20th century. Nevertheless, one can easily conceive of an evolutionary line that can be traced through the strata of various artistic practices, from painting and decorative arts to literature and poetry, and even to theatre and dance, as well as, of course, to film, marking a contagion of one culture by the other(s), and resulting in an irreversible hybridization.

Where then are the precedents of Marker’s approach, which seeks, in a sense, to resituate the Musee D’Homme’s collection within its milieu, to reinvigorate, to reanimate it? Perhaps the more appropriate though lesser known lineage can be traced to the interests of the breakaways from the Surrealist group, Michel Leiris and George Bataille, who went on to form the short lived but influential College of Sociology. Leiris, in particular, had an abiding and continuing interest in anthropology and ethnography, and his approach was distinguished by his refusal to take a stance which pretended in any way to be neutral, uninvolved. His 1934 text, L’Afrique Fantôme (to date untranslated into English), incorporated biographical elements, including self-examination and commentary on his relation to both the process of ethnographic study and to the people and culture which were being observed. Such an approach would seem remarkably close to what Marker would develop in his own oeuvre so many years later.

What was the contemporaneous context that produced Les statues? The journal Presence Africaine, which had only come into existence three years earlier, commissioned the film, whose tone certainly fits in with the direction the journal would take in its questioning of France’s colonial presence, the outlining of the effects on the peoples and cultures an occupational force exerts, and the validation of African artistic output. Yet Marker’s text, after presenting the argument of the cultural fixing in formalin of the museum display, then immediately plunges the viewer into the cosmology in which the statues exist in vivo, the fabric of the African universe they came from. Where does this remarkable narrative of, to use a Deleuzeian term, “becoming black” come from? Certainly, the cult of the search for authenticity was on the rise in a post-war France that had lost (at the very least, some of) its self-confidence during its occupation by the Nazis. For, ironically, it had become, effectively, during a short period, a colony itself, of the German Third Reich. Even Sartre’s existentialism might be cast simplistically by a cynical observer as an attempt (if only partially) to regain an intellectual and moral higher ground by an intelligentsia wracked with a collective sense of guilt. Yet the authenticity proposed in Les statues is one which eschews the individual, positing a universe suffused with an inasunderable fabric of interconnected meanings, where “all of creation moves in formation”. This is a world at once profane and profoundly sacred: “Hence, every object is sacred because every creation is sacred;” a Markerian universe which was again invoked so powerfully in Sans Soleil (Sunless, 1983). The formulation is all the more remarkable in its precession to so many, very much later, conceptions that would achieve currency in structuralism and post-structuralism, which primarily derived from the linguist Ferdinand De Saussure’s view of language (at the time little known) as being a fabric of interconnected terms which depend on each other to determine their meanings, each term being meaningless in isolation, the very ‘death’ suffered by the statues.

The milieu of the statues Marker presents is a poetic treatise on immanence, a world of multiple becomings where every element conspires to increase the powers and capacities of every other. A conception imbued with notions remarkably similar to Henri Bergson’s “creative evolution” and “elan vital”, and a sense of Spinoza’s formulation of an universe suffused with divinity, Marker would seem to have been proposing an alternative to the increasingly alienated lives that post-war France, and indeed the world, was beginning to pursue, to try and find an archaeology of the tribal underlying the veneer of everyday life, its vernacular of supposed civility, to try and find hope again. It is a conduit through which to connect to an animistic, archaic, Arcadian ancestral memory, a place where “all of creation moves in formation”. It proposes an anti-transcendentalism, a non-static, anti-essentialism that speaks of a chaotic world of inseparable becomings and inter-connectedness where “the broadest activity connects with the world as a whole”.

In this field of significations, even death assumes the role of an active principle. Here, the dead are kept “nearby to honour and benefit from their power, in a basket overflowing with bones.” They are the source of another fecundity. “They are the roots of the living.” The generative force of the universe arises even from the dead, it pervades. “The roots flourish.” The poet/sorcerer, Magic Marker, encircles the elements in even such a fallow field (to European eyes) to find the rhizomes which generate further enunciations. The statues and masks are the liminal, the point through which the elements which constituted and expressed the world of the dead regenerate, reconfigure, are reanimated and enter the world of the living. Marker may as well be speaking of himself when he says “the sorcerer captures in his mirror the images of this country of death, where one goes by losing one’s memory.” For “These masks fight against death. They unveil that which it wants to hide.” And what death wants to hide is the underlying generative force for, “winner of the body, death cannot do anything against the vital strength spread through every being and which composes its double.” The force is free from the assemblage in the physical milieu it inhabited, and “It wanders. It will torment the living until it has taken on its former appearance.” Where does this appearance reside in the meantime? In the statues and masks now imprisoned in the museum: “And it is this appearance which is fixed in these legendary metamorphoses in order to appease it until these winning faces are done repairing the fabric of the world.”

Yet the colonisers’ society has lost this facility, this network of becomings which allows the dead to pass through to the living again: “We put stones over our dead in order to prevent them from escaping.” And so these statues, these portals, must be “Classifed, labelled, conserved in the ice of showcases and collections” and no longer take up their vital strategies. Not only are these arteries of the lifeblood of civilization cauterised, their very fabric is reconfigured so they become nothing but a postcard of the exotic other; “In the country where every form had its signification, where the gracefulness of a curve was a declaration of love to the world, one becomes accustomed to an art of the bazaar.” The imperatives of an art of becoming are replaced by an art of commerce, where the speed of production and the law of supply and demand replace the free movement of spirit. “Into this country of gift and exchange, we have introduced money.” The entire economy of the signifying regime is shifted and changed. It is “Also an art of portraits. Henceforth incapable of expressing the essential, the sculptor seeks resemblance.” The line it traces is no longer the line of flight, the line which can allow escape from the totalising territorialisation of the state machine. It is no longer a search for provisional encodings that can allow for movement in a smooth space outside of the controlling stratifications of the culture police. The entire plane of consistence has shifted and changed. That some of the same elements may still be part of the assemblage no longer matters. The black art thenceforth made is mortified.

The line of contagion which had energised the Western avant-garde, travelling in the opposite direction, Marker seems to argue, resulted in a moribund African machine. The colonising state mechanism of striation sought to contain any exuberance: “All that was pretext for works of art is replaced, be it clothing, symbolic gestures, intrigues, or talking.” What then remained as a plane of expression for the African? What Marker proposes is a form of ‘technique of the body’. There may no longer be any instruments, any opportunities for what would be considered a disruption of colonial rule, but in the midst of the coloniser’s milieu, the negrophilia that the Europeans themselves have paradoxically embraced gives the African line of flight a fillip. The signifying regime of statues and masks may have been contained and adulterated, the movements of dance made merely a spectacle of exoticism. “But a moving black is still black art.” So the black athlete is celebrated while giving rise to a new form of enunciation in this alien milieu in which s/he can again thrive, while at times even threatening the dominant discourse. As is the musician, particularly in the forms of jazz and blues, which originated in their forcefully transplanted homes in the new world, and came from their painful experience, the singers and musicians map out a new field of signifiers.

The image of a jazz drummer’s improvisation, while an underlying drum solo on the soundtrack accompanies, is intercut with a sequence which shows what this new form of oppositional art confronts, “the world of loneliness and the machine”, where any form of protest is met with batons and machineguns. In a formulation which harks forward to Godard’s style more than a decade later (the famous description ‘the children of Marx and Coca Cola’), what we now find, he says, is “the rhythm of the factory confronting the rhythm of nature: Ford meets Tarzan.” The description of the plight of the colonial subject can equally apply to the lot of the colonizer: “His work is able to provide neither spiritual nor social sustenance, he works for nothing, his reward is nothing but a derisory salary.” But the rupture to this assemblage (if only provisional and temporary) would have to wait a decade and a half til the month of May ’68.

But Marker’s response is one of hope, a vision of a “new community”. He finds everywhere the vestiges of the tribal, communal organisation, even in the field of medical science. In a montage using only three shots showing the collection of blood, and the subsequent work of producing a vaccine, the voiceover asks us to “Look well at this technique, which frees mankind from magic. It presents sometimes with magic a strange relationship of gestures.” Sorcery is reborn as science, and shares some of the same gestures. “Science, as magic, admits the necessity of the sacrifice of the animal. The virtue of blood. The harnessing of malevolent forces.” Death, the death of stasis of the Western world, is again transformed into the generative death of the archaic mode of signification. For what is needed is to pass through the liminal of death to arrive again into the world of the living. For “death is always a country where one goes forth at the cost of one’s memories.” And for Marker, the zone of memory is the generative field of all signification. So he concludes with a program for a restitution of what has been lost to our ‘modernity’:

“There would be nothing to prevent us from being, together, the inheritors of two pasts if that equality could be recovered in the present. Less remarked, it is prefigured by the only equality denied to no one, that of repression. Because there is no rupture between African civilization and ours. The faces of black art fell off from the same human face, like the serpent’s skin. Beyond their dead forms, we recognize this promise, common to all the great cultures, of a man who is victorious over the world. And, white or black our future is made of this promise.”

Surely had it known of this tract, the Black Panther would have smiled, lifting a sole paw in solidarity. --Senses of Cinema