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)
In the early 1970s, Maya Angelou wanted to make movies. But, as she later explained, she didn’t know “anyplace in the United States where a forty-year-old black woman could learn filmmaking.”1 So, she went to Sweden and took notes on the set of Georgia, Georgia (1972), a film she wrote, and enrolled in a cinematography course at the Swedish Film Institute.2 Then, in 1974, an opportunity opened closer to home: the American Film Institute (AFI) invited Angelou to join their inaugural Directing Workshop for Women.3 Three decades earlier, Langston Hughes, a sometime screenwriter himself, had mused that “only a subsidized Negro Film Institute, or the revolution, will cause any really good Negro pictures to be made in America.”4 The AFI Directing Workshop wasn’t quite “the revolution,” but it did give Angelou the institutional support for her own challenge to the cinematic status quo.5 The result was her directorial debut, All Day Long (1975), a twenty-minute drama that follows a day in the life of a Black ten-year-old named Jimmy B.6
All Day Long has, unfortunately, largely been forgotten. It was probably never screened publicly, and it can now be seen only in AFI’s archive.7 It is not listed in online finding aids, and copyright restrictions prohibit reproducing screenshots. But on-set production photos and Angelou’s enthusiastically-drawn storyboard testify to her joyous commitment to the film. In it, Angelou crafts a cinema of intimacy shaped by careful attention to and affection for Black lives. She foregrounds the unspectacular rhythms of day-to-day life, from the breakfast table to the public park. Mixing melodrama with documentary realism and favoring close-ups and closely framed shots, Angelou seeks to mobilize film as an affective technology. All Day Long is her experiment with how to move audiences as powerfully through cinema as she already had in her literary prose.
The black-and-white film opens with Jimmy B., portrayed by Marc Copage, playing soldier.8 Dressed in crisp pajamas, he amuses himself by marching around a well-appointed home saluting various objects, from his sofa-bed to a fruit bowl to his own image in the mirror, after vigorously brushing his teeth. Angelou’s film scenario, preserved in her archive, reads like a short story and sets the scene from Jimmy B.’s highly interiorized perspective – it “smelled like Saturday,” the scenario begins.9 Some of the characterizations and sensory descriptions from the scenario are lost in the process of adaptation to the screen, but Angelou’s camera nevertheless establishes an intimate rapport with her characters, accompanying them through their day.
Jimmy B., we learn, has recently moved from Mississippi to Los Angeles to live with his aunt Gloria, played by Ketty Lester, and the film emphasizes Gloria’s complicated experience of suddenly becoming a single mother. On this seemingly ordinary Saturday morning, Gloria and Jimmy B. navigate their new life together at the breakfast table. Casually glamorous in a morning gown, Gloria is affectionate and officiously maternal – she pointedly directs more milk onto Jimmy B.’s sugar-laden cereal – even as she also tries to chart a less hierarchical relationship, imploring him to leave off the “yes ma’am” of his Southern upbringing. But the film introduces a melodramatic overtone when Gloria learns that Jimmy B. has been befriended by a sixteen-year-old named Buddy Boy who is coming over any minute to take Jimmy B. to play basketball. Gloria and Buddy Boy, it turns out, had an illicit affair, and Angelou holds several shots on Gloria, zooming closer and closer, in an earnest, if heavy-handed attempt to consider her point of view.
The camera takes a longer view when Jimmy B. and Buddy Boy leave for the local park. Buddy Boy throws his arm around the much shorter Jimmy B. who tries to imitate his cooler, older friend’s easy gait. As they stroll down sunny sidewalks, Angelou privileges long-shots, which she holds, taking in traffic noises, birdsong, and eventually a bouncing basketball as her soundtrack. The sequence suggests that the affective pleasures of daily life need no embellishment, and it also crucially affirms the place of these two Black youths in the public spaces of suburban L.A.
Angelou’s representational agenda sharpens when Jimmy B. and Buddy Boy get to the basketball court. As they arrive, a Black man and a white man are already playing. Jimmy B. hangs back, and Buddy Boy immediately understands – “Come on,” he urges, “You’re not in Mississippi now, man. I mean, that cat’s not the Ku Klux Klan.” But Jimmy B. remains on the sidelines, and Angelou’s camera lingers with him, recording his reluctance and acknowledging the different registers of racial trauma. When he eventually joins the game, which is depicted with tightly framed shots of intertwining feet and colliding bodies, the film effectively wills into being a highly public, multi-racial community of care.10
After the basketball game, the plot accelerates. Another teenager baits Buddy Boy into revealing his relationship with Gloria in front of Jimmy B., and Jimmy B. runs home. Then, facing him on the couch, Gloria delivers a tearful monologue, pleading that “you don’t have to be an orphan boy to be lonely.” Angelou tries to pack too much backstory into that one monologue, but its claim for the importance of Black women’s emotional lives still lands with force.
Shot in a single weekend on a $300 budget, All Day Long was, fundamentally, a learning film – not just for Angelou, but also for her production assistant, Julie Dash.11 Angelou hoped the experience, and AFI’s imprimatur, would enable her to direct feature films, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But All Day Long was more than a stepping stone. With the film, Angelou joined a wave of Black artists in the period working to create a new black independent cinema and to revolutionize images of blackness in the mass media.12 All Day Long may be available only in the archive, but the stories it tells should be shared.
This is one of four essays from the sixteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
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.
- Maya Angelou, Mom & Me & Mom (New York: Random House, 2013), 164.
- Almost immediately after publishing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou wrote the screenplay for Georgia, Georgia, but the producer, Jack Jordan, selected Swedish filmmaker Stig Björkman to direct over the inexperienced Angelou. Angelou clashed with Björkman throughout the production and, as she revealed in Yvonne Welbon’s documentary Sisters in Cinema (2003), she was “devastated” by the film’s final form. After the film’s premiere, she promptly enrolled in a cinematography course at the Swedish Film Institute, promising herself that next time a filmmaking opportunity arose, she would “be ready.” Angelou waited another two decades to make her first feature film, Down in the Delta (1998).
- AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women continues to this day and provides a select group of female artists with the training, equipment, and financial resources necessary to make a bid at the business.
- Langston Hughes to Arna Bontemps, September 28, 1941, in Charles H. Nichols, ed. Arna Bontemps – Langston Hughes Letters, 1925-1967 (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1980), 89.
- There has been much scholarship on the history of Black representation in film. See, for example: Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (New York: Bloomsbury,  2016); Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1993); James Snead, White Screens, Black Images: Hollywood from the Dark Side, eds. Colin McCabe and Cornel West (New York: Routledge, 1994).
- As I explore further in a larger project, Angelou was far from the only African American author to turn to film in the period and to embrace the medium as a crucial site for artistic experimentation and political empowerment.
- In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, with travel shut down, AFI generously gave me access to a digitized version: ALL DAY LONG (1975) ©American Film Institute. Many thanks to AFI archivist Emily Wittenberg for helping to make this happen.
- A recognizable child star, Marc Copage played Corey in the groundbreaking sitcom Julia (1968-1971) that starred Diahann Carroll. For more on the show, see Christine Acham, Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2004).
- Maya Angelou, “All Day Long,” Box 2, Folder 1, Maya Angelou Film and Theater Collection (MS597), Z. Smith Reynolds Library Special Collections and Archives, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Angelou’s scenario sets the action in Harlem, and Jimmy B. wanders the at-times-inviting and at-times-alienating city like a character in a James “Jimmy” Baldwin book, especially Go Tell it on the Mountain and Little Man, Little Man (published in 1976, but written earlier in the decade). Angelou and Baldwin were close – she called Mrs. Baldwin “Mother” – and they both aspired to change American cinema. It is also worth noting that Gloria, as is Jimmy B.’s aunt, is the name of one of Baldwin’s sisters.
- For Angelou, the stakes of this vision were powerfully personal: The white man was played by her husband and the Black man by her son. Angelou had recently married Welsh painter and architect Paul du Feu. Her only son, Guy Bailey Johnson, was born when Angelou was sixteen and plays a significant role in her autobiographies.
- AFI Memorandums and Correspondence, Box 50, folder 2, Maya Angelou Collection, Wake Forest University. Julie Dash, whose Daughters of the Dust (1992) became the first feature film directed by an African American woman to gain widespread theatrical release, was a fellow at AFI before going on to graduate studies at UCLA and becoming a major force in the L.A. Rebellion film group. Dash began researching Daughters in 1975.
- In October 1974, Angelou joined Charlton Heston and Terence Malick to testify in Congress on behalf of the AFI, which was seeking federal funding. As she told Congress, despite her international training and the media buzz about a potential Caged Bird adaptation, film companies kept pushing white male directors, and she kept resisting. “I am a director of film,” she boldly stated in her testimony, “whether we like it or not, or admit it or not, and I have wanted to direct film, I suppose, since I saw Shirley Temple…. I knew I could do it. I could have directed ‘Georgia, Georgia,’ but I was a woman, after all. I wrote it, it is true. And I wrote the music, it is true. But I was a woman.” “To Create the American Film Institute as an Independent Agency,” Hearings Before the Select Subcommittee on Education, October 7 and 8, 1974, Box 50, Folder 3, Maya Angelou Collection, Wake Forest University. For more on black independent cinema, see: Allyson Nadia Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, eds. L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (Oakland: UC Press, 2015); and Toni Cade Bambara, “Reading the Signs, Empowering the Eye: Daughters of the Dust and the Black Independent Cinema Movement” in Deep Sightings & Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, Conversations, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Vintage, 1996).