The most rule-bound and surveilled members in any population, children are also society’s greatest anarchists. Caught up in this paradox, kids, perforce, are inexhaustibly resilient. As Lillian Gish’s gun-toting guardian of unwanted waifs says in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), “Children are man at his strongest. They abide.” That sentiment animates a program, organized by the critic and programmer Ashley Clark, of three short works with pint-size protagonists that screens on Tuesday at Light Industry: Helen Levitt’s In the Street (1948), Lionel Ngakane’s Jemima + Johnny (1966), and Djibril Diop Mambéty’s The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (1999). Made in different decades, countries, and idioms, the movies forgo sentimentality, focusing instead on fortitude.
Perhaps the best-known of the trio, In the Street reveals, in just sixteen minutes, a dense history of Spanish Harlem in the mid-Forties, as lived and experienced on corners, sidewalks, and stoops. Though Levitt, the illustrious mid-century photographer who consistently chronicled street life throughout New York City, is credited as the director, the silent, black-and-white documentary was a collaborative effort. Levitt and her friends Janice Loeb (a painter and scholar of Surrealism) and James Agee (the renowned novelist, film critic, and screenplay writer of, among others, The Night of the Hunter) each filmed the Upper Manhattan neighborhood; Levitt edited the footage, shot on 16mm.
Although multiple generations populate this kinetic mini–city symphony — a middle-aged woman, a thick fur draped around her shoulders, nibbles her index finger while under the Third Avenue El; big-bosomed dowagers walk their dogs — the stars of In the Street belong to the under-eighteen set. The majority of the vignettes capture kids, of many different races, unawares: The participants in an all-boy melee remain oblivious to the camera’s presence, as tiny bodies pile on top of one another; likewise, a smiling girl tosses something down from a tenement window, to the delight of her peers below. In other scenes, the kids are overt conspirators of Levitt and company, mugging and goofing before the lens; one solemn, enormous-eyed boy looks directly into the camera, returning the gaze being trained on him by someone twice his size.
“I don’t have kids and don’t know people who have ’em,” Levitt told the New York Times in 2004, five years before her death, at age 95. It may be that the photographer’s childlessness made her more objective when documenting her small subjects — and keen to emphasize their complexity and dignity rather than seeing them as simple avatars of cloying cuteness. That admiration is especially evident in In the Street‘s sequences featuring kids in Halloween costumes. (The festivity and its celebrants fascinated Levitt: A picture she took of three wee trick-or-treaters in 1939 was included in the inaugural exhibition of MoMA’s photography department in 1940.) The most guileless of humans — children — are here revealed as supreme masqueraders: A boy applies a greasepaint beard to a younger kid, completing his pal’s hobo costume; one young man in a suit requires only a bit of white cloth, just enough to cover half his face, to transform himself into a ghoul. This motif of masked kids recurs in two other superb (and highly disparate) projects devoted to exploring, in whole or in part, the simultaneous imprisonment and liberation of childhood: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) and Sadie Benning’s Flat Is Beautiful (1998), each a descendant of Levitt’s extraordinary short.
Played by Nicolette Robinson and Patrick Hatfield, the grade-school-age heroes of the title in Ngakane’s Jemima + Johnny, another monochrome treasure, are technically fictional creations. But, as is often the case with the most enduring movies about kids, the slippage between role and real (if still not fully formed) person, acting and being brings an electric unpredictability to their interactions, both with each other and the adults who help or (too frequently) hinder them. Informed by the documentary-film movement Free Cinema — which coalesced in the U.K. in the mid-1950s and which sought to highlight, per its manifesto, “a belief in freedom, in the importance of people and the significance of the everyday” — Ngakane’s charming thirty-minute parable was shot in Notting Hill, the West London neighborhood upended by racial violence in 1958. The South African Ngakane, an actor, filmmaker, and ANC member then living in exile in Britain, immediately foregrounds the toxic tension that persists in the area, zooming in on a man — Johnny’s dad — passing out handbills that scream, “Beware! Black Menace. Protect Your Property.” The bigot’s son, however, warmly welcomes his block’s newest resident, pigtailed Jemima, just arrived from Jamaica with her parents. As these two moppets, temporary escapees from the blinkered world of grown-ups, traverse London, their effortless camaraderie proves the most potent rejoinder to poisonous beliefs.
Ablaze in color, Mambéty’s remarkable The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, a 43-minute neorealist tale set in Dakar, was the last film completed by the Senegalese maestro — his Touki Bouki (1973), a lysergic, disjunctive look at his home country and the legacy of French colonialism, is a milestone in African cinema — before he died in 1998. “This story is a hymn to the courage of street children,” reads a closing title card; upbeat but never mawkish, Mambéty’s song of praise is one in which there are no discordant notes. Sili (Lissa Balera), an indefatigable physically disabled preteen determined to feed her family, becomes the sole girl among a gang of kids hawking Le Soleil, a local newspaper. She stands up to rival vendors who threaten violence and incompetent police officers who wrongly assume that she’s a thief. Confronted with what seems to be a permanent setback, the heroine offers this exhortation to an ally: “We continue!,” a directive followed by all the small people on view in this Light Industry triple bill.
In the Street
Directed by Helen Levitt
Jemima + Johnny
Directed by Lionel Ngakane
The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun
Directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty
Light Industry, March 28
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 21, 2017