L to R: Detail from “Alligator Man” episode of Atlanta; detail from Zeal & Ardor’s Devil is Fine album cover (2017); Sheila Bridges, Tarnish (2017); Janet Jackson (1987); detail from Kia LaBeija Featuring the Moon (2018).
Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.
As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.
With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.
This fourth transmission (7.16.18) features Glenda R. Carpio on Atlanta‘s “Alligator Man” episode, Charles “Chip” Linscott on Zeal and Ardor’s “Blood in the River,” Macushla Robinson on Sheila Bridges’ Tarnish, Textures Material Culture Lab on Janet Jackson’s Skinny Jeans, and Keith M. Harris on Kia LaBeija Featuring the Moon.
– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)
Consider an absurdist turn in an episode of Atlanta.
It’s under a minute. And yet, because it is rendered in slow motion, it feels much longer, even out of time. It is the exit of a large alligator out of a one-story house in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia just at the moment when the police expect a black man to come out instead and face . . . well, the law, one could say—in the form of cuffs or gunshots, or death. The ‘gator is the man’s avatar and his exit is dilated swag. An extended close-up of the beast as it glides out, slick even in its low-laying heft, suggests smooth but deadly power. A pimp packing heat dressed to the hilt with the finest alligator shoes. And a lover to boot—the soundtrack is The Delfonics’ soulful “Hey! Love.”
The alligator belongs to Willy (Katt Williams), a has-been music manager who has been arguing with his young nephew “Earn” (Donald Glover) while the police pound at the door.1 Willy locks up his girlfriend Yvonne in a room after suspecting her of robbing him of fifty dollars. But she makes some phone calls out saying she has been kidnapped, which bring Earn and the police. In the carceral intensity of a house under siege Earn insists that Willy step out and face the charges. Willy threatens to send out his alligator instead.
Willy cannot afford to have police arrest him for kidnapping, or raid his house and find, among other things, a gun he gives to Earn (it is golden; phallic af and, in this context, glorious). Since Earn is on probation, he cannot be caught with a gun. Eventually Yvonne leaves. Earn leaves too and joins Willy’s neighbors, who have slowly gathered to watch the stand off. This is when the alligator, who is offhandedly referred to by his name, Coach, as if he were a domesticated pet, comes out in his full glory. Earn turns his head just as The Delfonics’ harmony starts: “Hey love . . . Turn your head around (turn your head around) / Take off that frown / You’re in love.”2 And he realizes that he is in love; we are in love—his face mirrors the viewers’ in its astonishment and delight. Coach is a thing of beauty.
My thick description here is meant to dilate the moment he swaggers out even more than the slow motion of the camera does even though Glover’s Atlanta smartly cuts the moment short. Coach’s slow motion strut switches registers when the camera speed goes back to normal and the sound of The Delfonics is no longer attached to his gait but is shown to be coming from Willy’s house. The spell is broken. “Where is Willy?” one of the cops asks. But then the camera changes focus and we see Willy running down a seemingly endless street, wearing nothing but a robe and long, white socks. Coach was not only his avatar but also his decoy—the trickster has staged his escape. “Hey Love” returns as the soundtrack to the show.
If Atlanta invokes the spirit of the much-sentimentalized trickster, a figure so over-determined it signifies saccharine banality at worst, romance at best, it does so strategically.3 The show uses long standing tropes in the Black tradition in condensed fashion—compressed to better re-gather their potency and reclaim them from overuse. By compressing and dilating the trickster, the bad-ass pimp, the smooth crooner all into a moment that lasts under a minute, followed up by a fugitive running down a seemingly endless road, Atlanta returns us to the pleasure one might have felt when the trickster was the stuff of long tales told on the porch or the stoop. Through condensation and dilation, Glover gives us black swag in a brief jolt of life-affirming energy. The aesthetic strategy necessitates a critical response similar to the slow motion with which the camera captures Coach. I further dilate the scene the better not only to savor it but also to linger on its implications.
A strutting Coach embodies both Willy’s imprisoned masculine power and the vitality of black art. The substance of the cage that threatens or confines both is only hinted at in the episode, but what the show as a whole has to say about the music business gives us a greater sense of what comprises this cage: the constant threat of appropriation and of commercialization against which black art needs to guard; the threat of madness it presents to some (think of the Michael Jackson episode in the series); the violence of the music business (Willy gives Earn the gun because Earn is also a music manager); the structural brutality of necropolitics of which these conditions are part.4
If Atlanta presents black life and black art under threat, it simultaneously enacts the ever-transforming power of fugitivity that is endemic to both. That power is in the spell-like moment of the pure, strutting coolness of Coach’s exit, and in Willy’s run, both of which, in their respective briefness and speed, preempt any impulse to empty sentimentality or commodification. That power pushes against the tragic familiarity of the scene Willy and Earn enact in the house: two black men trying to live under the threat of police, of jail, of death. The jolt of life that Glover’s dilated swag offers insists that though the scene is black life in America, black life cannot be reduced, caged, or diminished to a narrative of destruction and death. “Kiss my black ass,” Willy says to the cops when they tell him to step out and “talk” to them.
This is one of five essays from the fourth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
b.O.s. 4.2 / “Blood in the River” / Charles P. (“Chip”) Linscott
b.O.s. 4.3 / Tarnish / Macushla Robinson
b.O.s. 4.4 / Janet Jackson’s Skinny Jeans / TEXTURES Material Culture Lab
b.O.s. 4.5 / Kia featuring the moon / Keith M. Harris
About the editors:
Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.
Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.
- Atlanta, “Alligator Man.” Directed by Hiro Murai. Written by Donald Glover. FX, March 1, 2018.
- As is the case in all Atlanta episodes, the soundtrack adds layers to the main narrative. The scene focusing on Willy and Coach opens with René and Angela’s 1985 R&B hit “I’ll Be Good,” a romantic promise between two lovers, and follows with songs like LTD (Love, Tenderness, and Devotion)’s gorgeous “Love Ballad,” and two songs that attest to desire’s power: Breakwater’s “No Limit” (1978), Donnell Pitman’s “Burning Up” (a 1983 track released in 2014). The scene ends with The Delfonics’ “Hey! Love” (1971). These songs not only index Willy’s musical context but also suggest what is buried underneath the story we witness. Willy releases Coach as a result of a lover’s quarrel with Yvonne, who like Coach is at some point locked up within the house. The songs of love, devotion, and desire signal to the intimacy between Willy and Yvonne and the gender violence to which it devolves. The masculinist narrative which takes center stage obfuscates this story line. Through the soundtrack, however, Glover points to the aspects of black life that are overshadowed, at least at the level of representation, by the state sanctioned violence that the arrival of the police threatens to unleash.
- Inherited through several hundred years of slave experience from African ancestors and then “nurtured by generations of oral discourse and literary signifying,” the trickster has long been a source of pleasure; it has symbolized survival through subversion and cunning and afforded the communal experience of affirming not only black agency but also the swagger that characterizes black heroes. But the trickster has also become a habitual, default mode of black representation, one that not only threatens to become clichéd but that also obscures the myriad experiences that lie outside survival and resistance. Winifred Morgan, The Trickster Figure in American Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013): 45.
- Achille Mbembe defines “necropolitics” as the subjugation of life to the power of death; it is characterized by the use of political and social power to determine how some people must die and how others must live, including being tethered to forms of death in life (as in social or civic death). Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15, no. 1 (Winter 2003): 11.