Years before a pandemic left us sequestered at home and prompted a vogue for quarantine cinema, filmmaker Jennifer Brea showed what it’s possible to achieve from the confines not just of our houses, but of our beds.
Black film scholar, critic, and curator, Albert Johnson is hardly a household name–but he should be. In 1965, at the height of the civil rights era, Johnson offered this dissection of the representation of African-Americans in Hollywood cinema of the time.
In February 1968, at the West Indian Students’ Centre in London, James Baldwin delivered a now-famous lecture on black experience and identity in Britain and America. Boldly rejecting simplistic notions of race and color by elucidating the history of racial mixing in the United States and the colonies, he also led a discussion with civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory on the role of white liberals in the black struggle. The event was brilliantly captured by Trinidadian-British photographer and recently trained filmmaker Horace Ové in Baldwin’s Nigger (1969), a forty-eight-minute black-and-white documentary made in a simple but intimate cinema verité style.
Christina Sharpe’s conception of “wake work” concentrates on how visual and expressive culture renders and contemplates death and the afterlife of slavery in black life. For Sharpe this entails a focus on how “literature, performance, and the visual culture observe and mediate this un/survival.” Her assessment of existence “in the wake” as a critical positioning attends to the structural and affective with reference to a range of connotations including “the keeping watch with the dead, the path of a ship, a consequence of something, in the line of flight and/or sight, awakening, and consciousness.”
At one point in Alexander Kluge’s News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx — Eisenstein — Das Kapital (2008), the director quizzes the German essayist Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, born in 1929, on the images produced in that fateful year of the stock-market crash. Enzensberger, who laments his own difficulties in writing lyric poetry on the economy, recalls newsreels showing the destruction of mountains of foodstuffs and commodities that could no longer find a market. This emblem of capital’s irrationality was indeed used to great effect at the beginning of Joris Ivens’s tremendous fresco of Stalinist industrialization, Komsomol (1933).
Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s recent film The Infiltrators uses a bold mix of film forms to tell the true story of a group of young undocumented activists who intentionally detain themselves in a South Florida immigration detention facility. Styled as a heist film, Ibarra and Rivera weave together verité footage, testimony, and reenactment to produce a compelling argument against immigration detention. In Diana Ruiz’s interview, Ibarra and Rivera discuss the ways in which The Infiltrators problematizes extractive modes of documentary film and how the project’s requisite reenactment brought about unexpected results. They also discuss the creative and political dimensions of “undocumented storytelling,” which relates to the filmmakers’ enduring commitment to depicting fully dimensional representations of immigrants and Latinx experiences.
Best known for his prolific output and ability to work at the intersection of Hollywood and art cinema, Steven Soderbergh makes films that present diverse subject matter and formal styles. His 25 movies include the 1989 independent hit, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, social problem films (Erin Brockovich, 2000; Traffic, 2000; Che, 2008), deconstructions of genre (The Limey, 1999; Solaris, 2002; Haywire, 2011), digital video improvisation (Full Frontal, 2002; Bubble, 2005), and star-studded blockbusters (the Ocean’s trilogy 2001, 2004, 2007; Magic Mike, 2012).
After its screening at the Sundance film festival in January 1995 and its release later that summer, Todd Haynes’ Safe elicited much commentary by critics and film scholars on the film’s cinematographic techniques (few close-ups, many long takes) that distance spectators from the plight of the protagonist, Carol White, as she struggles with the increasingly horrifying symptoms of environmental illness, and thus render difficult, if not altogether impossible, sympathetic identification with her.
Contagion begins with a black screen and a cough; someone somewhere is sick–and spreading it–but we cannot see who. Characters spend much of the rest of the film staring into monitors, feverishly studying computer-generated models of the mysterious virus or digital video of its victims, but however hard they look, their screens reveal only biological explanations for the epidemic. They inevitably exclude macroeconomic and social forces, which are even harder to picture than the microscopic disease but causally every bit as important.