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)
Alone in her car and singing along to Josephine Baker’s “Piel Canela,” Hippolyta Freeman (Aunjanue Ellis) excitedly waves at a smiling Black woman riding by on a motorcycle. This representation of Bessie Springfield, the first Black woman to drive cross country on motorcycle, begins a pattern of unexpected encounters during Hippolyta’s road trip. Set to a soundscape of Black women’s voices, such moments act as touchstones for what becomes a multidimensional, time travel journey through the show’s speculative take on history. Yet Hippolyta doesn’t just visit or witness the past; she spends time embodying it as a necessary step toward a new state of being and being able to declare, “I am.”
Developed by showrunner Misha Green, Lovecraft Country (HBO, 2020) mixes horror, histories of Jim Crow, and Afrofuturist explorations of magic and mythological creatures in a bizarre ride through an alternative 1950s America.1 In the seventh episode of the series titled “I Am.,” Hippolyta, known primarily at this point as George’s wife and Dee’s mother, takes center stage when she embarks on her first solo research trip for the Negro Safe Travel Guide.2 Her trip also doubles as a clandestine investigation into the circumstances surrounding her husband George’s death.
Hippolyta’s excursion leads her to a machine that pulls her into its vortex and spews her out, first onto a remote planet with unusually tall humanoid aliens approaching in illuminated suits, and then naked and confused to an antiseptic room on their ship. She is not a captive though. Her ticket out is to “name herself.” A towering, afro-topped Seraphina aka Beyond C’est (you hear it, right?) asks, “Where do you want to be? Name it. Who do you want to be? Name it.”
“I want to be dancing on stage in Paris with Josephine Baker.”
Cut to Hippolyta materializing on Baker’s stage as a chorus girl. She stumbles and fumbles through the unknown choreography while marveling at the sight of Baker. Tasked to both learn and loosen up through dance, Hippolyta unlearns the dictates of Black respectability that initially make being topless on stage incomprehensible. LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” plays over a montage indicating the passage of time as she acclimates by blending in with the chorus onstage and shining as if the star backstage. She also openly expresses her own queer curiosities and desires in a largely Black, women-dominated space. The scene prioritizes her immersion in and movement through a new network of intimacies. The montage opens with the chorus doing a Charleston together in their underclothes. More play than rehearsal, they laugh, bump into each other, dance together but not in unison, and watch each other or gaze off to themselves. Hippolyta, though, looks directly into the camera, inviting participation rather than spectatorship. She moves comfortably as a cheeky, flirtatious, and sensual Hippolyta, thereby preparing her for her next stage of becoming.
In a candle-lit backstage after hours scene, a toast delivered by Frida Kahlo (Camila Canó-Flaviá) foreshadows what’s to come: “Here’s to the girls like us, who know when to create and when to destroy. Salud!” This Hippolyta better understands and articulates her rage over a shared joint with Baker:
Now that I’m tasting it, freedom like I’ve never known before, I see what I was robbed of back there. All those years I thought I had everything I ever wanted, only to come here and discover that all I ever was was the exact kind of Negro woman white folks wanted me to be. I feel like they just found a smart way to lynch me, without me noticing the noose.
Her reflection in this scene was arresting the first time I watched it. I felt pinned beneath the weight of a heavy truth deposited on my lap. (A girlfriend of mine said this monologue brought her to her knees. My own mother’s deep, guttural sound of affirmation when we watched it together echoed in my core.) I felt her rage and was thrilled where it took her. She lets out a primal scream of her own name, “I am HIPPOLYTAAAA!!,” triggering another transport that sonically echoes from Baker’s Paris in the 1920s to a training camp modeled after Dahomeyan Amazons.
With a sword in one hand and the other fist clenched, Hippolyta lands in a half circle of Black women soldiers standing at attention. She is promptly knocked to the ground. Nawi (Sufe Bradshaw), the soldiers’ leader, scolds her. While Hippolyta’s rage is justified, Nawi insists that it be controlled and strategically activated. Again, a montage details time passing. A trilling sound draws attention to the progressive uptick of a set of numbers in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. Presumably a combination of location coordinates and a timestamp, it increases with each jump cut of her training sequence. Over months or years, (we don’t really know), she repeatedly gets hit, falls, and gets up again until she stands sure-footed, managing to knock Nawi off her feet.
This world concludes with Hippolyta leading an army into open combat against Confederate soldiers as Mother’s Finest belts out “Fire”: “Brother man, we got to be free now from the fire!” The camera is located inside the brutal battle and blood repeatedly sprays across the lens. The sequence features a degree of carnage and action that rarely stars so many Black women save for the Dora Milaje.3 Bloody and spent after beheading their general, Hippolyta is freed from her rage and, again, names herself on new terms: “George’s wife.”
While the episode continues—jumping from her bedroom, to a new planet, to the cosmos—it foregrounds extended pockets of time in distinct worlds wherein Hippolyta must first gain bodily knowledge and then put that knowledge into practice, thereby prompting another state of being and becoming. Ultimately, Hippolyta’s freedom (or perhaps freedoms) comes in stages, each nurtured by being in and maintaining a physical practice with other Black women. Her journey was not an individual intellectual enterprise but an embodied and collective one.
So, here’s to all the sistas making moves to get free. Salud!
This is one of four essays from the twentieth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays from this transmission here:
20.1/Biddy Mason/Anna Arabindan-Kesson
20.4/Negress/Michelle Joan Wilkinson
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.
- Lovecraft Country, “I Am,” directed by Charlotte Sieling, written by Misha Green and Shannon Houston, HBO, aired September 27, 2020.
- Modeled after The Negro Motorist Green Book published from 1936 to 1951. The guidebook documented places to avoid and safe lodgings, businesses, and gas stations that served Black travelers during the Jim Crow era.
- The Dora Milaje is an elite army of Black women warriors from Wakanda, featured in Black Panther (directed by Ryan Coogler, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2018).