Cinema Notes / American Letters / Elizabeth Reich, Courtney R. Baker, and Michael B. Gillespie

Modified still from The Time Has Come: John Burris Speaks. © Terence Nance

What follows is a conversation between myself, Courtney Baker, and Michael Gillespie on Black lives mattering. In each of our pieces, we engage in dialogue with real and imaginary figures to address blackness, cinema, suffering, struggle, resistance, and survival. We attend to the affective and ideological aspects of images with the belief that such work is essential to the production of how Black life matters.

—Elizabeth Reich

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Dead letter office. A bundle of letters on cinema. Dispatches on scripts and conceits projected and otherwise. An imago, justice, and the ecstatic. Notes of a native spectator. Action.

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Kara – Amazing news! I found them! These are the two I was telling you about—the ones who made the whole story possible. Some say “all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,” but I can’t abide that. They were caught up in the fundamental American family drama. You helped me see them. Mired in memories, Georgina and Walter performed the images of Black cinematic history, but in the unsafe harbor of the sunken place, they were set to explode. Watching them, I was reminded of your speculation: “perhaps they are simply enduring, surviving the interval.”1 Here is what I would tell them if they could have survived . . . .

My dearest, Georgina,

Chris couldn’t even see you. He—and many of us—looked at you and saw what we were meant to see, what we have been trained to see: a frightening, repressed Black woman. Always ready (balancing—for how long? —a cake ready to serve behind the dining room door), everything in place (especially your hair), you seemed to present an uncrackable exterior. Is this what we all look like when they call us “tough”? Are you what a Black superwoman looks like—the intimidatingly perfect servant? As if mastering the rules of subordination was a threat!

But your seams showed, even before we saw your scar—a wound as deep and as devastating as Beloved’s. Like that misunderstood specter, you, too, are a cipher and a memory ripped from your own reality and family. All that remains of you is a shadow. You look like someone else’s mother, like another person’s grandmother. Like Mammy. In other words, you looked like anyone but yourself. Is that what you were looking for in the mirror—a glimpse of your inside parts? When was the last time anyone ever really said your name and meant it?

Through the window and Chris’s telephoto lens, perhaps you looked to him like the suspicious neighbor in Rear Window, ready to be vanquished in (and with) a flash. You are a mystery. If you hadn’t existed, they would have invented you, which is exactly what they did anyway. The made maid. A role played out by Hattie and Butterfly.

Betty Gabriel as Georgina in Get Out. © Universal Pictures 2017

No Sapphire or Jezebel, it was you who was viciously seduced. In that photo from an earlier time, your smile suited you. Had you settled in to the idea that you were really and truly loved? Sisterhood and romance had fixed you in their sites, however. That was the true betrayal. Like Chris, you had eased your suspicions with the hope that someone who the world held up as a prize saw something in you. And indeed, she did see something in you. Only, that “thing” wasn’t you but a blank screen upon which she and even her family could project their own fantasies of fulfilled needs. Your beautiful face looked to them like a country waiting to be conquered. Your eyes, diamonds waiting to be mined.

If we must be destroyed (Must we? Why not rescued? What kind of person flies off and leaves a body?), let it be in battle, glorious. Let no one say you went down without a fight—trapped in the hell someone else constructed for you, dragging a displaced (grand)motherlove down the road to freedom.

No, no, no, I will never forget the great tear that you shed. In better circumstances, that tear would have broken the surface like coal from the deep recesses of the brain. With that one tear, you expressed years—no, lifetimes of silent suffering in a world that welcomed your body but punished your mind. In that tight close-up, it looked like your soul was pouring out of you, trying to break free of the dam, struggling to get out.

 

C

 

Dear Walter,

I saw you running. Were you trying to outstrip Chris or were you being chased? It’s strange how people see a Black man running and don’t imagine a destination. Like they assume he’s either an athlete or a criminal. I wonder if you weren’t propelled by another muscle memory, though—one in which the dogs (and cameras?) are ever at your heels as you sprint and dodge to freedom.

You did that every night, I think. The story goes that running a lap around that big house was your attempt to recapture someone else’s lost glory. I like to think you were looking for the exit, trying to break through the unseen boundary. But they had you collared by an invisible fence and imprisoned in a luminous glare.

Drapetomania is what they used to call such flights of fancy. So-called doctors invented a whole new syndrome just because some people couldn’t come to terms with not being loved eternally. Immune to the others’ needs, they just couldn’t let go. That kind of love and its promise have a habit of enticing and entrapping folks. Need is not the same as love. Someone else’s fear of flight created your fate.

Marcus Henderson as Walter in Get Out. © Universal Pictures 2017

Chris thought that you loved that girl, and he was partially right: you did. He didn’t get the tense right. In the end, it was he who stayed his hand, so how free is he, really? Like him, you were framed. Photo albums of lovers turned into a catalog of peonage.

At a lower frequency, your nervous laugh broadcast the price of being seen. Knowing you were under surveillance, you gave a fine performance. Because they were watching, you watched yourself—an audience to your own acquiescence. This is what it looks like when someone knows they won’t be rescued—not in a year. Not even in twelve.

 

C

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Dear Justice,

I know you must be furious—as Baldwin wrote, “in a constant state of rage.” All you have are cases, open like caskets that refuse to stay drowned.

The floating images in Terence Nance’s The Time Has Come: John Burris Speaks are very different from those we usually see of anti-black violence: while there is no justice in Nance’s film, there is little evidence either. Civil rights attorney John Burris narrates the film, but it is not about the law, not about justice, not even about cause and effect. Black bodies fill the screens but their movements aren’t indexical. Burris’s voice begins by calling out the names of the dead, as if to give them hearing, yet the images depart from the words. They take us toward a vision of movement, of bodies at once broken and free; images both moored to and liberated from their origins. They negotiate a terrible pessimism with some kind of beauty, something, in the end, I want to call hopelike.

“Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Oscar Grant,” Burris intones, and the camera imagines the men. But as he continues, “are just examples of the kind of mentality that exists in this country,” we watch one young man begin to move, beautifully, in a kind of airless flight. His brief freedom is interrupted by clips of televised police brutality and a response shot in which he, himself, seems to suffer the doubly mediated violence on the screen. Burris’s voice is now distorted and full of static, cut off from his image as well as from its own analogue stability.

Again and again Nance separates effects from sources, in particular those of violence against black bodies. Can there be justice? Young men appear and disappear in heartbeats with glitches on the soundtrack. Boys fall to the ground to the sounds of guns but without bullets, twist to avoid the enclosures of half-cages, and turn their bodies against the pull of gravity and time. Burris’s voice continues to echo hauntingly, couched at times in computer-generated sounds of violence, and at others embraced by soulful violin. It reminds us to “know what your rights are” and we watch three young men, on a curb with hands behind them as though handcuffed, begin to dance—until they stand suddenly: hands up, don’t shoot!

Nance’s film doesn’t only move toward death, in other words. Its subjects reach out into a register of the human disarticulated from what traditionally passes as cinematic reality. Its black bodies in struggle seem magic. Despite its police state, The Time Has Come meditates on the tensions—artistic and political—between a powerful futurity in black life and the world’s ontology of black death.

But does it matter? As the film gathers to a close, you remind us of our power to fight. Burris tell us that we have agency: the power to refuse to participate in consumer culture, to separate ourselves from the roles we normally play. “The time has come for all of us . . . to stand up together and protest this type of conduct that is occurring against the African American community. We must . . . stand against police brutality. The date is November 28th.” And Nance gives us three title frames, “This holiday season show your worth. / Help stop police brutality by $peaking a language everyone understands. / Blackout Black Friday. Don’t shop on Nov. 28th.” Together, the lines insist that we can be more than subjects of capitalism, more than objects of capital; that black bodies can exceed the commodities they have been reduced to across the hundreds of years of history. Would this be justice?

Does the technology—of money and digital imagery—help us to wrench open a space between the body and the world? Is it one in which blackness might slip through? If we refuse our place, our connection to this place, Nance seems to tell us, perhaps we can find another realm—that other register—a space Moten and Harney have called the undercommons, in which we can be fugitive and dance, study and plan.

Perhaps Nance argues with us: you are not only an object to be bought and killed. You are a filmic dream, a form of grace beyond the commodity. You are not trapped in this world, pushing forward against slow motion in reverse and disappearing with static on the station. You don’t need to be prosecuted or defended. You don’t belong to this system of justice: you are your own possession.

 

L

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February 17, 2023

Dear Blue,

Yes, I’d love the help. There are seventeen file boxes total. Most are organized by year and contain all of David’s published writings. You’ll probably be interested in three boxes that are each labelled “Crosseyed and Painless.” They contain postcards, letters never sent to Barry, half-filled journals, dozens of bar napkins and yellow index cards (Yes, covered in green-inked notes!), dozens of rolls of undeveloped Super 8 (the Chocolate Genius doc. footage?), and pipes with still potent flower. Each box also contains what looks like programming notes for one of those film series he used to do for the NEH Underground. He was devising a code. Most of the writing seems to be sometime after the second trial but before Jamie. Did you hear they closed The Alibi? Anyway, I’ve pieced together a couple of pages so far. More soon.

 

M

 

An Ecstatic Experience (Ja’Tovia Gary, 2015)
film blackness
black experimental forging
griots of the avant-garde
I am simultaneously creating and destroying, remaking and unmaking. My intimate interaction with the archive . . . expresses my desire to be a part of it, to make my presence felt in and on that history while also interrogating it.
Ja’Tovia Gary

That which is beautiful and holy, an entanglement. Ja’Tovia Gary’s An Ecstatic Experience derives its title (and arguably its enraptured spur) from Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground (1982). Ecstatic experience is the research interest of Collins’s philosophy professor protagonist Sara Rogers. Rogers works to conceive of ecstasy in ways more attendant to the artist’s practice than to the strict terms of Christian doctrines. She must also manage the new ecstatic experiences developing in her life. As she notes, “If ecstasy is an immediate apprehension of the divine then the divine is energy.” The energy of An Ecstatic Experience in total is a churning of performativities, affective economies, and temporalities. Black matter, a (w)holy syncretic revolution.

From An Ecstatic Experience. © Ja’Tovia Gary 2015

The film opens with found footage of Sunday morning people, black folk moving to and through glory. They come for His lesson. As the cross atop the church steeple makes plain: “He is alive again.” With the scenes of the lost and found parishioners arriving suited and crowned the rumors of an ethnographic ramble to come shift to something more. The animation and score together refabulate these parishioners. They are recomposed. This is a radical conception of call and response with an image and the capacity to sketch and conjure. Gary’s hand processing of the film stock, her direct animation process, proffers a range of colors and shapes that regulate the worship beneath the frame. Antibodies in motion. Escalation. Modulation. An anointing gesture, the animation on the film surface recodes the images of folks fanning in the heat, children sleeping, the preacher man preaching. “I’m just a vessel.” They are folk fighting to keep the devil from stealing their joy. It is the score of this section, Alice Coltrane’s “Journey to Satchidananda,” that compounds the transmogrification of their faith. The title cut from the 1971 album of the same name, the song begins with Cecil McBee’s bass. A beat. A foundational pulse. A point of origin. And then Tulsi’s tambura and Alice Coltrane’s harp forge a harmonic counterpoint of strings that build texture and timbre along with the accents of Rashied Ali’s drums. This building is the orchestration of a negotiation between the concussive and the vibrational; a shaping stir of resonance and direction as the music settles into the stratospheric melodies of a raga swirl when Pharaoh Sanders arrives on soprano sax. The consecration is complete. This is transcendental sounding. A sonic mapping of the new gospel that is amply boosted with harmonics that resonate as a call to conversion and ascension, a praise song in the black experimental idiom of jazz. Our text for today is the Word and jazz collectivity. Satchidananda. Ultimate. Satchidananda. Truth.

From An Ecstatic Experience. © Ja’Tovia Gary 2015

The rise of the spirit and rapture cuts to the second section of An Ecstatic Experience: Ruby Dee on a television stage performing a slave. This is the “Slavery” episode for the History of the Negro People series broadcast on NET in 1965. Dee is a woman reminiscing about her mother’s refusal to be a slave. She remembers her mother working in the field. She remembers her mother stopping and shouting, “Someday we ain’t going to be slaves no more . . . I’m free, I’m free, I’m free.” A black body at rest is a conspiratorial act. She caught the spirit and for that she caught cowhide lashes. Before suicide by cop was there suicide by overseer? Ruby Dee is reading an Ossie Davis penned adaptation of an account given by Fannie Moore, a woman born a slave in South Carolina in 1849. Ms. Moore gave this account in 1937 at the age of 88 as part of the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Slave Narrative Project. During Dee’s monologue, Gary’s animating hand on the surface again engineers the diegesis beneath. The love below. Remediation. Again, the animation stipulates measures of process and energy. Trembling. Cellular. Mitochondrial. Animated shape fury. The shape of things to come.  Ruby Dee meets mitosis. Her image divides. Framed by cubes and triangles, she is crowned, scarred, erased, but she and her voice persist. Speckled and haloed. Unbowed and sainted. Transmogrification. Radiation ruling the nation. Black matter. Two trains running. Two freedoms channeling. An affective compounding of two temporality scripts: rebel slave and Civil Rights celebrity.

From An Ecstatic Experience. © Ja’Tovia Gary 2015

An Ecstatic Experience cuts to a video of Assata Shakur speaking. 1987. Cuba. It is an interview with Gil Noble for his long running “African American affairs” program, Like It Is (1968-2011). Assata Shakur. Black Panther Party. Black Liberation Movement. A revolutionary. Convicted of murder in 1977. COINTELPRO, anybody? Escaped the Jersey chain gang in 1979. “I decided . . . It was time.” Political asylum in Cuba since 1984.  One-million-dollar reward. Highest fucking bounty on a runaway slave ever. Fred Hampton lost that option 1500 steps from where I am now.

From the deliver us from evil revival at the film’s start to the Fannie Moore/Ruby Dee lenticular testimony of refusal to the free exile option of Shakur, An Ecstatic Experience closes on footage of Baltimore in a state of insurrection following the murder of Freddie Gray. Black lives matter. You think? This protest riot revolution disputes the quotidian shenanigans of black death. Gary’s hand continues the treatment of the celluloid as fabric, a material dyed and cast. Her animation continues to stir as an instrument for improvisational and tinting historiographics. Chromopoetics. Haptic texturing. Scalar intimacies. In this the film’s final act, the Baltimore footage is intercut with the chorale performance by Voices Inc., the group that stood on a riser behind Ruby Dee during the “Slavery” broadcast. As they sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” the rapid intercutting produces a flicker effect but the song evenly bleeds between the two spatiotemporalities. Flicker as neural inscription. Affective acceleration. Escape velocity. The anthem’s coupling with the intermittence and image abstraction occurs as sonic visuality, whereby sound directs the visualizing trigger of the image. “Glory, glory, hallelujah / His truth is marching on.” Gary’s material process of animation is a theorizing of blackness and, with Christina Sharpe in mind, the animation operates as material disturbances on the film surface. This is what Sharpe once called wake work, work that configures and considers black precarity in a manner that can “attest to the modalities of Black life lived in, as under, despite Black Death.”2 Gary renders film blackness as cinema in the wake, an assemblage of work that poses new circuits and aesthetic accountings of blackness, sociality, and obliteration. Arcane and prodigious, An Ecstatic Experience deregulates the American archive, compromising it with the mapping of states of freedom and strategies of resistance. Dead reckoning? Liberation cartography?

What do you call a film compelled by many stains/genealogies/materials/conceits?
Worldmaking.
Blackmaking.

Be anointed
Be still
Escape
Exile
Resist
Live
Fuck it, get free

A
black woman’s hand . . .

 

peanut butter
milk
jazz hands kush
call J___
submit receipts
mom
700ug?

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Courtney R. Baker is Associate Professor of American Studies at Occidental College. She is the author of Humane Insight: Looking At Images Of African-American Suffering and Death (New Black Studies series, University of Illinois Press, 2015) and is at work on a new book, entitled Disobedient Cinema: Twenty-First Century Black Film and the Tyranny of Realism. She has published essays in the journals Parallax and The Journal of American Culture as well as popular online journals and blogs including Avidly (A Los Angeles Review of Books Channel), Huffington Post Black Voices, and New Black Man. Her Twitter handle is @drprofblacklady.

Michael B. Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York. His research and writing focuses on black visual and expressive culture, visual historiography, film theory, and contemporary art. He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His next book project is entitled Music of My Mind: Blackness and Sonic Visuality.

Endnotes

  1. Kara Keeling, The Witch’s Flight: the Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 38.
  2. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 20. Also, see Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Duke University, Press, 2007), 55. Thanks to Amber Musser, Paula Massood, Tess Takahashi, Mike Zryd, and Annie J. Howell for their comments during the drafting of this piece. Much thanks to Ja’Tovia Gary for her work and her thoughts.
Elizabeth Reich

Elizabeth Reich is assistant professor of Film Studies at Connecticut College. She is the author of Militant Visions: Black Soldiers, Internationalism and the Transformation of American Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2016) and the co-editor of a special issue of Film Criticism, “New Approaches to Cinematic Identification.” She is currently working on two new projects, a co-edited volume on Afrofuturism, entitled Justice in Time: Critical Afrofuturism and Black Freedom and a monograph on reparations, time, and the cinema. Her essays have appeared in Screen, African American Review, Film Criticism, and Women and Performance. She also serves on the editorial boards of Criticism and Film Criticism and is a contributing editor at ASAP/J.