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A Conversation with Michael Boyce Gillespie on Film Blackness and the Idea of Black Film

by Regina Longo

from Film Quarterly Fall 2016, Volume 70, Number 1

Michael Boyce Gillespie’s introduction to Film Blackness and the Idea of Black Film begins with a series of questions that seem to be posed to reader and author alike, for he declares that this book is “driven by the belief that the idea of black film is always a question, never an answer” (16). The initial set of queries posed in “We Insist: The Idea of Black Film” do indeed push the reader to think through some of the past and present iterations of blackness in American culture and media, and ultimately to come to the conclusion that there have always been multiple ways of being black, becoming black, performing blackness, challenging blackness, embodying blackness, defying blackness, and transcending the conventional understanding of blackness.

Gillespie explicates his chosen case studies through key themes that apply, in varying degrees, to each chapter: the possibilities of black film as speculative and ambivalent; the transformation of race onscreen (but not only onscreen) from constitutive and cultural fiction to social fact; and the need for spectators to perform for themselves the active labors of decoding the overdetermined visual signs of film blackness. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he asks his readers to consider, “What if black film is art and not the visual transcription of the black lifeworld?” (157). Gillespie rightly demands that black film be considered as both art and discourse (14).

While Film Blackness cites some of the more mainstream black American films that emerged in the same moments and movements as those that Gillespie chooses to study in depth—such as 1970s Blaxploitation, 1990s new black cinema, and noir—I find that when I teach introductory courses with an emphasis on the historical implications of race in American cinema, his work is invaluable in pushing the discourses of blackness and film, not just blackness in film. By presenting a series of films that are less known to general audiences, less studied and screened—but no less important, not least for his placing them in dialogue with their mainstream counterparts—Gillespie is able to engage more deeply with questions of blackness and antiblackness in visual culture. This approach locates the moments that predominantly white critics have termed novelties and “explosions” and leads the reader to rethink such labels. Gillespie achieves a generative intertextuality and methodological bridge by synthesizing three elements in each chapter: close readings of films as varied as Coonskin (Ralph Bakshi, 1975), Deep Cover (Bill Duke, 1992) and Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins, 2008); the literary works of Chester Himes, Ralph Ellison, and Albert Camus, as well as the theoretical work of Bakhtin, de Certeau, Fanon, and Manthia Diawara (to name a few); and a specific emphasis on the archives of critical reception to these films.

Chapter 2 on Chameleon Street (Wendell B. Harris, Jr., 1989) is exceptional in its blend of American film cultural and industrial critique, as Gillespie works to demonstrate the limits to phenotyping film blackness. Chameleon Street is a social satire based on the story of the real-life character William Douglass Street, who impersonated everyone from athletes to doctors to lawyers to journalists, charming and conning hundreds while also making a living—and upending some lives in the process. The film’s Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1990 marked the dawn of the “new black cinema,” but it seems to be one of the few films of this era that, despite festival success, did not fair as well with critics or audiences who were evidently not ready for the film’s implicit critique of what Gillespie calls the “black of black film” (73).

What, in fact, is this spectral signifier of film blackness in the absence of any discussion of film whiteness? What did it mean for critics to repeatedly conflate Harris’s rendition of his character Street (Wendell B. Harris Jr.) with Woody Allen’s earlier mockumentary Zelig (1983), John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (1990), and Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning (1990)? Gillespie deftly weaves together the facts of the film’s production and reception to reveal how the establishment, simply because race was involved, sidelined through mislabeling a film that demanded to be seen as a work of art in its own right.

Chameleon Street is multilayered and complex, both in terms of the larger societal structures and hierarchies that it confronts and at the level of the relationship between film as art and film as social commentary. While Coonskin hit the viewer over the head with a hammer from start to finish, Gillespie foregrounds Chameleon Street as a film that both ushered in the 1990s black film explosion and imploded in its wake, demonstrating just how many options there are in thinking through, seeing, and transcending blackness, beyond simply embodying it.

Ironically yet effectively, in Chapter 3, “Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything),” Gillespie advances his argument for a bodiless film blackness through an in-depth examination of classical noir, the genre that he notes is best characterized by “its consistency as a racialized mode of white masculinities in crisis” (84). Let’s face it, every ethnicity, gender, and race is a foil to white male hetero-normative narrative authority in classic noir. And yet, Gillespie is able to upend the pessimism, fatalism, and deviance inherent in the genre when he posits the noir film Deep Cover against what he calls the incomplete thesis of James Naremore’s seminal study of film noir, More Than Night, which “neglects that the history of the idea [of noir] is very much about the crossing of manufactured borders, gender trouble, and racial ambiguity” (86). For Gillespie, Deep Cover, like Chameleon Street, provides a different conceptual frame through which to think through the potentialities of black film and film blackness, as well as blackness and film. He questions repeatedly whether the medium of film should even be considered a window or mirror to blackness, while recognizing that the noir vernacular to which Deep Cover gives voice exists alongside the power and privilege of classical noir that sees only black, never blackness.

In Gillespie’s history, he questions prevailing trends that tend toward labeling a film, a filmmaker, or a movement in order to control it in a world where reductivism and conventionalism rule. Gillespie’s research and writing are intrepid as he challenges these ways of thinking. Further, his chosen objects of study reflect a resolute awareness of the ways in which blackness and antiblackness are constantly performed in film, literature, art, the public sphere, and even in the more intimate space of the domestic sphere. In a world in which producers, festival organizers, critics, pundits, and scholars continuously overdetermine and instrumentalize works by black artists, insisting on their constitutive representation of a predetermined definition of blackness, Gillespie reminds his readers that there are myriad other ways of enacting and expressing black culture, many of which have yet to be realized, or imagined.

Regina Longo: Can you share your process in choosing the discrete texts for your case studies to ensure a particular discursivity that opens the reader up to new ways of imagining the “art of blackness”?

Michael Boyce Gillespie: Sure. Film Blackness is part of the work that I have been doing to map out new critical investments in the art of blackness. It represents the first step in a series of projects devoted to enactments of black visual and expressive culture. What pushed me to begin the work on the idea of black film was registering how this cinema was often being measured in terms of fidelity or totalizing correspondence to the social category of race. I value critical theory as a tool for thinking about the arts and it seemed to me that less appropriate tools were being used to study this brand of cinema, tools that appeared to have little value for art except as a corroboration of a predetermined thesis about race. Furthermore, I didn’t identify with the tacit attitude that the idea of black film was not rigorous study, or that it was too fragile, just a social science exercise (“…of the black experience”), or a marginal practice in contradistinction to the core principles of cinema studies.

The book is about being discursively minded in engaging the idea of black film. The book accounts for some of my ambivalences, pleasures, and politics about black cinephilia as film blackness became the term that best represented how I wanted to think and write about the idea of black film. The first step was grounding the project in a suspension of any insistence on social fact or truth or identitarian claims about cinema. I don’t care for thinking about cinema and spectatorship in the teachable-moment terms of holding hands with strangers in the dark while humming “Kumbaya.” I want to be disrupted, challenged, and engaged. I particularly don’t want to be patronized by how a film can be said to embody the black lifeworld. Besides, if I had to choose an art to do that kind of impossible wish-fulfillment work of embodying or “truly” reflecting black folks, it sure as hell wouldn’t be cinema.

The next step was mapping out the idea of black film in relationship to other practices and disciplines by considering collateral questions and methodologies of the art of blackness across fields, queries that shifted the emphasis from what is it to what does it do. In this way, I chose films that intersected with my central interests in issues of blackness, visuality, narrativity, and historiography. I wanted a range of works that offered interdisciplinary possibility, as my understanding and appreciation of cinema has always entailed a devotion to considering other arts and complementary scholarship on black visual and expressive culture. All of the ideas I develop across the four chapters (the racial grotesque, black performativity, noir modalities of blackness, and quiet becoming) are tied to a processing of them. In other words, every chapter represents the devising of a critical circuit that, to borrow a phrase from Stuart Hall, centers on “what is this black in this black film?”

Longo: You draw the reader into this critical circuit immediately with your first chapter, “Reckless Eyeballing: Coonskin and the Racial Grotesque,” discussing the controversial Coonskin, which was condemned by many black Americans. You close this chapter with a quote from Darius James, who observes that Coonskin “pukes the iconographic bile of racist culture back in its stupid, bloated face,” and demands that the culture “deal with it” (49). Do you think Ralph Bakshi could have made a different kind of film that asked the same questions and forced the same confrontations, in 1975, about the depth of American’s antiblack visual culture?

Gillespie: I first saw Coonskin when I was eleven. My mother is from Starkville, Mississippi, and she would always take me down there, from Massachusetts, during the summers. One day, I was chosen to find a movie in the video store for everyone to watch because I was the oldest of a group of a dozen cousins. As I walked the aisles, I stumbled across the image of a black rabbit in a white Superfly suit with a gun and a scowl. While we were watching it, my cousins walked and crawled away from the room until by the end I was the only one left. When it ended, I rewound the tape and watched it again. What struck me then and continues to strike me today about the film is its severe provocation of the history of American popular culture and its antiblack inflections. The film most immediately became my gateway to comix and the history of American animation.

Bakshi’s immediate target was Walt Disney and his egregious pet project, the 1946 film adaptation of Joel Chandler Harris’s Song of the South. But, by targeting Disney and American animation/comics with a comic touch, Bakshi also indicts the antiblack visual culture traces that can be found throughout the history of American popular culture. People want to say “I don’t see that” or “I didn’t feel that” or “this is a sign of my heritage, not hate.” It’s a privilege to be this willfully ignorant, to declare oneself the definitive arbiter of truth and meaning. A brutally challenging and clever film, Coonskin does not benefit from representational binaries of positive/negative.

I don’t care whether people are upset or disturbed by the film. That’s the whole point of it. You’re supposed to be incited by it and possibly feel seditious. If you want to feel good, then watch Song of the South and enjoy being complicit with the very same regimes of antiblackness and white supremacy on which it thrives. Moreover, Coonskin was made possible by the enabling force of the Black Consciousness Movement in that the ideas of that period are evident in the pop distillation that became the Blaxploitation cycle.

Ralph Ellison wrote: “For man without myth is Othello with Desdemona gone: chaos descends, faith vanishes and superstitions prowl in the mind.”1 In this same vein, Toni Morrison proposes: “My project is an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served.”2 Both of these citations deeply informed my argument in the book for how the film shifts the focus from the static denotation of stereotypicality to an ambivalent practice that targets the cultural and aesthetic mechanisms of antiblack visual culture.

In addition, I spent a lot of time thinking about the racial grotesque through Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo [1972], George Wolfe’s The Colored Museum [1987], Darius James’s Negrophobia [1993], and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled [2000]. Finally, I went through a period of immersing myself in the art of Robert Colescott, Betye Saar, Kara Walker, Lyle Ashton Harris, and Michael Ray Charles. There were many other artists but these in particular began to direct my conception of the racial grotesque and inform my reading of Coonskin.

In the end, it was when I read Mikhail Bakhtin that I really began to write all this out. I’ve always believed in the film beyond the respectability promise of positive and negative images. The film’s deadly in its cheekiness. It baits you to revile it. But I believe that the real affective force of the film lies in its function as a visual historiography of American popular culture with an attention to the visualizing mechanisms of antiblackness and white pleasure. It can never be unwatched.

Longo: Can you discuss what you think active spectatorship should or could look like in 2016 as audiences continue to be confronted with images of antiblackness, but where there is also a “new” black consciousness, new responses to antiblackness, and new forms of blackness being represented and embodied?

Gillespie: I’m interested in the rendering of blackness or how black visual and expressive culture stages race not just as impermeable fact, but as multidimensional and multidiscursive. And I’m arguing against embodiment as an acceptable way to discuss the cinema. Film blackness is very much a methodological prioritizing of cinema’s evincing of visuality, textuality, and historiography. I am motivated by capacities, not a reinscription of essential values.

Take the past year as an example. I’ve been thinking about a cluster of work that includes Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq [2015], Stephen Winter’s Jason and Shirley [2015], Josh Locy’s Hunter Gatherer [2016], recent work by Kevin Jerome Everson, Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits [2015], and Francis Bodomo’s “Everybody Dies!” segment from collective:unconscious [2016]. Each is a distinct staging of film blackness, each a distinct enactment of black visual and expressive culture. The range of negotiations and engagements with blackness that this work exemplifies requires more than the distilling crush of black cinema=black people.

Each of these works requires a distinctly consequential account for its respective practice: a reanimation of the musical in the key of satire; a critique and reappraisal of film history and black queer performativity; the blues portraiture of quotidian love and struggle; a prolific artmaking practice devoted to black experimentalizing and gestures; a meditation on dance, black girl becoming, and black girl magic; and a cable access show for children hosted by “Ripa the Reaper” from the Department of Black Death. In my conclusion, I write of the book’s urgency and my hope that the idea of black film will carry on as an irreconcilable discourse that will continue to defy, challenge, and enliven our sense of art, history, and culture. I want to push for an understanding of the idea of black film that can account for new future assessments of the past.

Longo: By Chapter 2, you are in fact pushing your reader toward this understanding in your juxtaposition of Wendell B. Harris, Jr.’s Chameleon Street with the writings of Tommy Lott’s “A No-Theory Theory of Contemporary Black Cinema.” The potential for black cinema that you address through theories of performativity, intention, and genre push beyond Lott’s wish for “the future composition of black cinema” (78). You argue that Lott’s politics limited his dream of a black cinema, and instrumentalized blackness.

Gillespie: Yes, Lott’s work is valuable but he ultimately does cap the possibilities. Chameleon Street taught me a lesson about black film historiography. I first saw it in 1990 at the National Black Arts festival in Atlanta not long after its Grand Jury Prize victory at the Sundance Film Festival. There was a buzz surrounding the film programming that year, a palpable sense that work being screened was a showcase of what was literally an avant-garde, or advanced guard, of an upcoming crop of black films. Of course that upcoming crop would be the “black film explosion” of 1991, the beginning of a “new black cinema.”

As I wrote, there is no definitive or singular explanation for what has been marked as the film’s failure. I adore the film and sought to redeem it from the compounded and collusive sense of failure it endured as a result of critical inattentiveness, poor distribution, independent film cronyism, unfortunate programming choices by exhibitors, antiblack racism, or white supremacy. The film failed to be appreciated as an art film, independent film, American film, or black film. Furthermore, my focus on the dissociative sense of black performativity that the film enacts was inspired by the cinema, literature, and scholarship on passing because I read the film as a disobedient conception of the politics of passing. I seek out challenging moments of film blackness because they compel a dead reckoning with the impropriety of limits with a dedication to addressing uncommon multitudes.

Along these same lines, the decision to include a chapter on Bill Duke’s 1992 film Deep Cover [Chapter 3] grew out of my interest in Chester Himes, film noir of the 1990s, and contemporary scholarship on noir (e.g., Manthia Diawara, Jonathan Eburne, Christopher Breu, Megan Abbott, Eric Lott). With blackness and noir in mind, I began to develop a sense of noir modalities of blackness to avoid the nomenclature of “black noir” or “neo-noir” and examine genre as a process and, again, not a fixed category. Film noir matters more, to borrow Naremore’s language, as “the history of an idea.” I had always thought I would write a chapter that focused on Deep Cover, Devil in a Blue Dress [Carl Franklin, 1995], and Suture [Scott McGehee and David Siegel, 1993]. I used to teach the films together in order to demonstrate a range of ways of understanding noir modalities of blackness. But as I began to write on Deep Cover it became a rich enough object to focus on exclusively. For my purposes, the film poses some substantial distinctions for considering film blackness through the lens of genre theory and the deep inspiration of Chester Himes’s Harlem detective novels, especially Real Cool Killers and Plan B.

Longo: As you state in relation to Deep Cover, at a certain point, you have to limit your objects of study when there are such rich archives to explore. While your book is a study that thinks through and complicates understandings of black masculinity, in our conversations you and I have also talked about your appreciation, recognition, and study of black women filmmakers and the representation of black womanist or feminist ideas in cinema. Can you share with FQ’s readers some of what you found in the archives of black women filmmakers that didn’t make it into this book?

Gillespie: Sure. One of the themes running throughout the book is how to account for a necessary complementarity and incompatibility surrounding issues of politics, pleasure, and a politics of pleasure surrounding the idea of black film. I suppose this line of questioning and self-inquiry began when I first read Pearl Cleage’s Mad at Miles: A Blackwoman’s Guide to Truth as an undergraduate. Later on, spending time at Women Make Movies and Third World Newsreel most immediately becomes a vital influence on my teaching. Teaching and writing about Leah Gilliam’s Now Pretend [1992] and Sapphire and the Slave Girl [1995] helped me to appreciate why the idea of black film demanded a forestalling of identitarian tendencies. In that same vein, Camille Billops and James Hatch’s Suzanne Suzanne [1982] influenced my thinking about blackness and seditious form, or what happens when a film appears to be classically structured but in truth productively devises an epistemological unraveling. Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere [2012] was a film that I cycled through often as I was writing the Medicine for Melancholy [2008] chapter. The film’s rich affectivity in terms of its temporality or issues of carceral time along with its pacing of black desire helped me to really consider why I needed to be very clear to not entertain any conjecture about “Jo” being a post-race or deracinated woman who needs to be saved by a righteous brother like “Micah.”

Longo: In Chapter 4, “Black Maybe: Medicine for Melancholy, Place, and Quiet Becoming,” there is a great sense of release. You really leave things open in terms of the potentials of blackness and film blackness, and return the reader to the questions with which you opened the book. I admire your ability to ground your ideas in case studies, to sit with “a mediation on romance, place and ruin” (155), and to ultimately recognize the potentials of an untethered, immaterial, and bodiless black film (157).

Gillespie: Thanks. I’m really happy that that film found its way into the book. The book was supposed to close with a focus on Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog [1999] and issues of genre, hip-hop modernism, art cinema, and sonic visuality. I remain deeply fascinated by the proposition of an art film devoted to dead codes of hip-hop, the samurai, noir, and masculinity, with blackness as the binding firmament. But as I drafted that chapter it became clear that it was for another book. I began thinking about Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy as the concluding chapter not long after it opened in New York City in 2008 following its premiere at South by Southwest. A student of mine at The New School saw it and asked me, “Do you know how to make a mumblecore film interesting?” I said, “No, how do you make a mumblecore film interesting?” and he answered, “You talk about race.” Now, while I understand how the techniques of that film movement were staged in Medicine, the film is ultimately something greater than that one element. It has a sense of place, quiet, black becoming, and desire. And, it offered a perfect intersection of the work of the other chapters on affect, visual historiography, performativity, and modalities. It became the perfect culmination for the book’s arc.

Longo: What resonates from the outset in Film Blackness is the fact that you resist an investment in the idea of black film along a historiographic model that traces American blackness as represented in cinema from slavery to freedom. I think that this book will be invaluable in shaping a different pedagogy for teaching black film. Can you share your vision for where you think the field is going, and what a black film pedagogy could look like?

Gillespie: By design, I wanted to be careful to avoid a progressive modeling of black film historiography that would suggest a settled past and a future tied to a definitive sense of a victory achieved, such that a slavery-to-freedom conceit suggests, something that would suggest an arc: that once upon a time there was a man named Oscar Micheaux and then end with 12 Years a Slave [Steve McQueen, 2013] winning an Oscar, or Obama watching Selma [Ava DuVernay, 2014] in the White House. In this way, I’m thinking of the victorious rhetoric of Karen Grigsby Bates’s “They’ve Gotta Have Us” in the New York Times Magazine.3 Recently, film historians like Allyson Field, Cara Caddoo, and Miriam Petty have put out really important work that pushes for a vital rethinking of our pedagogical investments in the idea of black film by reanimating the past and the implications that this history holds for the future. Overall, I would like to think that the study of black film will continue to move towards assuming its place in the conceptual field of black visual and expressive culture.

Longo: Speaking of expressive culture, what artists, filmmakers, and writers are inspiring your next projects?

Gillespie: I am inspired by a number of cinema, literature, and visual culture scholars. The work I have been exposed to through the American Studies Association and Black Portraitures conferences has had the most significant impact on my scholarship. My future projects include work on Kevin Jerome Everson, Edgar Arceneaux, Terence Nance, Khalil Joseph, the proposition of post-9/11 music, the visual culture of black death, afrofuturism, black zone cinema, adaptations and Civil Rights America, edited collections on Black Cinema Aesthetics and Chester Himes criticism, and a book project, Music of My Mind: Blackness and Sonic Visuality. My goal is to keep doing the work of thinking about black visual and expressive culture, the work to understand how the art of blackness continues to defy, challenge, and enliven our sense of art, history, and culture.

1. Ralph Ellison, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” in Shadow and Act (New York: Vintage Books, 1953), 41.
2. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press, 1992), 90.
3. Karen Grigsby Bates, “They’ve Gotta Have Us,” New York Times Magazine, July 14, 1991, 18.

            Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film
Michael Boyce Gillespie
Duke University Press, 2016
$23.95 paper, $84.95 cloth, 248 pages
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