b.O.s 11.2 / Let Them Die Like Lovers / Mikal J. Gaines

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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Following a series of domestic terror attacks, the C.I.A. enlists Alexa (Angela Lewis) as an assassin who jumps into the bodies of her targets’ closest loved ones. Her haunting refrain, “This is not my body,” echoes like a bewildered amalgam of warding spell, existential calamity, and confession of yearning. But what does she long for? On Day 1 of her new assignment, she asks her handler Marko (Mustafa Shakir) for reassurance: “Will I always be me?… And I’ll always be safe?” Her questions present variations on ones central to earlier Afrofuturists: “Will there be a future for Black people?” and “What is it that Black people have to do to secure a future where they are free citizens?”1 Let Them Die Like Lovers (Jesse Atlas, 2017) assumes black futurity and asks whether Black people might find a life beyond increasingly sophisticated upgrades to older mechanisms of subjugation.2 Yet Alexa’s blackness generates a “paradigmatic impossibility” of any such safety and implodes notions of a singular, unified subjectivity. Even as a servant of the state, she could never perform a humanity sufficient to render her and Marko safe.3 Something else is at stake here. What if what she truly seeks is not simply a familiar body that she owns and controls, but a way out of the body completely? What if she aims not for somatic dominion, but a passageway out of the possessive logics of captivity and proprietorial notions of selfhood that bond blackness to black corporeality?4 This sista is looking for a way out of the loop.

“This is not my body” cannot help but conjure a double meaning when uttered from Alexa’s lips, signifying, in this case, an attempt to disavow each new physical frame that she  occupies. It also hints at the historical precariousness (or outright impossibility) of the black body remaining sovereign. Alexa’s mantra serves as both an individuated declaration of self-making – definition by disassociation – and as a collective ancestral call to those still locked in the hold.5 Is this the predicament of blackness: always-already knowing that these are not our very own bodies to command or protect? And as Alexa realizes, even when they are, they ain’t. LTDLL troubles the familiar sci-fi trope of body jumping by framing the body itself as a mere temporary location in the matrix of space and time, a move contrary to the more familiar treatment of it as a sacred vessel which inextricably links being and mattering, as a technology of self-possession, or as a constellation of return. Alexa can never really go “home” again to her own body because home presumes a degree of sanctity and security. At the same time, the violence she performs on behalf of the state travels back with her, inscribing itself on her psyche and further fracturing her ontological stability. A transmutation begins.

On “Day 64,” she prepares to go in after what we can assume have been many missions, each demanding that she act as both perpetrator and witness to deeply intimate occasions of betrayal, that is, to lovers killing their beloveds. Each mission exacts a toll and prompts slippages in which she loses a bit more of herself, such as when one of her targets’ tattoos materializes on her own hand, or when she awakens from a nightmare believing she has lost a baby despite never being pregnant. Although brief, these moments support reading LTDLL as a kind of neo-slave narrative in which the machinery of subjugation – the scenes of subjection – may have shifted, but Alexa and Marko are no less bound, bodily or psychologically, than their forebears. The temporary tattoo, for example, invokes a phantom slave brand while the imagined pain of a lost child that Alexa never knew recalls the site of violent family separation at the auction block. So long as the body persists, so does its history. And a body will always tell its story. In fact, a black body will probably tell it twice.  

The final moments are the most arresting and potentially generative, proffering a notion of blackness beyond the borders of either body or flesh.6 Alexa enters to see herself seated in the transfer tub while still inhabiting the body of one of the older (white) hitmen sent to kill her. A slave’s refusal to serve must of course be swiftly addressed. It is only once she can truly look at herself from the outside though, that she revises her earlier stance: “Alexa’s just a body. I’ll always be somebody else.”7 After confirming that Marko knew her path would likely end this way, he apologizes, confessing that he thought she was “stronger.” Why did he and the agency believe that a Black woman could (and should) be able to bear so much more? Through what horrific paradox of fetishization and dehumanization could she be asked to do so? With a brief flash of Alexa, once again herself, she proclaims, “You were right. I am.” She then turns the gun on the version of herself that sits in the tub; the shot triggers a cut to black and perhaps, to a new blackness. 

Alexa’s severing of the bond between body and consciousness does not represent the solidification of her “social death,”8 only the death of herself as captive, marking a transition toward an anti-form of blackness, multimodal and altogether outside the tangle of embodiment. Moving toward something like a “paraontology,” Alexa opts herself out of all predetermined circuits of meaning: Fuck this body. Fuck a body period.9 With her body no longer a rendezvous point for regeneration, she asserts through a voiceover-montage (which features those whose bodies she earlier possessed) that she is “everyone [she’s] ever been, everyone [she’s] ever hurt.” This positionality points not toward colonization, but at a deliberate casting of common lots. Even more defiantly, she asserts that she is “not coming back” and that anyone looking, will have to come find her in this new realm of blackness both omnipresent and continually being unmade. 

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

b.O.s. 11.1/Untitled #17 (Forest)/Leigh Raiford
b.O.s 11.3/Vernacular/Adedoyin Teriba
b.O.s 11.4/It’s in the Game ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection/Shelleen Greene

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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 CinemaFlash ArtUnwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.

 

Endnotes

  1. Lisa Yasek, “Race in Science Fiction: The Case of Afrofuturism and New Hollywood,” A Virtual Introduction to Science Fiction, http://virtual-sf.com/?page_id=372: 6. While Atlas does not, as a white filmmaker, appear to have expressed any explicit affiliation with Afrofuturism, I argue that the casting of Black actors, Lewis and Shakir, as protagonists in this futuristic world in which their agency and autonomy come into question put the film in direct conversation with other Afrofuturist texts. In this sense, LTDLL shares an affinity in tone, style, and politics to other recent science fiction films (directed mostly by white filmmakers) that feature protagonists whose blackness is simultaneously instrumental to and occluded from how these stories encode power dynamics. Blackness becomes instantiated into the films’ racial and representational logics in implicit, fundamental ways, therefore complicating the notion of what black science fiction means as a category of analysis in itself. I am thinking particularly of The Girl with All the Gifts (Colm McCarthy, 2016), Sleight (J.D. Dillard, 2016), The Darkest Minds (Jennifer Yu Nelson, 2018), Fast Color (Julia Hart, 2019), Kin (Jonathan & Josh Baker, 2018), Captive State (Rupert Wyatt, 2019), Don’t Let Go (Jacob Estes, 2019), and In the Shadow of the Moon (Jim Mickle, 2019). All of these films gesture toward the post-racial in their seemingly deliberate avoidance of any explicit acknowledgement of the characters’ blackness. Yet, the ways these films  remain firmly imbricated in familiar sci-fi discourses (freedom, enslavement, captivity, and fugitivity) for which the Black liberation struggle functions as the primary tropological antecedent warrants much more detailed analysis elsewhere.
  2. See Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).
  3. Frank B. Wilderson III argues: “If the position of the Black is, as I argue, a paradigmatic impossibility in the Western Hemisphere, indeed, in the world, in other words, if a Black is the very antithesis of a Human subject, as imagined by Marxism and/or psychoanalysis, then his/her paradigmatic exile is not simply a function of repressive practices on the part of institutions (as political science and sociology would have it).” See Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 9. Also see Always Already Podcast. See Ep. 28, “Interview with Frank B. Wilderson III on Afropessimism – Epistemic Unruliness,” May 11, 2020, 2:03:33, https://alwaysalreadypodcast.wordpress.com/2020/05/11/wilderson-interview/.
  4. See Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997).
  5. See Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).
  6. As Hortense Spillers asserts: “But I would make a distinction…between ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ and impose that distinction as the primary one between captive and liberated subjection positions. In that sense, before there is the ‘body,’ there is ‘flesh,’ that zero degree of socioconceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography” (67). See “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 64-81.
  7. LTDLL would appear to be operating in fairly direct conversation with other recent speculative film and television such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) as well as Netflix’s Black Mirror (2011-2019) and Altered Carbon (2018-). These texts share an investment in questions about how new technologies visualize and elaborate what are essentially Du Boisian models of split, fractured, and multiple Black consciousness. See also Mikal J. Gaines, “Staying Woke in Sunken Places, or The Wages of Double Consciousness” in Get Out: Political Horror, ed. Dawn Keetley (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2020), 160-173; and Kalí Tal, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: African American Critical Theory and Cyberculture,” https://kalital.com/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-being-african-american-critical-theory-and-cybercultur/.
  8. See Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).
  9. See Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 4 (2013): 737-780 and “Blackness and Nonperformance,” Afterlives/MOMA, YouTube, Sept. 25, 2015, 1:58:28, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2leiFByIIg&list=PLT4yT1dlsSVraU7LR_sopwnQYB5uMetC&index=6&t=2s. See also Calvin Warren, “Black Mysticism: Phenomenology of (Black) Spirit,” Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 65, no. 2 (2017): 219-229.