Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Black Film* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

No man should come before an audience like the one by whose presence I am now honored, without a noble object and a fixed and earnest purpose.

Frederick Douglass, “The Lessons of the Hour”, 9 January 1894

A classical canon has long since formed around the idea of Black cinema. It includes films that have been ossified into an everlasting state of importance – noble objects, so to speak, forming a tradition of quality that among other things is meant to be both equitable and corrective to hegemonic histories of the art form. The names etched into stone are well-known by now: Micheaux, Sembene, Parks, Burnett, Lee, Palcy, Dash and so on. But if one were to assemble a counter-canon of sorts – not of Black film, but of politically subversive and stylistically radical Black film – where would one begin?

The logical starting point or centerpiece might be Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (1971) by Melvin Van Peebles, which can lay claim to being one of the most influential Black films ever made – both in terms of aesthetics and politics, but also in terms of its defiant independence and bottom-up business model. Van Peebles actually could have belonged to the classical canon, because his prior feature films – one produced in post-Nouvelle Vague France, the other produced in pre-Blaxploitation Hollywood. These two films, La Permission (1967) and Watermelon Man (1970), both aspire to a relatively seamless representation of a profilmic reality, though they both have their moments of ideological subversion. Practically nothing in these two prior films pointed the way towards Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, which feels as if its director had to actively unmake his craft, to dismember the tradition of quality he had worked in, to unlearn the codes instilled from decades worth of narrative feature-length filmmaking. This is perhaps an example of a director subverting himself – so that he could shed the cinematic skin covering him in order to evolve and create a new filmic language for a revolutionary generation. We may even go so far as to say that Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song is a true historical fulcrum – there is a Black cinema before it, and a Black cinema after it. This would seem to make Van Peebles the most consequential postmodernist of Black film, but he was not the only one of his time.

This counter-canon in development would need to reach back to the 1960s in order to admit the unclassifiable film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968) by William Greaves. Like Van Peebles he also shed his skin – the respectable covering of a polished documentarian – in order to make his avant-garde masterpiece. Unlike Van Peebles, the film in question by Greaves was a total outlier in his career, as he immediately continued turning out classically expository and observational nonfiction films, eventually moving into television and pioneering news magazines and talk show formats focused on Black culture. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One belongs to the subgenre of the backstage film – though this stage is Central Park in New York City, and the film we witness the making of unfolds in corresponding diegetic time on screen. This is to say that there is no distinction between the film and the expose of its own construction. It is rather like the snake that bites its own tail. And the crew depicted in the film, as they struggle to mount a collective resistance against the absence of an authorial presence, are like planetary bodies orbiting perilously around an event horizon.

There could be no counter-canon formed without countering a patriarchal and heterosexual supremacy, also the materialist supremacy of celluloid film. As such, this prospective counter-canon shifts on its axis with Tongues Untied (1989) by Marlon Riggs. As a poetic, essayistic, activist videotape, Tongues Untied speaks the language of media critique while simultaneously expressing itself as a form of auto-ethnography. This video is the first profound statement of Black gay culture in moving images made by a Black gay man. When it was broadcast on public television it helped to ignite the nascent Culture Wars of the 1990s in the United States. If you can imagine watching a program on a public channel anywhere in the world today that deals with open depictions of gay culture among a minority community, with sensual visions of bodies and tongues intertwined, you can imagine how radical Riggs’ work was in 1989. This was at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the US, which ravaged gay communities like a hurricane-level storm – and in fact Riggs died from the disease a few short years later. His video demands to be perceived as a work of art though, not just a piece of publicly-funded advocacy. Through its layered soundtrack filled with lyrical verse, to its hypnotising use of slow motion, to the raw immediacy of performance art executed in a broadcast production studio, Tongues Untied is a multimedia masterwork that approaches the sublime. We often speak about monument films – this is a rare monument video.

Our prospective counter-canon must also hold space for Cauleen Smith and her debut feature film Drylongso (1998). Smith was a student at the film school at UCLA, which made her a post-LA Rebellion filmmaker, following in the hallowed steps of the aforementioned canonical figures Burnett and Dash. Smith can also be considered part of a post-Sundance generation, following the explosion of independent filmmaking in the US centered at Sundance Film Festival and involving names like Tarantino, Rodriguez, Anders and others. The number of Black women who have directed narrative features and ascended to Sundance and other great heights of film culture in the US comprises a very short list. Smith’s presence alone is a subversion, a rendering visible of what and who have too often been suppressed in the film industry. Likewise, her film is about rendering visible and palpable the lives of young Black men in California, who have often been called and treated like an endangered species. When the art student in the film takes pictures of these young men with a Polaroid camera it is in fact a counter-gesture, a benevolent reclamation of sorts; it is also akin to the act of canon-formation that we are practicing in this screen program, in terms of the selection and celebration of those works and artists who have remained in the folds of history – who deserve immortality. The photographic image in this instance affords a material presence to its subject, and that itself is a radical act of care in a society that often prefers to render Black men and women invisible. Going a step further than both Greaves and Van Peebles, Smith totally removed herself from the extractive and inhospitable domain of the film industry. There was no place for a director like her in Hollywood, who was concerned with stories of this type and their underlying ideologies. And so Smith evolved into a different type of film artist, making politically efficacious avant-garde shorts, along with art objects and installations, and choosing to situate herself in the environment of museums and galleries. The greatest act of subversion may simply be not to play an unjust game. But the culture industry machine still rolls along, and still requires active agents to throw sand into its gears, to resist it, and to reprogram it.

The counter-canon that has been postulated here is less an antithesis and more of a complement to the classical canon of Black film. It is a necessary extension and a productive complication. History moves in spasms, like the convulsive camerawork and editing in Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song. It also repeats itself, like the domestic scene trapped in the process of an eternal workshop in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. But do not call these two canons tragedy and farce. Combined, they represent everything you always wanted to know about Black film. Quoting the orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, these works are your lessons of the hour.

Greg de Cuir Jr