Michael Boyce Gillespie
From Film Quarterly, Spring 2023, Volume 76, Number 3
The work of this dossier is grounded in a devotion to the study of black film and media. In total, it represents the emergence of new frequencies, priorities, and methodologies attuned to the continued evolution of the field, which, in the last twenty years, has seen the most sustained and rigorous proliferation of scholarship ever. In the spirit of this historical momentum, the essays here reflect the vitality and richness of film and media as objects of black study—that is, in this context, work that compels deeper inquiry into the art of blackness. 1 Writing from a comparable place of critical vigilance, Katherine McKittrick states: “The creative text does not have to be good or artful or aesthetically pleasing or popular. What the creative text is, does not matter as much as what it does.” 2
This dossier focuses on the work that black film and media does, with attention to the historiographic, aesthetic, cultural, and political elements of visual and expressive culture. Moreover, the dossier’s essays examine the rendering of blackness across different modalities, advancing critical prerogatives through a range of negotiations. This is work with an investment in the multidiscursive and speculative, not the deadening rhetoric of monolithic conceptions of blackness or banal approaches exclusively focused on lived experience or antiblackness. Throughout, the objects and the complexities they pose remain the focus.
This is not the first such intervention in this journal. More than five years ago, Racquel Gates and I edited the “Dimensions in Black” dossier for Film Quarterly. That introduction still holds true:
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. 3
Now, at the end of 2022, it feels even more pressing to insist that, with so much current interest in the topic of black film and media, it is the work of black film and media studies that stands as the most valuable and indispensable resource for any and all serious critical inquiries.
The dossier’s essays generate a concentration on affect and animation; film history and the acousmatic; haunting and global capitalism; counternarrativity and history; grief and performativity.
Racquel Gates offers a reading of Dumbo (Samuel Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, et al., 1941) as black allegory that is very much embedded in black motherhood and the ever-concussive historical present. With care and critical acumen, Gates poignantly reframes the film in a way more generative than any previously afforded. Julie Beth Napolin considers the acousmatic consequence of Bessie Smith in St. Louis Blues (1929) as an opportunity to revisit and restipulate the history of sound cinema. Furthermore, Napolin centers her essay on the threshold between sound and image to pose new sonic conceptions of blackness and to challenge the canonical mythologies of film history. Yasmina Price reflects on the spectral poetics of Mati Diop’s Atlantiques (2009) and Atlantique (2019). Her pairing of the documentary short and the feature-length film it inspired concentrates on their engendering of a black feminist praxis and enactment of an aesthetic restitution for the black dead. Walton Muyumba deliberates on Raoul Peck’s Exterminate All the Brutes (HBO, 2021) and its dismantling of the histories of the West. He reads the series as an extensive articulation of the silences surrounding the constitutive function of white supremacy, colonialism, and genocide in the formation of the West while also considering Peck’s distinctive aesthetic practice. My own contribution focuses on black death, performativity, mourning, and Keisha Rae Witherspoon’s T (2019). Her film’s staging of a ball devoted to the celebration of the black dead emplots the cultural legacies of black death and precarity within a praxis of resistance, survival, and the fabulous.
Each essay is a distinct historiographic operation and contribution to the ever-flourishing pleasures and complications that continue to inform and expand the field. This interdisciplinary work is infinite, not delimiting or prescriptive or merely anchored to authenticity fantasies. Each essay pushes, in its respective ways, for something far beyond simple or convenient notions of blackness. Taken together, these essays execute a challenge and commitment to black film and media.
Much love to all the contributors for their work. Thanks so much to B. Ruby Rich for her guidance throughout.
- For more on black study, see Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013). For more elaboration on the art of blackness, see Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie, “Black One Shot and the Art of Blackness,” liquid blackness 5, no. 2 (Fall 2021): 85–93.
- Katherine McKittrick, Dear Science and Other Stories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021), 51.
- Racquel Gates and Michael Boyce Gillespie, “An Introduction,” in the dossier “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media,” Film Quarterly 71, no. 2 (Winter 2017): 10. See also Racquel J. Gates and Michael Boyce Gillespie, “Reclaiming Black Film and Media Studies,” Film Quarterly 72, no. 3 (Spring 2019): 13–15.
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