Fade to Black

Bewitched, Beloved, and Bewildered

Once upon a time the state of Black cinematic representation was a topic of raging debate among our media-panicked African American intelligentsia. As with most topics that inspired folk to rant, rave, and reflect, critical powwowing around Blacks on film has been hushed, if not extinguished, by careerism. Or has it? Beneath surface reports on Ice Cube's weekend grosses and Will Smith's per-film salary, a spirited dialogue is still happening on more intimate ground between friends, lovers, and fellow travelers. The close releases of Blade, Slam, Beloved, and Belly this year provoked some of the broadest disagreement I've been party to around Black cinema. All four have in common an embrace of fantasy, mythology, and mysticism in the depiction of profoundly alienated, if not schizophrenic, Black antiheroes. The films also used well-worn genres—the prison flick, the slavery epic, the horror film, the 'hood movie—to address themes of martyrdom, transgression, redemption, and love. If not all were Black-directed, all had the involvement of Black screenwriters and/or producers.

Invited to rip out guts, read entrails, and discern whether these ambitious projects supplied manna or suffocated on their own bile was a motley crew of scribes, shamans, and wits: composer Vernon Reid, novelist and musician Jimmy Lee, filmmaker and theorist Arthur Jafa, composer and choreographer Grysha Coleman, playwright and performer Daniel Jones, composer and vocalist Tamar-Kali, novelist and literary scholar Imani Wilson, writer-director-performer Carl Hancock Rux, and the Voice's own rapier ninja swordsman, Gary Dauphin.

Splendor, Misery, Slam

Elise and Newton as Beloved's twisted sisters
Ken Regan/ Camera 5
Elise and Newton as Beloved's twisted sisters

Dauphin: For about three quarters of the film I thought this was a really interesting take on what you can do with speech—the prison-yard scene spoke to this belief in the power of the word, and for all that to end up at the poetry slam cheapened what went before. It was like a break-dance movie where we're going to win the block back or something.

Coleman: Inserting that mythical, literary realm into the real world made us want to experience it; the poetry slam experience flattened and deadened it. Where it was supposed to live more freely was where it became the most stale.

Wilson: I also don't see what's novel about a so-called hustler talking his way out of trouble. That to me is the paramount fake moment besides Sonja Sohn's character being in a tank top in the prison. The only parts that worked were very organic, like the kid rhyming when he was beating on the wall. The rest of it left me completely cold. They were making me nervous for them—like, "y'all gonna do that, y'all really gonna do that?"

Dearly Beloved

JONES:The moment I heard Oprah had the rights I was distressed. I have this thing with a lot of my people where they're giving you High Negro Drama, and there's just that aesthetic of bad acting. That was everything Oprah seemed to be a part of and I was terrified that the story would be lost in this really constricted aesthetic. But within 10 minutes I had to rethink my assumptions. The thing I liked most was the performance of Beah Richards, seeing her have the kind of authority she has onscreen and seeing something move through her to us made everything worthwhile. The gaze of Kimberly Elise in the film also reminded me of real people and not the tradition of masking.

Jafa: I liked the book a lot and I think one of the things the film doesn't even attempt to do is counterbalance this melodramatic plot with an oblique formal approach. So what you're left with was this Stephen King kind of story. It started off as slapstick with the kids running around like Little Rascals, and I had so many problems with the end during the exorcism scene where they wheel Jason Robards in, the only person who sees Beloved disappear—like there is no Black subject that can be the authorizing look. And it sort of replicates what happens in the big scene when she kills her child, where you have this white slave-owner cry. The voice of dignity and civility is this white slave-owner? That scene where she's getting raped and milk is pouring out of her breast I thought was pornographic—if we're going to go there, put us in her position and let's see her in the uncomfortable moment of being raped, but don't flash it.

Tamar-Kali: I appreciated the fact that in a Hollywood film slavery was depicted in such a horrifying way. I still have nightmares about that breast scene—it was so traumatizing I wanted to vomit, but it was real and people need to be shocked in such a manner.

Jafa: This is where I feel the whole problem around Black cinema lies—we have seen so little that we're like famine victims and you can put anything in front of us. I'm not saying it's not a legitimate response, but compared to, say, In the Realm of the Senses and Pasolini's Salo, I say if you're going to go there, really fucking go there or don't deal with it at all.

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