From left, all details: James VanDerZee, Escape Artist (1924); John Akomfrah, Precarity (2017); still from Magic Mike XXL (2015), directed by Gregory Jacobs; Ash Arder, Broadcast #3 (2018); Derrick Adams, Sunday’s Best (2017).
Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.
As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.
With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.
This third transmission (7.2.18) features Shawn Michelle Smith on James VanDerZee’s Escape Artist, Mark Anthony Neal on John Akomfrah’s Precarity, Kristen J. Warner on the Augustus striptease in Magic Mike XXL, Jessica Lynne on Ash Arder’s Broadcast #3, and Uri McMillan on Derrick Adams’s Sunday’s Best.
– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)
The first time I saw Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015) was over the July 4th weekend. I sat in the theater with my sister for a film that I did not imagine to be all that different from the first film in its franchise, Magic Mike. Coincidentally, after we watched the movie we were going to spend the remainder of the weekend in New Orleans for the annual Essence Music Festival—a yearly event dedicated to the celebration of black women. Always held over the 4th of July weekend, Essence imagines itself, I think, as a libidinally freeing experience for black women as it’s housed in a space where the heat and the humidity and the hurricanes enable all kinds of disinhibitions to flourish in the safety of one another. That joyous touch of freedom, of course within the parameters of respectability, in tandem with the fictive kinships shared by these women who dance and sing along to music curated for their ears, maybe realizing (or maybe not) that they are a part of an open secret event that outside of the city of New Orleans few seemed aware of, is a novel experience for black women. What’s more, to see it depicted as a moving image in the mainstream cinematic or televisual landscape is damn near impossible; such a rarity that even to think to reproduce the visual here doesn’t seem to occur to me. And I certainly would not expect to feel that freedom or affective joy from a predominately white commercial property like MMXXL.
For the uninitiated, MMXXL is only a continuation of the first film in that the characters, save for Matthew McConaughey and Alex Pettyfer, remain in the film portraying strippers traveling from Florida to South Carolina to have “one last ride” as themselves competing in an annual stripper convention. The men of MMXXL set out with the mission of making their last ride one that helps women smile, a desire that does not grow out of a gross patronizing misogynistic place but rather from pleasure, an origin so simplistic it almost seems unreal in a movie that is so narratively efficient.
The movie has the men visit different lady spaces to enact their goal. Among their travels is a visit to Domina, a high class strip club in southern Georgia that is predominantly patronized by black women and owned by a black woman named Rome (Jada Pinkett-Smith). As the cast walks through Domina, looking into each room of the old house with wooden floors and seeing black women cheering, dancing, and throwing money at the black and brown men who are dancing for them, the look of the space and the soundtrack help draw a line of explicit blackness around itself, cordoning it off from the rest of the film. The scene from which my chosen shot emerges happens when the men of MMXXL walk into a room where a dancer named Augustus entertains a dark-skinned, thick-fine black woman while Jodeci’s “Freek’N’You” plays diegetically. Augustus (Michael Strahan), in gold lamé hot pants and shiny athletic sneakers, dances for the woman while the crowd of black women watch and shout for joy. Augustus sensually spins and flips this woman around the room and lays her on the table and grinds on her. As if overwhelmed by the experience, the woman lifts her legs in the air, raising up her dress high enough to reveal her Spanx shaper underneath. When Augustus pulls the woman to her feet, she leaps up into his arms, her arms wrapped around his neck. Although she does not get far off the ground, that moment in combination with the end chorus of “Freek’N’You” playing made me sit up in my movie theater chair. Here was something I had not seen before in mainstream cinema: a regular, dark-skinned, plus-sized southern black woman being entertained by a male stripper. She was not the butt of the joke because there was no joke. The shot stunned me in its novelty because it was a moment of illicit joy among these women captured for mainstream consumption. Let me be clear: they were not the ones tasked with entertaining; they were patrons receiving service. The women were allowed to self-fashion themselves into their preference of becoming objects of desire or desiring subjects within the walls of Domina, a site that cultivated bonds amongst the women who had to know both how extraordinary and how finite that space’s existence could be.
From the extremely culturally specific R&B track to the vast array of shapes and colors of the women in that room watching Augustus dance, that small moment of feeling seen resonated with me and made me feel “seen.” The unnamed woman uttered only two words: “good” when Rome asked how she was doing and “mmhmm” when asked if she was having a good time. The visibility was not in her speaking part—although the exuberance and resonance of her “mmhmm” did connect with me. Rather, it was in watching her participate in that experience culminating with her leap, which garners loud shouts and applause from her black female audience, that made the scene feel like something to treasure.
The black woman leaping into Augustus is one moment of many moments in MMXXL that feel protected and smuggled in under the seeming premise of a conventional tale. Beyond just the inclusion of bodies on screen, how then can cinema visibly capture the libidinal energy of the marginalized and undervalued black bodies so often denied pleasure on-screen as characters and off-screen as audiences? Perhaps through the safety of a Trojan horse. Because none of us expected Domina to be a part of the film, the scene cajoled a cross section of audiences—and black women especially—to witness black female pleasure on screen. In the same ways that Essence functions as that open secret, a Brigadoon for black women, the pleasures provided in Domina signify an illusory freedom through illicit desire and joy.
This is one of five essays from the third transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
About the editors:
Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.
Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.