Illusions, often heralded as one of Dash’s early masterpieces, presents the Hollywood studio system in the 1940’s when World War II morale is high and executives want to churn out films that speak to this patriotic fervor. We are introduced to Mignon, a biracial studio executive who exists in racial ambiguity, or “passes,” until she meets Esther, a black vocalist hired to dub her voice for a white starlet. Esther readily, yet innocently points out Mignon’s race, and in her very existence as a black singer providing voices for white actresses, pierces the illusion of Hollywood inclusion for African Americans. Mignon’s statement embodies her predicament and Esther’s. A black woman’s voice serves as the foundation for musical harmony and cohesiveness in film, while her face and personhood are never considered. Both Mignon and Esther are perceived as something they are not within a system that denies the totality of their existence.
In a series of shots, Dash presents a triangle-like formation of Esther singing in the recording booth, alongside a film projection of a white starlet lip-syncing her music, and an old sound engineer, who appears blurred and almost ghost-like against a black background, syncing the two together. Mckee’s strong performance and growing awareness through out the film makes it both dramatically satisfying and also richly nuanced with issues of cultural appropriation and cooptation of black music and culture for commercial gain. It’s no secret that many black entertainers served as the voices and creators of early Hollywood films, music, and popular culture, while remaining invisible in the process. The film’s relevance to some of today’s mainstream film and music industries and the dismissal and appropriation of black stories is also telling. Later in the film, Mignon states, “They see me but they can’t recognize me.” They don’t recognize a person, just as they only hear a voice in Esther, leaving her existence out of the picture. Sound familiar?
This idea of illusion and recognition seemed to carry over into Gay Abel-Bey’s Fragrance, which also screened. Abel-Bey unveils several characters at the cross-section of American loyalty and communal activism, examining the concept of black patriotism as both illusion and aspiration. George Trenton, played by Tony Ginn, returns home before going to fight in Vietnam. During his visit, the “home” becomes divided between US allegiance and militant resistance. George enters the bedroom of his younger brothers and finds a large poster of Angela Davis covering the wall above the empty bed where his brother slept. In a wide shot, George stands in full military uniform against the glowing backdrop of Angela Davis, layering meaning and subtext. He later visits his brother, banished from the family home due to his militant leanings, and engages in a drunken remixing of the Pledge of Allegiance, naming the inaccuracies of the country’s promises for black Americans. Torn between his brother, his own fears, and his father’s militaristic encouragement, George goes off to Vietnam, but not before leaving his youngest brother with a Pan-African flag, to use like “fragrance.” One of the more stirring scenes of the film shows this young man’s refusal to sing the Pledge of the Allegiance as the story ends on a freeze-frame of his serious face. Fragrance was a particularly moving film in its layering of familial connectedness and division, rich performance by the likes of Roy Fegan and Fumilayo, and its privileging of various perspectives on the role of military involvement for African Americans in the 1970’s and 80’s.
If Fragrance asked the question of whether African Americans should fight for America, Larry Clark’s As Above, So Below extends the conversation into communal insurgency for recently returned black soldiers. So is the case of main character Jita-Hadi who returns to America in the throes of constant government surveillance. He steps into a deep-standing rift between African Americans who engage in community activism and those who don’t. The cleverness of the film comes in Clark’s insistence on subverting those very stereotypes of church-goers as passive, and activists as militant through humor, turning the idea of insurgency on its head, in service of a united vision.
As his own cinematographer, Clark infuses the narrative with a varied color palette, casting blue tints over emotionally charged church scenes where a preacher jumps at his podium, and situating Jita-Hadi in a rectangular red room as he talks of his harrowing, war-time experiences with a female compatriot. Camera placement is also subverted as Clark positions it underneath the steering wheel of Jita-Hadi, facing up, as if it is spying on him, covert like the COINTELPRO operatives that invaded black organizing during this time. The incessant presence of surveillance radios, dispatches, and broadcasts through out the film made for a disorienting, yet compulsively engrossing viewing experience. In fact, I was disappointed when it finally ended because I’d become so deeply involved in this covert, insurgent operation. To learn later that Larry Clark had stashed away this masterpiece until its viewing that night was astounding, making me ponder how many films of this caliber weren’t being seen by large audiences.
The final film of the night was Melvonna Ballenger’s Rain. A poetic rumination on everyday routines, Ballenger questions the role of rainy days in the process of self-preservation. Set against the melodic backdrop of John Coltrane’s “After the Rain,” a black female typist has a chance encounter with a man passing out political flyers, on her way to work during a rainy day. The monotony of her typing job is juxtaposed with the renewal experienced during the cloudy day and her acquaintance with this man. Close shots of the woman’s fingers turning the knob on her radio set against her inner-questioning and voiceover helps give meaning to why we wake up each day, the routines we assume, and the reasons we break free from those routines within frameworks that wouldn’t ordinarily influence this type of transition. Ballenger captures the urban pulse of Santa Monica blvd, LA in 1978 and asks us to ponder the question of what’s important to us in life, and how do we preserve and renew it.
If there was one running theme through the night’s selections, it was inclusion, and where black people in fit into discourses of citizenship and belonging. I bring it back to Mignon’s statement in Illusions: “People make films about themselves.” This has been the case with cinema since its inception, and the presence of class, power, and race has played a major factor in the propagation of certain films as representative for all, when in fact they are not. In the work of LA Rebellion filmmakers, we understand that cinema can be self-reflexive, a sort of renewal giving rise to distinct voices that shift the position of black narratives and their importance. Let’s continue to make films about ourselves.
The LA Rebellion Screening series runs until December 17, 2011 at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California. For more information, visit http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/la-rebellion-creating-new-black-cinema.