A prompt, a parameter, a choreography, Black One Shot (b.O.s.) has been our ongoing concentration on the art of blackness. We value the complications, ambiguities, and ambivalences on which the art of blackness thrives. As we’ve said, our physics of black study amplifies the critical resonance of objects (centripetal) over the insistence on what objects must do (centrifugal). X = Object love + art of blackness criticism ≅ disassociate, distend, demand, refract, rejoice. Solve for X in no more than 1000 words.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2022 for five consecutive weeks. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Alexandra Kingston-Reese and Wiktoria Tunska.
—Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
In his forward to Poems of Resistance by his comrade and compatriot Martin Carter, the great Guyanese writer Eusi Kwayana, implies that poetry is criticism. This sense of criticism held and released in and before art animates the Victor Jara Collective’s The Terror and the Time (1977). The film offers poetic practice, historical criticism, and critical historiography in a rehearsal of sound, image, ground, and aspiration.
The opening of the film is a kind of dawning, re-presenting Carter’s poems as a reading and dramatization of them. It is also proof of the intensity of criticism, which is as communist as common wind and common rain. Kwayana is a link in this common chain of criticism, which the people give and bear in endless approach. If he reads the poems as refinement, as ideological nourishment, it is both with and against the grain of what Carter sings in criticism, which is not a portrayal or an exaltation but an engagement with what his poem “The Cartman of Dayclean” knows. Carter sees with and through the cartman and the film takes us with them. Carter’s intermittent poetic voiceover throughout the film is interspersed not only with the poetry of Kwayana’s historical criticism but also with the critical historiography of their fellow revolutionary, Cheddi Jagan.1
The film uses stock footage to show that Guyana is not so much in but all over and under the world. The recognition of Guyana as Caribbean and Latin American and all up in this general Thirdness is given in the alternative voiceover, Jagan accompanying and countering the imperial headlines of the local press, bringing new noise to old news. Guyana holds and is held within the overturning of its (terrible and terribly beautiful) time. Jagan speaks in the mid-seventies of the PPP’s (People’s Progressive Party) analysis of the cost-of-living index, which revealed that an average Guyanese sugar worker’s family of four at that time was earning seven and spending eight dollars per week. This comes after a minute of images of the vulgar coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and her subsequent visit to the West Indies. Events designed to affirm British imperial hegemony in antiblack and anti-communist junior partnership with U.S. domination as signified by the venal innocuities of the early fifties American pop that accompanies those images. The film’s resistance is situated in the layering, the sequencing of sound and images, and in the slow displacements of the images when the camera pans over interiors, moves through open houses, and attends to the textural richness of surfaces. Carter’s voice narrates and obliquely describes “a city and a coffin space for home… tangled in rags/spotted with sores powdered with dust/screaming with hunger, angry with life and men.” The intensity and ubiquity of Carter’s sounding hunger bears the repeating of repetition, which is both confirmed and cut by night images of gatherings that lead to September 1953 and the national sugars strike. Cinema turns to criticism when (multi-)linearity spreads out into an open field.
The sequence from 56’23” to 63’52” is extraordinary. Images of imperial soldiers on patrol in Guyana then shift to a cramped space brutally lit by a bare bulb in the upper right corner of a screen. Then a jump cut to Kwayana speaking occurs:
[W]e did not grow up thinking of poets as real people with any relevance to our struggle or any relevance to our lives… So, a poet now had relevance; a poet was flesh and blood. A poet is struggle. A poet is a comrade, marching along and performing certain tasks on behalf of the struggle.
Sitting next to a window in a rough-hewn hut or house, in front of a narrow bench, Kwayana’s body is held as if in a kind of pew. The scene then shifts but only slightly, and perhaps illusorily, insofar as what is revealed is not a different scene but the truth of what one had been seeing, the truth of a prison, of a barred door, of locks and then a barred window as Kwayana’s voice fades out and Carter comes in reading “The Knife of Dawn.” This is quite delicate ballet as voicing shifts, as this carceral interior opens unto a barred but still powerful view of landscape and sunlight. The camera closes to create a horizontal dawning from left to right as the sun intensifies. Then trees and sunlight viewed from prison, after the poem’s first two lines, “I make my dance right here!/Right here on the wall of prison I dance.” And after the second line of his poem, a cut to news footage of battles in Viet Nam and the intensities of black percussion underneath the poem: “This world’s hope is a blade of fury…” After the end of the first stanza and back to the barred window, the closeup of the partially obscured sun becomes a close up of a lock and chain. With a cut to a young, beardless Fidel, organizing and dancing over that percussion and then the barred window again through which we focus on a tree, then cut to Mau Mau dancing, training in Kenya, dancing in battle, the second stanza begins, shift back to Viet Nam, old Ho bookending young Fidel with Vietnamese women soldiers dancing over African drums. With the image of dancing/fighting civilization that Levinas could only deride without imagining, the dance and cutting of the film becomes percussive, rapid. Creating not so much a synchronization, this is the intensified polyrhythmic force of “antagonistic cooperation.”2
Rupert Roopnaraine, a key figure in the Victor Jara Collective, suggested that the product betrays the process so that the film’s unfinishedness is given in accord with anticolonial struggle.
As he argues what is important is that the struggle remains.3 And what remains is the unstill consistency of the cartman and the dark, glimpsed by and given in criticism, through the absolute dissolution of the poem and the poet, the filmmaker and the film.
This is one of four essays from the nineteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays from this transmission here:
Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie have been collaborating since 2017 come hell or high water. Lisa is Associate Professor of Art History at Whitman College and wrote Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (2015) and most recently, “Unknowing Wastelands in Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum.” Michael will start in the fall of 2022 as Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016) and most recently, consulting producer for the Criterion Collection release of Shaft.
- When Jagan speaks of the seizing, burning, and banning of what he and his comrades both made and read as a literature of insurgency, criticism becomes an opening of the field that feels like so much more than contextualization. Unless, we sit deeply and dance lightly with that word as indicating constant making and feeling and folding and unfurling of texture. Criticism concerns the general quilt, the general fabric, the common curve.
- See Robert O’Meally, Antagonistic Cooperation: Jazz, Collage, Fiction, and the Shaping of African American Culture (New York: Columbia, 2022)
- “We definitely see the film as an active expression of class struggle and participating in the renewed energy of the working-class movement. It is a very concrete expression of that energy in the sense that it could never have been produced without the militant collaboration of working people’s organizations in Guyana and to a lesser extent in the other neocolonial Caribbean territories and in the United States” (37). Monica Jardine and Andaiye, “The Terror and the Time: Interview with Rupert Roopnaraine,” Jump Cut, no. 26 (December 1981): 36-38.