Racquel Gates and Michael Boyce Gillespie
History was made in 2017 when Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016) received the award for Best Picture at the Academy Awards ceremony. This celebratory moment for black film and television provides an opportune time to reflect on the works and trends that form the history, context, and points of departure for today’s critical darlings and fan favorites. This special dossier for Film Quarterly comprises a selection of essays that share the central idea that the work ahead for scholars in the current moment must be to appreciate what has been an ever-increasing complication of the idea of black film and media over the last ten years. This dossier considers significant trends, film and media objects, and clusters of work related to issues of blackness and questions of aesthetics, historiography, industrial practice, collectivity, politics, and culture. It is compelled by a shared belief that requires scholars to remain open to contemporary and future enactments while at the same time recognizing the momentum of the past.
This dossier is devoted to new directions, not dead ends. Mere recognition (Academy attention, film festival prestige, box office success, television ratings) has not and cannot fully account for the significance of a film—or the film’s consequential relationship to the larger questions of aesthetics, culture, and history that always already shadow the idea of black film. An Oscar win does not signify that a film beat the system, but rather, that it succeeded within that system. Such success does not preclude the very real disruptive pleasures and politics of films that do win institutional prestige and accolades, but it suggests that such prestige and awards should never be taken strictly as signs of “progress.”
The study of black film and media is an interdisciplinary proposition requiring innovative and evolving entanglements of art, politics, culture, and history. Despite taking up a range of works and queries, these essays do not focus on such au courant topics as authorship and authenticity, nor an age-old politics of representation based on strict poles of positive and negative. These questions, though still relevant, are no longer the most salient ones for generating a robust conversation about today’s film and media culture. Authorship, for example, though an obvious lens of analysis, is too flattening a line of inquiry when the production of film and media is an inherently collaborative process. The circulation, reception, and afterlives of black film and media are anything but straightforward. Progressive narratives of black film and media history have too often encouraged a measure of amnesia, or, equally problematically, discourses of black exceptionalism and selective ahistoricism.
In fact, blackness in film and media is always already an incitement, a question, and a process. The methodological goal for its analysis is never an autopsy of an inanimate system, but rather, a recognition of the potentialities of these texts and a pivot away from predetermined categories or recalcitrant learning outcomes. New approaches must reckon with how the idea of blackness in film and media (as an enactment of black visual and expressive culture) can generate acute and imaginative stagings of the art of blackness and the discursivity of race. Furthermore, these new approaches must insist on reading the artistic and epistemological consequences of black film and media: the very idea of black film and media is defined by historiography over history, performativity over notions of essential identity, affectivity over embodied truth. A text focused on the black image requires the devising of something other than an identitarian absolute, for each creative work tacitly details a discursive conceit and set of aesthetic choices that represent speculations and remediations of history and culture.
This dossier endeavors to offer new directions for the study of texts and methodologies attendant to the cultural, political, and aesthetic entanglement that comprises the broad idea of “black film and media.” In many ways, then, this is a project of reframing and reclamation. Consider, for instance, the attention generated by Atlanta (FX, 2016–), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), Queen Sugar (OWN, 2016–), Underground (WGN America, 2016–17), Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016), Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017), Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014), Dear White People (Netflix, 2017–), the forthcoming Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018), and the work of Ava DuVernay. This is consequential work and the dossier is driven by a consideration of how these spotlight moments might lend themselves to a wider focal perspective.
The essays in this dossier exemplify what the editors consider to be some of the most innovative and exciting scholarship in the study of black film and television today. Charged with the provocation to consider the significance of the present moment for black film and media in the United States with an eye on the past, the contributions span an impressive range of media texts, perspectives, and approaches. Some of the essays deal explicitly with the relationship between past and present. Paula Massood considers the limitations of historical narratives for contemporary black film, while Brandy Monk-Payton argues that television is the site where American society attempts to address the racial sins of former eras. Other essays consider the ongoing impact of industrial practices on black film and media. Kristen J. Warner pointedly argues that the inclusion of black people on-screen does not itself signify a meaningful engagement with blackness, but rather, that it is the representation of black culture and black experience that constitutes the next frontier in film and television in the United States. And, Samantha Sheppard cautions against the idealistic promise of crowdsourced funding for black film, yet encouragingly suggests the power of speculative fiction surrounding “failed” media projects. Still other essays suggest new frameworks for looking at familiar media topics, texts, and concepts. Rizvana Bradley offers a nuanced interpretation of black maternal figures that casts aside more traditional and one-note understandings of black motherhood in contemporary cinema. Racquel Gates argues for the recuperation of formal analysis in order to disentangle the ideological and aesthetic connections between taste, quality, and blackness in popular culture. Michael Gillespie offers a poetic, insightful analysis on the ways that black film and video envisions, represents, and signifies the topic of black death.
Our contemporary American moment of renewed attention to black film and media is a generative one that offers an opportunity to consider the exceptional range and nuance of the past ten years. Such an opportunity might include a consideration of The Order of Myths (Margaret Brown, 2008), Ballast (Lance Hammer, 2008), A Good Day to Be Black & Sexy (Denis Dortch, 2008), Mississippi Damned (Tina Mabry, 2009), Night Catches Us (Tanya Hamilton, 2010), Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011), Love & Hip Hop (VH1, 2010–), Blacktino (Aaron Burns, 2011), Restless City (Andrew Dosunmu, 2011), Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat by the Door (Christine Acham and Cliff Ward, 2011), Tchoupitoulas (Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, 2012), Welcome to Pine Hill (Keith Miller, 2012), The Last Soul on a Summer Night (Daniel Nearing, 2012), Gimme the Loot (Adam Leon, 2012), An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (Terence Nance, 2013), Being Mary Jane (BET, 2013–), Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013), The New Black (Yoruba Richen, 2013), Mother of George (Andrew Dosunmu, 2013), Newlyweeds (Shaka King, 2013), The Haves and Have Nots (OWN, 2013–), Hunter Gatherer (Josh Locy, 2016), Jason and Shirley (Stephen Winter, 2015), The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, 2015), Dope (Rick Famuyiwa, 2015), The Carmichael Show (NBC, 2015–17), Strong Island (Yance Ford, 2017), Quest (Jonathan Olshefski, 2017), and the work of Mara Brock Akil. Furthermore, this moment of renewed interest should lead to increased attention to the work of Kevin Jerome Everson, Arthur Jafa, Khalil Joseph, Cauleen Smith, Cheryl Dunye, Shola Lynch, Martine Syms, Akosua Adoma Owusu, Ja’Tovia Gary, and Frances Bodomo.1
This dossier is conceived as a promissory note of what black film and media, and black film and media scholarship, have the potential to be. This is, then, just the beginning of a line of inquiry that should, ultimately, expand beyond the specific industries, genres, mediums, and nations that are discussed here. The crucial work of this dossier does not pose media as fact, nor as truth, but instead pursues analytic engagement as a means for measuring discourse, pleasure, and craft. At every turn, this dossier asks you, the reader, to recognize the art and range of blackness, while also insisting on the suspension of any prior or present delimiting expectations of what “black” is, or must be, on the screen as elsewhere.
We would like to extend our heartfelt appreciation to the contributors to this dossier—Rizvana Bradley, Paula Massood, Brandy Monk-Payton, Samantha Sheppard, and Kristen J. Warner—for their grace and brilliance. We also want to recognize B. Ruby Rich and Regina Longo for their enthusiasm and guidance from the earliest conceptualization of this project through its publication.
1. Consider the vibrant presence of new exhibition spaces, research groups, collectives, and archival initiatives, as evidenced by such projects as: the creation of the Black Cinema House, housed within Theaster Gates’s Dorchester Projects in Chicago; the Open TV platform for queer and intersectional television (www.weareopen.tv); the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema” initiative co-organized by Jan-Christopher Horak, Allyson Nadia Field, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart; the “Cinema Remixed and Reloaded: Black Women Artists and the Moving Image since 1970” exhibition co-organized by Valerie Cassel Oliver and Dr. Andrea Barnwell Brownlee at the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston in 2008–09; the Black Radical Imagination touring programs, curated by Emir Christovale and Amir George; the Liquid Blackness project at Georgia State University; the “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986” series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, curated in 2015 by Jake Perlin and Michelle Materre; the growing importance of Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival, under the direction of Maori Karmael Holmes, as a showcase of new black cinematic practices; Ashley Clark’s film programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and emerging local initiatives, such as the Brooklyn-based New Negress Film Society and the programming and community-building mission of the Oakland-based group, The Black Aesthetic.
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Header Image: Barry Jenkins accepting the 2017 Oscar for Best Picture.