Black Lives Matter On Screen
By Marc Glassman
It’s been barely a week since George Floyd suffered the ultimate price for being Black in America with his neck being strangled by the boot of a White policeman. Since his death by asphyxiation by Derek Chauvin, much has happened in the United States and throughout the world. Tens of thousands people from all races and colours, from Berlin to Auckland to Toronto to Washington D.C., have protested this devastating abuse of power and overt racism. It feels that attitudes towards such crimes against humanity have changed and that parts of Western society are willing to embrace a more confrontational approach to intolerance.
Criterion responded to the outrage by removing the channel’s paywall on their amazingly thorough collection of African-American cinema. An announcement this Thursday by Criterion CEO Jonathan Turrell and President Peter Becker states that their company will “fund a $25,000 initial contribution and an ongoing $5,000 monthly commitment to support organizations fighting racism in America” and that the Criterion Channel will make free to all viewers their films “that focus on Black Lives, including works by early pioneers of African American Cinema such as Oscar Micheaux; classics by Maya Angelou, Julie Dash, William Greaves, Kathleen Collins, Cheryl Dunye, and Charles Burnett; contemporary work by Khalik Allah and Leilah Weinraub; and documentary portraits of black experience by white filmmakers Les Blank and Shirley Clarke.”
This is welcome news for Blacks and people from diverse backgrounds, humanitarians and activists but also for cinephiles, who have not known many of the films created by Black filmmakers in the U.S. It’s a great opportunity to explore films that weren’t given a high priority by, let’s face it, white distributors when they first came out.
There are many films to be seen online but let me recommend a critical handful that I’ve enjoyed over the years. Here are three:
Watermelon Woman. This late Nineties indie feature was a tour de force, directed, written, edited and starring Cheryl Dunye as a young black lesbian making her first full length film. It blurred the lines between documentary and fiction as Dunye becomes obsessed with a talented black female actor Fae Richards called “the watermelon woman,” whose attempt at film stardom in the 1930s only led to demeaning “mammy” parts until she was rejected by her lesbian white director and eventually retreated into obscurity. Dunye’s quest to find out the true story of the watermelon woman plays out while she works as a reluctant video store employee and wedding filmmaker while engaging in a controversial affair with a white woman. Funny and touching, the film incorporates elements of mystery and romance in a serious exploration of the impossibility of a Black woman achieving overwhelming success in Hollywood.
Daughters of the Dust. Director Julie Dash and her cinematographer Arthur Jafa recreated the creole culture of the Gullah people in this intensely beautiful feature, the first full-length film directed by a Black woman to receive festival and commercial distribution. Set in the Sea islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, the film observes the final celebration of the Peazant family as they decide to either move north to the mainland or stay in their decaying homes. Much of the charm of the film is in the Gullah culture, which is an intoxicating blend of West African and Caribbean rituals and stories mixed in with a shared history of slavery. Although there are clashes in the film, most particularly around Yellow Mary, whose return to the island accompanied by her lesbian lover Trula causes consternation, and a tragic conflict between Eli and his wife Eula, who is about to give birth to a child who may be the product of a rape, the film is more of a tone poem than a drama. The gorgeous island and the beautiful family are shot ravishingly by Jafa, who has gone on to make art installations shown internationally in acclaimed galleries. Dash has gone on to make television features but didn’t get to continue making art films.
Portrait of Jason. Starting with the underground drug and jazz oriented feature The Connection in 1961, White bohemian director Shirley Clarke spent a good deal of her career making films about Black culture. Her most famous film, made five years, is an up close and personal documentary about a Black queer hustler and artist called Jason.
Shot in the notorious New York hotel, The Chelsea, Clarke’s doc only shows Jason on screen although you can hear her voice and that of her Black lover Carl Lee during powerful moments in the film. The charismatic and talented Jason, whose real name is Aaron Payne, talks to the camera about his peripatetic life as a hustler while regaling Clarke with songs and impromptu comic routines. Throughout the film, Clarke supplies Jason with alcohol, making his stories more dramatic and, occasionally mawkish as he gets drunker and drunker. By the end of the film, Jason has been pushed to the edge, either revealing or pretending to reveal his innermost thoughts. Undeniably powerful, Portrait of Jason has been criticized as an example of a White person’s exploitation of a Black man. Others—arguably the majority—see it as a work of art. It is a riveting work that is compulsively watchable even though it is problematic.
Why not see Portrait of Jason, Watermelon Woman and Daughters of the Dust and others in the Criterion Channel’s collection and form your own judgments? The channel is at https://www.criterionchannel.com
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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