This is not to say that Spike Lee’s films lack an ingrained rawness, or that they do not rebel against the representations of African Americans in mainstream Hollywood—they do…to an extent. Lee still adheres to some of Hollywood’s standards and conventions, which create an invisible border for exactly what he can say and how he can say it. This subtle adherence to this ‘invisible border’ of expression is often times what gains him both mainstream and underground acceptance and success.
In comparison, Haile Gerima’s ‘A Child of Resistance’, not only ignores Hollywood’s conventions and ‘invisible border’, but it also calls it out directly—criticizes it through its disjunctive editing, disturbing symbolic images and blunt voice-over dialogue where the main character, and imprisoned woman (played by Barbara O.) directly calls out “the white man” and the mental and social oppression they enforce on Blacks through consumerism and media. Being made in 1972 when the Black Panther movement was dying off and African Americans were grappling to develop their identities and assess their roles in society, the film was a clear outcry of frustration towards the “white man” as well as those who chose to conform to what Gerima deemed as the “white man’s world”.
The film itself is set almost entirely in a jail cell and for the first 4 minutes or so, we are looking at our main character not from inside the cell, but from the outside. In fact, we’re looking down on her as the camera pans back and forth from an uncomfortable distance; her eyes follow the camera’s movement (and essentially ours) with a chilling look of pure disdain. This feeling of disdain and anger is the mood that drives the entire film.
The film blatantly disregards any form of linearity and throws us between our main character’s present state within the jail cell, and what appears to be a daydream or nightmare—which is full of poetically symbolic and horrifying images that seem to stand for the deterioration of the Black race and culture at the hands of white oppressors. Black men and women in fancy clothing, listening to blaring jazz, driving huge cars and mingling casually with white party-goers, (seemingly of the same high class culture), at first seems relatively innocent, progressive even. It is not until later in the dream that the camera tilts down to reveal that each Black person in the vicinity is chained to one another by their feet and hands. The casual mingling between the blacks and whites soon becomes a strange scene in which the white people begin fetishizing the Black bodies and features, undressing and clawing at the men as they stand nonchalantly, allowing and even enjoying the infatuation.
What stands out the most about the film is that it not only makes a point to call out White America for the essentially damaging and commodifying the Black identity, but it goes even further to scold the Black community for accepting, embracing and comfortably limiting themselves to the box that White America had carved out for them.
As if the film does not reflect Gerima’s dissatisfaction enough through the images of Blacks being mindlessly enslaved by literal chains, consumerism and drugs; the final line from our imprisoned woman’s inner monologue was more than strong enough to deliver his sentiments. With a chilling echo effect, the woman firmly demands “WAKE UP BLACK MEN. WAKE UP!”
With this last line, it does not seem at all like the woman was speaking to the men within the film, but to the viewers—all of us. The riveting guilt and self awareness that slowly creep in after viewing this film are the exact reactions Gerima was going for back in 1972, and they are the exact reactions that the film elicits even in 2013.
Alex James is a Film Programming Associate at the Atlanta Film Festival (ATLFF)