16.1 / Atlantiques / Cynthia A. Young

Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections. 

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.

– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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It is June 18th, roughly three weeks after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes.1 Floyd’s murder, the resulting protests, and the brutal police response has put to bed the lie that policing is broken, instead showing yet again that policing works exactly the way it was intended.2 Given recent events, one might mistakenly see the current crisis as proof that the United States is somehow exceptional. It is not. The precarity and disposability of Black life is a worldwide condition.

This point is hauntingly illustrated in Atlantiques (2019), a film by French-Senegalese director Mati Diop, the first Black woman director in competition at the Cannes International Film Festival and the first to win the Grand Prix. Set in Dakar with first-time actors, the film is inspired by Diop’s 2009 short documentary of the same name.3

Atlantiques is at once a labor story, a love story, a ghost story, an immigrant story, and a police procedural. In its formal experimentation, range, and ambition the feature film departs significantly from its short predecessor’s dirge for a lost generation. The film centers women whose desires and ambitions exist independently of men. Soleiman (Ibrahima Touré), the initial protagonist, disappears early on, leaving the film to focus on his lover, Ada (Mama Sané), and a police detective Issa (Amadou Mbow) whose body Soleiman’s soul inhabits after dark. Atlantiques dissolves the presumed boundaries between bodies, between genders, between continents, between land and water, between the living and the dead. What is left is a film of rare moral, political, and representational complexity.

   

Soleiman (Ibrahima Touré) and Ada (Mama Sané)

Though the separation of Ada and Soleiman is heartbreaking in conventional romantic terms, it frees Ada to contest patriarchal, familial, and religious expectations that she either settle into an arranged marriage or defy those expectations by accepting Soleiman as her lover. Ada’s determination to gain her sexual autonomy means that she must struggle against a society defined by the rules of economic exchange, where women, particularly virgins, are valuable and tradeable commodities. Ada does not, as would a conventional heroine, choose between financial security and romantic love. Instead, she chooses a life where her heart and mind are reconciled and not at odds.

Ada’s rejection of her husband mimics and foreshadows other rejections of the social arrangements in the film. At the film’s beginning, Soleiman and other construction workers confront their foreman over back pay and when denied yet again, quit and set sail for Spain. The men have no agency in this situation. If they quit, they will remain unpaid and others will replace them. Even their would-be escape to Europe benefits the rich developer because once they die, their debt dies with them. However, their deaths facilitate the payment of the debt when they return as spirits inhabiting the bodies of their wives, girlfriends, and friends. Ghostly possession makes justice possible. It also makes porous the border between the past and the present, as well as the border between Africa and the Diaspora. The film illustrates this point by cutting between an image of the possessed women lounging in the local bar and one of the dead men as they appeared in life. This juxtaposition simultaneously emphasizes and deconstructs the boundaries between the living and the dead, the past where the men sat in the bar and the present where the women do. The soundtrack conveys a haunting transcendence as the sequence culminates in an image that captures in the same frame both the spirits who possess and the bodies possessed.4

Ghostly possession

The loss and return of Soleiman and his crew references both the eleven million souls lost to the Middle Passage and the hundreds of those lost during Senegalese migration of the early 2000s. These crossings and ghostly possessions are modes for mourning the losses accumulated by slavery and colonialism’s afterlives of extractive capitalism and enduring patriarchal arrangements. They are also means for attaining justice and reversing the established social order, albeit temporarily.

Unlike Soleiman who inhabits another man’s body so he can make love to Ada, the other men inhabit the bodies of their loved ones so they can extort the developer for back wages. Initially, the possessed loved ones break into the developer’s house, demanding N’Diaye give them the cash they are owed. He immediately turns to the police but of course, they cannot catch or hold the possessed women; their power ineffective against this supernatural force. Defeated, the developer meets the women with a briefcase full of cash, arguing that his debt is now paid. However, the women insist that he also dig their graves and ensure they have a proper burial. They look on disapprovingly as the developer digs with a pickaxe to break the hard ground. In the end, the workers are buried, the women are in their beds, cash in hand, and Ada and Soleiman have one night together. The many forces that made these outcomes impossible are at bay, at least for the night.

A proper burial

The delicacy that defines Mati Diop’s filmmaking captures both the horrors of Black disposability and the possibilities of creative and determined resistance. In Atlantiques, Black death becomes soaring, defiant Black life, even as  disposability remains a fact of Black diasporic life. In my more hopeful moments, this is the way I try to make sense of the horror of George Floyd’s death: Insurgent gestures, ones that produce cellphone videos or the brief return of the dead, hold the possibility for revealing, if not ending, the forces that would consign Black life to brutal death and utter despair. At the least, they make possible the collective organizing and individual defiance that always accompany these forces. In Ada’s story, we even find cause for hope, knowing that she will follow her own path and maintain bodily autonomy. Still, the high-rise building that spurred Soleiman’s departure and the Atlantic Ocean in which he drowned remain fixed points on the horizon.

One night together

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This is one of four essays from the sixteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s 16.2/Fractured Crescendo, Rest/Nijah Cunningham
b.O.s 16.3/All Day Long/Hayley O’Malley
b.O.s 16.4/Lion Man/John Jennings

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Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.

Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black Cinema, Flash Art, Unwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.

Endnotes

  1. We know the circumstances of Floyd’s death because Darnella Frazier, a 17-year old girl on her way to the corner store, recorded the murder on her phone and posted it to Facebook. She did so to contest the Minnesota Police Department’s lie-by-omission that a “medical incident” occurred during what was otherwise a routine arrest. Frazier began recording, as Sandra Bland and Diamond Reynolds had before her, because she knew that there is nothing routine about black encounters with police, other than the imminent threat of injury or death. See Elizabeth Alexander, “The Trayvon Generation,” New Yorker (June 15, 2020), accessed on June 17, 2020 at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/22/the-trayvon-generation
  2. If the U.S. is “one salient geopolitical juncture around which the accumulated violence of colonial and racialized appropriation and contestation accrue,” (Byrd et al. 2) policing is one spectacular condensation point.  “The reality, “Alex Vitale writes in The End of Policing, “is that the police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and nonwhite people: those on the losing end of the economic and political relations” (34).  See Jodi A. Byrd, Alyosha Goldstein, Jodi Melamed and Chandan Reddy, “Predatory Value: Economies of Dispossession and Disturbed Relationalities,” Social Text 135, Vol. 36, No. 2 (June 2018): 1-18; and Alex Vitale, The End of Policing, (New York: Verso Books, 2007).
  3. In the short, Diop’s lens settles on three young men who are part of a migration wave that accelerated in the early 2000s when scores of Senegalese youth set out in small, handmade boats for Europe. Many perished along the way. Motivated by poverty and joblessness, these desperate youth crossed borders that sought to contain them and their dreams. By the end of the short, one character’s insistence that the ocean “has no borders” serves as his virtual epitaph.
  4. The soundtrack is written by Fatima Al Qadri, a Senegalese musician who grew up in Kuwait, combines elements of her signature style – hip hop, electronica and snippets of in Diop’s words “ancestral Muslim songs” – to represent a multicultural eclecticism central to Diop’s and Al Qadri’s identities. See MeiMei Fox, “Meet the Female Artist from Kuwait Who Composed the Music for Atlantics,”  Forbes, November 29, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/meimeifox/2019/11/29/meet-the-female-artist-from-kuwait-who-composed-the-music-for-atlantics/#5cc216fa10d7, accessed on September 15, 2020.
Cynthia Young
Cynthia A. Young is the author of Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left (Duke University Press, 2006) and the Department Head and Associate Professor of African American Studies at the Pennsylvania State University.