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)
About halfway through British-Nigerian director Jenn Nkiru’s REBIRTH IS NECESSARY (2017) a dark-skinned woman wearing a white headpiece and black gloves appears.1 She walks regally from the bottom of the screen to the center with her arms spread out like wings. Nkiru scores this moment with a jumble of voices like radio static, with occasional phrases like “Black Madonna” or “so strong, so beautiful” surfacing into intelligibility. Briefly, the word TRUTH flashes in white lettering on a black screen before the figure appears again, now joined by two other gloved black women crawling toward the center of the screen from each side. The word MADNESS flashes, followed by the dancers moving into a seated triangle formation, facing one another. The word BEAUTY appears, followed by the clearest view of the women in formation, each dressed in black lingerie, reaching out their arms to form a connected circle. As they bring their arms into the center, the women sway from side to side before they simultaneously withdraw from one another to sit back on their heels. Finally, they throw their arms back and scream upward at the camera, the sound echoing out mechanically. This moment in the film consolidates a theme that runs throughout REBIRTH IS NECESSARY: the power of black bodies in motion to open up a sense of collective possibility, a process summed up by the filmmaker’s evocative phrase, “the black ecstatic.”2
Still from REBIRTH IS NECESSARY 2017 © Jenn Nkiru
The multiple meanings of ecstasy mark this moment in the film as both a disruption and an opening. If the screaming women are “beside themselves,” the purpose of their ritual remains productively ambiguous. Does the scream release rage or call down spirits?3 The women seem possessed, echoing earlier moments in the film, such as when an initiate’s eyes roll back in footage from Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1954) or an entranced woman winds her arm repeatedly in a clip from Léonard Pongo’s short film The Necessary Evil (2013). Two Audre Lorde quotes follow this scene, suggesting that possession might signal a belonging to one another rather than merely a hosting of spirits: “Without community, there is no liberation” and “Community must not mean a shedding of our differences nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.”4 Queerly articulated, liberation here means a “belonging in difference” necessary for imagining a different future.5 Signaled by the women taking hold of one another, this belonging is haptic, enacted.
The women’s dance also gestures to another meaning of ecstasy: a being outside of time that enables a thinking of possible futures. Throughout REBIRTH IS NECESSARY, Nkiru manipulates time with great care and deliberateness. At moments, she combines clips of found footage at a mesmerizing speed, and at others, she lingers slowly on a black face or figure. She also disrupts linear time through her use of montage, juxtaposing archival and contemporary footage, and often returning to clips at different speeds and in new combinations. This looping of past, present and future times echoes what José Esteban Muñoz calls a “temporally calibrated idea of ecstasy,” or an approach to time that allows marginalized subjects a way out of the seemingly predetermined and punitive march of “straight time.”6
A riveting example of a black ecstatic approach to temporality in REBIRTH IS NECESSARY is Nkiru’s use of reverse footage, which has the effect of making black bodies appear to defy gravity or otherwise challenge the laws of physics.7 The power in what one reviewer describes as the filmmaker’s “playing hopscotch with western notions of time and space” lies in her ability to undo the telos of Black suffering in the western imagination.8 What if the journey from slave ship to present day could simply be rewound? Combined with an earlier intertitle referring to “FLYING AFRICANS,” or the stories of the enslaved taking flight to escape bondage, Nkiru appears to pose this question at the level of metaphor: can a soul leap backward into safety?9 Can seeing a body do so on film trigger the buried memory of flight? The filmmaker calls this process, “cosmic archeology,” or the use of moving images to trigger intergenerational dialogue and to nurture a submerged sense of the possible.10
Still from REBIRTH IS NECESSARY 2017 © Jenn Nkiru
The payoff of this reverse temporal approach is an unleashing not simply of possibility, but of joy. The film builds toward its climax when a group of dancers begins to move virtuosically, impossibly, backwards through the streets of Brixton scored with Rotary Connection’s 1971 anthem, “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun.”11 The scene is interspersed with other clips of jubilant movement: two young sisters jamming hard to the music of Lightnin’ Hopkins, a woman grooving coolly at Wattstax, a pastor lifting a hand to the sky.12 Back in Brixton, the dancers continue their breathtaking backwards movement, a mashup of breakdancing, vogue and other exuberant black social dances. A discarded jacket gets pulled back on, a fistful of glitter magically flies back into a hat. The music reaches a fever pitch, and the screaming face of the first woman from the earlier scene again flashes: AWAKENING. AWAKENING.
The magic of these images lingers. I was lucky to first see the film in a crowd of people of color at Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival. In the last moments before the final intertitle announced WE HAVE AWAKENED, I couldn’t help but notice a sense of a collective, one that cut across the archival and new footage, one that swept me and the rest of the audience up in a rush of feeling. At that moment, REBIRTH IS NECESSARY did not simply represent the black ecstatic, it occasioned it. Briefly, time opened up, making space for something new.
This is one of four essays from the tenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
b.O.s. 10.1/Black 14/Samantha N. Sheppard
b.O.s. 10.2/Operation Catsuit/Courtney R. Baker
b.O.s. 10.3/ They Tried to Bury Us/Henriette Gunkel
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.
- Per the director’s request, the film title is in all caps.
- In discussing REBIRTH IS NECESSARY, film scholar Jenny Gunn tells us, “. . . the principle of juxtaposition communicates the film’s avowed intent to portray the magic and dynamism of Blackness and to reiterate Nkiru’s often repeated mantra that ‘THE BLACK ECSTATIC CANNOT BE CONTAINED.’” Jenny Gunn, “Intergenerational Pedagogy in Jenn Nkiru’s REBIRTH IS NECESSARY” JCMS: Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, 59, no. 2 (Winter 2020): 165.
- I owe this definition to Judith Butler, who tells us, “To be ec-static means, literally, to be outside oneself, and thus can have several meanings: to be transported beyond oneself by a passion, but also to be beside oneself with rage or grief. I think that if I can still address a ‘we,’ or include myself within its terms, I am speaking to those of us who are living in certain ways beside ourselves, whether in sexual passion, or emotional grief, or political rage.” Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2006), 24.
- See Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Cherríe Moraga and Glora Anzaldúa (New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1983), 98-101.
- For the connection between a queer utopian impulse and “belonging in difference,” see José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 20.
- Ibid., 186.
- One inspiration for Nkiru’s use of reverse footage is likely American experimental filmmaker Ben Russell’s River Rites (2011), a short film shot in reverse that eerily depicts people playing, cleaning and fishing in a river in Suriname. Nkiru includes several clips of River Rites in REBIRTH IS NECESSARY. For the full film, see Ben Russell, “RIVER RITES,” Vimeo, June 16, 2020, https://vimeo.com/25532189.
- See Harriet Fitch Little, “Film-Maker Jenn Nkiru’s Brain-Bending Vision.” Financial Times. Financial Times, February 7, 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/05d2648a-292f-11e9-9222-7024d72222bc.
- For a rich discussion of the Flying Africans trope in Black American literature and performance, please see Soyica Diggs Colbert, “Black Movements: Flying Africans in Spaceships,” in Black Performance Theory, eds. Thomas DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 129-148.
- AnOther, “Meet the Director Behind Gucci’s Detroit Techno Documentary.” AnOther, March 13, 2019. https://www.anothermag.com/fashion-beauty/11590/jenn-nkiru-black-to-techno-gucci-documentary-detroit-music.
- This moment of backwards dancing on an urban street has a visual analog in the 1995 music video for rap group Pharcyde’s “Drop,” directed by Spike Jonze. For more on Jonze’s process in collaboration with the group see Lexis, “The Making of THE PHARCYDE ‘Drop’ (Video by Spike Jonze),” Music Is My Sanctuary, November 21, 2015, http://www.musicismysanctuary.com/the-making-of-the-pharcyde-drop-video-by-spike-jonze.
- Nkiru sources many moments of black dance and conviviality in REBIRTH IS NECESSARY from Wattstax (1973), a documentary about a benefit concert of the same name that commemorated the 1965 riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. To understand the importance of the concert itself, as well as how it came to be a documentary please see Scott Saul, “‘What You See Is What You Get’: Wattstax, Richard Pryor, and the Secret History of the Black Aesthetic,” Post45, August 12, 2014, https://post45.org/2014/08/what-you-see-is-what-you-get-wattstax-richard-pryor-and-the-secret-history-of-the-black-aesthetic/.