I was greatly honoured to introduce Charles Burnett’s masterpiece, Killer of Sheep, at the VIFF Centre on 31 August 2022. The below is a write-up of the brief comments I made about the film during my intro to the seven audience members who came to watch the film – a sad but lucky number of viewers, since this film surely deserves many more spectators.
Perhaps part of the reason why Killer of Sheep did not attract a large audience for this screening is that the film is overlooked somewhat – not in the sense of being ‘underrated’ (which is not really the case; the film is very highly rated), but because it took years for the film to achieve any wide release because Burnett had not secured the rights to the film’s remarkable soundtrack, which includes work by Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Scott Joplin and others.
While it took about 30 years for the film to achieve a wide release in c2007, even its initial run in 1977/1978 (when it won the Critics’ Award at the Berlin International Film Festival) came some four or five years after initial production – with Burnett shooting the film between 1972 and 1975.
This long, slow production and gestation means that Killer of Sheep is a kind of ‘underground’ film, one that (for me, unfairly) gets only low attendances while much more mediocre fare is significantly better attended (two women left the screening at which I gave the intro because they were in the wrong theatre – leaving those seven behind – notably all ostensibly white or Asian men, though I shan’t get too much into the possible meanings of that here).
This long, slow production and gestation of Killer of Sheep also befits the way in which it offers to us a different conception of cinema, harder to understand than regular cinema.
For, some might say that, with a production budget of US$10,000, Killer of Sheep necessarily has ‘flaws’ and/or ‘limitations’ – because the dominant capitalist model of cinema dictates that a lack of budget is a deficiency, and that to make a ‘good’ film ‘in spite of’ no money is somehow a grand achievement – to be rewarded in some cases with much more money for one’s next film.
But I might contend that in fact those ‘flaws’ are not just the core strengths of Killer of Sheep, but also necessarily a part of a film that presents to us a possible world beyond the atomised world of selfish greed, of self-serving individuality, that is at the heart of neoliberal capitalism, and which is the backdrop for Burnett’s film.
In order to explain this, I’ll offer up a key example of one of the film’s ‘flaws’ – which features regularly in the film – but which is in fact at the heart of what it is doing/saying, and which makes of it such a work of genius.
It happens regularly when working with non-professional actors (and, in my experience, also with professional actors) that they cast looks on occasion at the camera. Most filmmakers would edit such moments out of their films; apparently (but I don’t really believe or buy this), it destroys the ‘illusion’ of cinema (because apparently cinema is supposed to be an immersive illusion or ‘escape’ from ‘reality’ – whatever that is).
However, in Killer of Sheep, it happens on various occasions that actors look directly at the camera – and the scenes play on and play out fine, with me as a viewer not feeling that this diminishes my experience of the film, but that instead it enriches it.
Above are three examples.
For, as per long-standing analyses of images where figures look back at the viewer, there is a sense in these gazes from the screen not only that the film’s viewers are not detached, unseen observers peeking voyeuristically into the lives of the figures on screen, but rather that we are implicated into that world, and by extension the film itself.
One can think about it this way: at time of filming, these actors looked at the camera and/or at Burnett. In doing so, they ‘broke character’ and made it clear that they were aware that they were in a film – i.e. ‘acting’ in front of a camera. Burnett does not edit this out of the film; he keeps it in – repeatedly. He wants us to know that this is a film; that these are not professional actors; and most especially that he and we are connected with them.
Killer of Sheep is a key text in what has come to be known, thanks to Clyde Taylor, as the L.A. Rebellion – a group of Black filmmakers making films out of UCLA in the 1970s, many being taught by Teshome Gabriel. Making specifically anti-commercial (‘rebellious’) and proactively ‘Black’ films lends to Killer of Sheep and others from this ‘school’ a political edge.
For, what the glances to the camera come to mean, when read with this political outlook in mind and thus through the lens of race, is that the Black lives that we see onscreen are not just Black lives objectified to satisfy the curiosity of (white) film viewers. Rather, it means that Burnett (and others from the L.A. Rebellion and beyond) give a dignity to these performers, as well as to the characters that they portray on screen.
More than this, it presents to us a non-capitalist view of the world and of cinema – and one that is exemplary not just of a ‘socialist’ mindset (Charles Burnett as a would-be Marxist filmmaker making anti-capitalist films), but which also reflects the necessarily structural exclusion of Black people from that capitalist world – and from its regular cinema.
How is this so?
Well, if as suggested above the over-arching ethos of white western modernity is the sovereignty of the individual (personal liberty, individuality, greed), then the structure of modernity that allows for such sovereignty is in fact a racialised structure that allows for white sovereignty at the expense of Black ‘sovereignty.’
Figure it this way: the individualised white hero rescues the individualised white woman from the Black horde in numerous early movies. Thus the individuality of the white hero can only be made real if it is distinguished from the non-individuality of the non-white other (and even though the white woman is in this schema also reduced from being a subject to being a stake and/or an object in order to validate that white individual male hero, the non-white other is also structurally necessary here to make her believe that being an object is better than being outside of the subject-object binary entirely; to be an objectified white woman is ‘better’ than being Black and abject).
So… to be Black in white western modernity is to have no individuality, which is the preserve of whiteness alone.
But rather than offer to us a counter-claim to individuality – a movie with a Black hero/superhero – Burnett instead rejects the hero/superhero model altogether. He rejects individuality altogether. And in its place he offers to us a vision of a different kind of living – living not an atomised, alienated life, but living in a community.
To be clear: Blackness is excluded from individuality anyway. And in being excluded from modernity – and necessarily so, since it is that exclusion from modernity that makes whiteness itself ‘modern’ – Blackness necessarily lives ‘otherwise.’ But rather than have that exclusion imposed upon Blackness in the form of white supremacist (racist) films that depict the above-mentioned Black hordes, Burnett takes that exclusion and turns it positively into community.
In the language of the wonderful Fred Moten, to be Black is effectively to consent not to be a single being – with consent being the key term here. For, to consent not to be single is not to be shunted into the ghetto against one’s will – although this of course happens; it is, rather, to choose community, to choose contact with others, to choose not to be a single being.
And so the looks to the camera create community; rather than a cinema of individuality, Burnett gives to us a vision of a cinema that consents not to be single, and which asks us viewers also to consent to that.
Since cinema is a key tool in propagating the ethos of individuality (I want to be a film star; I want to be exceptional; I want to be a great movie director, etc –> self, self, self), the lack of budget in Burnett’s film is neither flaw, therefore, nor is it an obstacle ‘around which’ Burnett somehow skilfully managed to get. It is absolutely and structurally necessary that his film be ‘cheap’ – just as it is necessary for his actors to look at the camera. It demonstrates that they knowingly consent to be in this different kind of film; that they consent not to be a single being.
But let us not over-simplify Burnett’s film. For while the amazing shots that we see in Killer of Sheep are regularly crowded and involving people – especially children – piling on top of each other and touching each other – and not being single – so is Burnett’s film filled with harrowing ‘singles’ (shots featuring people on their own).
Is Burnett contradicting himself here, then – and do we see that any use of a ‘single’ demonstrates that he is not the communitarian filmmaker that I am claiming him to be?
No. For, Burnett’s film, in its tale of a man, Stan (Henry G. Sanders), who is struggling to make ends meet, and who is invited to commit a crime and to try various other schemes in order to survive, very clearly charts how even though to be Black is not to be single, there is nonetheless the pressure of living in a capitalist society bearing down on these characters – and that this pressure does indeed isolate them.
The tension between the group shots and the singles, then, is the very struggle for survival in Black America; for while to be single when white is a sign of empowerment, to be single when Black is to be isolated from the community – something that capital precisely needs to happen to prevent that Black horde from realising its own strength and taking power.
Killer of Sheep powerfully and skilfully, then, presents to us the impossibility of being Black and American: it is not to be single, but it is also to have forces weighing down on you that try to force you into not an empowered but a lost singularity – the singularity of depression and despair.
So Burnett does not present to us a Wakanda-style fantasy of Black empowerment; rather he presents to us a ‘reality’ of community coming together, but also being torn apart by the pressures of capital.
It is for this reason that various people consider Killer of Sheep to be a ‘realistic’ film. However, I wonder that the term is a bit misleading; for while it does indeed present to us a ‘reality,’ it nonetheless is an incredibly considered film.
Take, for example, the continual cuts between children playing and animals in the abattoir where Stan works. A form of montage that is straight out of Sergei M. Eisenstein (one thinks of the cut from the workers to the cow being slaughtered in Strike, USSR, 1925), this is expressive and abstract (it creates a metaphor rather than the ‘telling it like it is’ that we typically understand ‘realism’ to be), as it suggests to us that these kids – undifferentiated in the eyes of white western modernity – are lambs to the slaughter, heading for a world in which they will be alienated, alone.
Furthermore, there are frequent associations in the film between femininity and dogs. We first see Stan’s daughter, Angie (Angela Burnett), in one of the most striking images from all of cinema: in a dog mask. We hear dogs barking when we then see women in the street. And Stan’s wife (Kaycee Moore) first arrives on screen just as we hear the line ‘give a dog a bone’ from the nursery rhyme, ‘This Old Man.’
While some critics have perhaps rightly critiqued Burnett for giving short shrift to women in his film, I do not think his point is to make a derogatory comparison here between femininity and the canine. Rather, I think, Burnett wishes to demonstrate suggestively – expressively, via artifice rather than through ‘realism’ – that a woman’s life is a ‘dog’s life’ in Black America.
For, let us return to the mythos of the white male subject rescuing the white female object from the abject Black horde. The Black woman does not even feature in this schema. And so Burnett uses the canine to get at the ‘impossibility’ of Black femininity – as per the various conceptualisations of the same by writers like Michele Wallace, Evelynn Hammonds, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Rizvana Bradley and others. That is, while Blackness in the form of Black ‘masculinity’ is structurally ‘outside’ of white western modernity (subject-object-abject), Black femininity does not even feature (subject-object-abject-[animal-plant-]nothing; or, perhaps more accurately, subject-object-animal-plant-abject-nothing). Its, or her, very existence, then, is ‘impossible.’ And Killer of Sheep portrays this through the soundtrack.
Finally, I added in my introduction to the film that Killer of Sheep does not really have a coherent structure. Things happen episodically – meaning that there are one-off events that in a mainstream (white) film might lead somewhere and/or to which one might return. But in Killer of Sheep, single things happen, and they do not come back – and the centrality of Stan as the protagonist even kind of peters out as the film progresses.
For me, the way in which mainstream cinema ties up loose ends (there is little that is random, happens once and then never comes back) effectively demonstrates belief in a god who gives meaning to events – even if ‘bad’ ones. Or rather than belief in a god, it is cinema functioning as a way of inventing that self-same god in order to justify whiteness as the ‘chosen’ (or ‘supreme’) race (white supremacy).
To portray a universe in which stuff does not happen for a reason, in which that character does not come back because that incident in fact had a hidden meaning, in which there is a not an underlying structure to the world… is to give expression to how to be Black in America is to lead a ‘godless’ life.
This is a not a question of whether one believes in a god or not, or whether there really is a God or not. It is about how a ‘structured’ life in which things have meaning is a white creation for whiteness’ sake; hence white people harrumphing in an entitled fashion when things do not go their way and/or when they are confronted with chaos. And it is about how an ‘unstructured’ and ‘chaotic’ life in which things do not have meaning is the flip side of that ‘order’ – not a Black ‘creation’, but created for Blackness by a white structure in order to allow that white structure to exist as such. Whatever god it is that white people think blesses them with order, entitlement and privilege (however illusory this order at times proves to be*), that god does not exist for Black people, who are not blessed with order, entitlement and privilege, but their opposites.
And so even in its very ‘structurelessness,’ Killer of Sheep proves itself to be a magnificently profound film – and an incredible piece of work given that this was initially a student film. If only more students wanted to engage in such a political and philosophical way with their filmmaking – regardless of whether or not they have the gumption to shoot feature films instead of shorts while still studying (most students do not do this; they stick to shorts, hoping to make their way towards features later and when paid handsomely to do so and with big budgets – i.e. it is progress towards the affirmation of the self, self, self; it is what they have been told to do since birth; it bespeaks the demography of the university and/or film school).
While I might feel sad that Killer of Sheep was the only exemplar of the L.A. Rebellion on offer as part of Ragged Glory, the series in which it belonged, its inclusion is fabulous. And while it has inspired filmmakers like Skinner Myers and Merawi Gerima to go on and to make exceptional films about Black American life in the contemporary moment, I hope that it gets more screenings, more viewers (more than seven viewers) and that it brings about a different cinema and a different world – one in which we collectively consent not to be a single being, and to build finally a true world community worthy of the name.
In this sense, a film like Killer of Sheep is not great ‘despite’ its lack of budget – and there is no need to question what sort of film Burnett might ‘really’ make if ‘given’ (as if by a ‘god’) a bigger budget (with that budget thus functioning as a means to make Burnett bow before the god of capital). Killer of Sheep is thus not a ‘minor’ masterpiece as many would have it understood – perhaps including ‘major’ film theorists (who speak of ‘minor cinemas’ if not of minor masterpieces, exactly). The film is, rather, already and always the greatest cinema; it is the cinema of the future; it is not even ‘cinema’ as we typically know it. It gives to cinema a future – because it also gives to humanity a future. Killer of Sheep is a major piece of work. The greatest. Enjoy it.
(And for some more of Burnett’s great work, check out his brilliant short, When It Rains, USA, 1995, here – while it is still available.)
* When white privilege is revealed to be illusory, the insult is so great to whiteness’s sense of supremacy and entitlement that it often turns psychotic/murderous in response. This only reveals the psychosis that is whiteness in the first place, as argued by Kehinde Andrews, for example. Where on earth does this psychosis come from, and how can it be so ingrained in white people not only that they should always get their own way, but also that they even believe that have a ‘way’ that is specific to them in the first place? The very idea of them even having a ‘way’ – and that they are entitled to it – demonstrates that they are psychotic in their belief that they are special and ‘chosen’, that they are the true ‘subject,’ and that the world/universe exists ‘for’ them.
In 2021, I saw 520 films for the first time, of which 348 were feature films (60 minutes or longer), 19 were medium-length (40-60 minutes), 148 were short films (up to 40 minutes), and I also watched five shows in their entirety (as well as a number in part, but I only include here those that I saw in full).
This seems like a good tally to me, not least because this year has also seen me getting into parenthood for the first time. And this latter fact also contributed to the highly fragmented manner in which I watched a lot of films. But my present general feeling is that at least to watch in fragments is better than not to watch at all.
This end-of-year round-up will marry the qualitative (which films I liked) with the quantitative, most especially analysing my viewing habits and how my rating system sits alongside the ratings of the general populace. For, in the complete list provided at the end of this blog, you will see that I also noted the IMDb rating of each film as a point of comparison.
That said, while I shall include some observations about the films that I saw in 2021, both in general and in relation to individual and/or groups of films, I shall not alas be able to provide full comments, since this will take way more time than I have (see above for how childcare puts limits on the ability to commit time to projects like this one).
First of all, we can start with my rating system. As usual, I use a Halliwell-inspired rating system that goes from zero to four stars. I note that I am generally more generous than Halliwell, rarely giving zero stars. Indeed, in 2021, I gave zero stars to 17 films, of which 14 were features, with a further three films hovering somewhere between zero and one star.
I gave one star to 225 films, a rating that typically means that the film had something in it that I appreciated, if not much (I think that for Halliwell, one star is quite a good thing; for me, it can be, especially if the film is a small-scale and independent production, but it also often is – especially for mainstream films – a grudging star, whereby I recognise a good performance but did not like the whole film much at all, for example). There were a further 11 films that hovered somewhere between one and two stars, while 176 films got two stars, a rating that I would say is pretty good, and which signals by and large a film that I would recommend.
Eight films were somewhere between two and three stars, while 56 films got three stars straight – a rating that typically I would put among my proxime accessunt films. This number is high compared to usual, as is the number of films with somewhere between three and four stars (five films were very close to four stars but did not quite get there), and as is the number of films to which I gave four stars – 19 of them in total!
The list of films with three and four star ratings can wait until later, but I might just say that I did reserve for myself the right to reconsider my ratings and to have a ‘now’ and ‘then’ rating system – a score for just after I saw the film, and one for now, after some time has passed. And while some films get better with distance, I would say that most lose their lustre and would drop down a star or so. Nonetheless, while I thought I would go through and re-rate the films now, I in fact have not had time, so I am sticking with the original ranking and if that means that I rate highly a film that anyone else would find embarrassing, then that is just my hard candy.
With an overview of ratings out of the way, let us think about venues. I saw 31 films at the cinema in 2021, of which 18 were features and 13 shorts. This is way down on my non-pandemic film viewing (typically at least 150 films per year in theatres – and some years up at around 250 films). This is even down on the 50 or so films that I saw at the cinema in 2020 before and then as the pandemic got (properly) started.
Beyond that, I saw 2 films on aeroplanes, 8 on file or DVD, 17 on TV, and 462 online. No doubt the internet has become the major source of where I watch films, with the usual suspects of Netflix (32 films), Amazon Prime (20 films), Vimeo (43 films) and YouTube (28 films) being significant ‘content providers.’ That said, MUBI beats all of these with 74 films, and FestivalScope comes in a close second with 71 films, meaning that I have a far greater penchant for their fare (art house and/or festival films – if there is a difference) than the bigger budget works on those more mainstream platforms.
That said, if these providers are the most commonly used, I did in 2021 enjoy a watching a growing number of films selected online by the Vancouver International Film Festival (29 films, of which 16 during the Vancouver International Film Festival itself, and a further 13 as part of their year-round service).
What is more, websites like Aflamuna and the Mizna Film Series have been great sources for watching Arabic cinema, while the Menzies Screening Series has offered some very interesting Australian work, and Klassiki promised to be a great resource for Russian and other cinemas from the former Soviet Union – until it demanded a subscription fee. I should also mention King’s College London Film Studies and the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image as offering excellent curated selections, especially of Chinese cinemas and essay-films respectively. Meanwhile, Another Gaze has provided access to overlooked work by female filmmakers, especially the seasons of films by Cecilia Mangini and Palestinian filmmakers.
I might also mention that I have sporadically watched works on Disney+, iTunes/Apple TV, KinoNow and others, while e-flux, DA Films and Kanopy also provide very interesting curated selections, and I feel like I could (should?) take greater advantage of these latter sites in the future. I might also mention the Global Kurdish Film Festival as providing some real treats, as well as the selection of classic and foundational Asian American films put together in 2021 by My Sight is Lined With Visions.
Finally, I did watch a lot of films via FilmFreeway over my partner’s shoulder, since she was/is working (unpaid) as a programmer for a relatively major film festival.
As a wee table, I might note the following average star rating per online film provider, based upon those from whom I saw five or more films in 2021:-
Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image
Global Kurdish Film Festival
Portland International Film Festival
My Sight is Lined With Visions
Slamdance Film Festival
In some senses, there is not much in the scores here (they range from an average of 1.3 to an average of 2.2), and I am slightly surprised by how Amazon Prime scored about the same as MUBI (I would have guessed that MUBI would score higher), while not being so surprised that Netflix comes lower down. I would say that while FestivalScope does not fare that well here (average of 1.5 stars), I nonetheless like the service for the selection of films from contemporary festivals, even if many of them are pretty unremarkable.
I would also note that it is harder to achieve a high score if the number of films seen is much higher. That is, had I watched 74 films on Prime as I did on MUBI, I highly suspect that the Prime score would have dropped significantly, as would the Netflix score have dropped even more had I equally seen 74 films on Netflix.
That is, I only really watch stuff on places like Prime and Netflix that I want to watch; on MUBI and FestivalScope, meanwhile, as well as DA Films, I will effectively watch things without knowing anything about them. Some are not great, for sure, but I cannot and do not avoid the bad films as I do on Prime/Netflix, because I am venturing into the unknown (I typically know nothing about the film that I am about to see on FestivalScope). I may thus discover that a film on FestivalScope is bad (by which I mean ‘not to my taste’), but it is better that than knowing it is bad/that I won’t care that much for it in advance (as applies to so much fare on Netflix/Prime) and watching it anyway – a practice that I generally try to avoid. In short, I prefer watching bad films that are independent and/or from different parts of the world than to watching bad mainstream/big budget films.
Beyond these notes about online viewing, I definitely miss theatrical film viewing on a more regular basis, not least because it means one cannot watch films in the afore-decried fragmented fashion, although being a caregiver also has contributed greatly to the diminished number of trips to the cinema.
That said, while I know that I prefer the experience of the cinema as a venue, I do note that the number of films to which I gave zero stars is proportionally far higher for films that I saw at the cinema this year (5 out of 31; I gave zero stars to 17 films this year; there were 4 on Netflix and 2 on Amazon Prime).
This is in part a factor of how in the places where I had the chance to go to the movies, especially when in St Louis, Missouri, in the summer, there was not much in the way of art house, independent or non-western choices, and so schlocky western blockbusters became the primary diet. But it perhaps also is in part because when cinemas reopened after being closed for so long, the programming reverted to schlocky blockbusters in a bid to get people to go to the movies at all.
I might note that films to which I gave zero stars – and which also had a score on IMDb – achieved an average score on the IMDb of 6.4. Meanwhile, films to which I gave one star had an average score of 6.6 on IMDb. For two star films, the average IMDb score was 6.8. For three star films, the average IMDb score was 7.0. And for four star films, it was 7.3.
While this demonstrates that on the whole when I prefer a film so does the general public, I was secretly hoping that I would be championing films that the general public does not especially like. No doubt this is the case with regard to certain individual films, and I found myself constantly surprised by how the movie-going public preferred x film that I thought was rubbish to y film that I thought was excellent (and my unquantified perception of this is that if the filmmaker is a filmmaker of colour and/or their topic is race, then there is a tendency for the film to get a lower score than films by and/or about white people). All the same, it would seem that my tastes are pretty (and disappointingly!) conformist.
In terms of national provenance, and going only by the first named country in international co-productions, I this year saw 136 films from the USA, 55 films from the UK, 34 films from Canada and 32 from France. This means that the top three in terms of quantity are the same as last year (and in the same order), with China dropping down slightly. I notably saw fewer films from Japan, Brazil and Taiwan this year, but I did see a much greater number of films from France, India, South Korea and South Africa (although the high total for this latter country is largely a result of a number of shorts that I saw on Vimeo by the remarkable Penny Siopis).
What is more, I saw films from a wider range of countries this year (82 different countries, as opposed to 71 last year), including from a couple of countries from which I think I had never before seen a film, including Madagascar, the Netherlands Antilles (Curaçao to be more precise) and Sri Lanka.
Thinking regionally, the films that I saw break down as follows:-
Latin America & Caribbean
This involves a larger number of European films than in 2020 (when I saw 111 European films), as well as Asian films (growing from 76 to 106), with also a large growth of films from Africa (from 14 to 45), the MENA region (from 11 to 42), and with more or less the same number from Latin America and the Caribbean (from 31 to 30). Aside from North America (down from 193 to 170), only Oceania had fewer films (from 10 down to 7). But on the whole these figures do reflect a conscious attempt to watch fewer western films and more from other parts of the world.
Note that the MENA countries straddle Asia and Africa, and so the figures involve repetitions of films. I hope that this is okay. Furthermore, going through rough mental calculations, this also means that the majority of films that I saw in 2021 were non-anglophone.
Here is the complete ‘medal table’ of films seen by country:-
Democratic Republic of Congo
Central African Republic
Serbia and Montenegro
What is more, as the right-hand column indicates, I also have run some calculations on what the average score is per country. Here, taking only countries from which I saw 5 or more films, the USA drops significantly down the table (from top to fifteenth position), although, as per the figures for films from different online providers, it is of course harder to achieve a high score the more films one sees from that country.
Nonetheless, the runaway winner in the average score stakes is India, averaging an exceptional 3.13 stars per film. Indeed, Indian cinema was for me the complete revelation of 2021, in terms of both older films (by the likes of Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal and Mani Kaul) and newer films (especially Chaitanya Tamhane), with numerous being either four or three stars in my rating system.
Thinking about older films, I managed to see only one film from the 1910s this year (Lois Weber’s Hypocrites from 1915; this compares with two films from the 1910s last year), with five films from the 1920s (compared to two in 2020), two from the 1930s (three in 2020), none from the 1940s (also none in 2020), only one from the 1950s (down from 8 in 2020), 12 from the 1960s (up from 8 in 2020), 18 from the 1970s (down from 20), 14 from the 1980s (down from 15), 15 from the 1990s (down from 16), 22 from the 2000s (compared to 19 in 2020), 153 from the 2010s, and 277 from the 2020s, of which 128 were from 2020 and 149 from 2021.
I would like to watch more older films – and the 1940s seems really to be a blindspot of mine, although in all honesty, I am not sure when I would find time to watch them, not least because overall I think that I should watch less, and want to be able to make more.
In terms of work by individual filmmakers, there were several people by whom I saw two films, with mention going to Trinh T. Minh-ha (thanks to a retrospective on DA Films), Yılmaz Güney (Global Kurdish Film Festival), Razan AlSalah and Jumana Manna (Another Gaze), my new colleagues at the University of British Columbia Antoine Bourges and Jessica Johnson, my former student at New York University Abu Dhabi Andrea Yu-Chieh Chung, my friends Ilkka Levä and Maryam Tafakory, the clearly brilliant Yoshishige Yoshida and Agustina Comedí, and the incomparable Lav Diaz, about whom a book was published this year, and which includes an essay by me.
With three or more films were Buster Keaton (about whom I also have a book forthcoming), Khavn de la Cruz (about whom I have written in several places), the highly productive Chloë Zhao (although none quite hit the mark for me this year, even as I raved about The Rider a few years back), and the excellent female trio of Garrett Bradley (her older shorts, including the excellent America), Larissa Sansour (a retrospective from the Mizna Film Series) and Paula Gaitán (DA Films again). I might mention Jon Rafman’s work, which is weird, unsettling and brilliant. And finally, I also saw a good amount of very strong work from Steve McQueen (three from his Small Axe series, and then his masterful Uprising – all on Amazon Prime).
I saw and will note a still-growing and very strong amount of indigenous filmmaking from both Canada, the USA and elsewhere, even as I did not manage to see the highly-regarded Reservation Dogs (one to try to catch in 2022).
I seemed to notice Dan Stevens, Rebecca Hall and Ryan Reynolds much more in 2021, while recurrent themes included mushrooms, pigs, fires, island life, mud, incest and lockdown – about much of which I hope in a scholarly context to write in due course, as well as octopuses, about which I have recently written in a scholarly context with David H Fleming.
There was much imitation of Godard (generally in a good way) and much imitation of Malick (generally in a cheap way), as well as a turn to the ‘theatrical’ in various Black Atlantic productions (The Inheritance, Ear for Eye, Malcolm & Marie and more).
On a personal note, I might mention that I was deeply saddened in 2021 to learn of the passing of Anthony Smith, who during his time had played crucial roles in Channel 4, the British Film Institute and other institutions within the British media industries, and with whom I spent a number of years as a student during his tenure as President of Magdalen College, Oxford.
Tony played a key role in my film life in various ways – some of which were unclear to me at the time. While my passion for cinema had ignited before going to Magdalen as an undergraduate in 1995, the fires were nonetheless stoked by the impressive collection of videos that the college had already accrued by then, and through which I ploughed with great enthusiasm during my studies – at times being a more or less permanent fixture in the Junior and/or Middle Common Rooms, where I would watch film after film, much to the annoyance of other students who went there to play pool and/or to watch Neighbours.
Furthermore, Tony was also responsible for building the Auditorium at Magdalen, where for a couple of years during my doctoral studies in the mid-2000s I ran a very busy film society that in the end became the biggest at the whole of Oxford University, regularly showing half a dozen or more films a week, including various screenings of films on film, including early silent movies that could be screened on what at that time was the UK’s only remaining functional variable speed projector (i.e. you could project a 16 frames per second film at 16 frames per second, as well as 24 fps film at 24 fps, etc). A great encouragement especially in the latter endeavour, neither of these would have been possible without Tony.
What is more, Tony was always encouraging (of) my filmmaking, having taken the time to read some of my earlier movie scripts, and coming to screenings of my work in both Oxford and London when he had the opportunity. His support was of great importance to me, especially the way in which he imbued me with self-belief that I often feel that I lack (asking me, for example, why I was not forging a successful career as a screenwriter, since he felt that I could or should be doing this, or at least spoke of it as if it were so; while I still have effectively zero success as a commercial screenwriter, I nonetheless take heart that someone out there – and someone with the experience and knowledge of Tony Smith – could see that I had (and of course still have) the potential to achieve my professional ambitions).
I remained in touch with Tony until his death. When I was living in London, we regularly would watch films at either the BFI or the ICA (and sometimes at an Odeon or the Picturehouse Central), and especially at his old manor, the BFI, Tony would encounter people he knew, including one time Jeremy Irons, with whom Tony and I shared a drink and a chat – mainly about TS Eliot, if memory serves. Furthermore, after leaving for Canada, I did correspond with him semi-regularly, and had just written to him to ask his thoughts on Terence Davies’ Benediction (for me, a very ‘Tony Smith’ film; I thought Jack Lowden continues to be excellent) when I soon after heard of his passing.
I was particularly moved when I saw a picture during his funeral of Tony as a young man – a press pass that reportedly he had made for a visit to Vietnam during the latter stages of the conflict there in the 1970s, and while he was working, I believe, at the BBC. I was struck by a sense of Tony looking like Jean-Luc Godard, especially with his shaded glasses and slightly curling dark hair. Godard – in many ways the biggest aesthetic influence on my filmmaking, and an aspirational figure for me. Smith – in many ways the biggest practical influence on my filmmaking and cinephilia, and an inspirational figure for me. Their marriage in this picture seems wholly fitting to me, and I miss Tony immensely (while also acknowledging that there is so much more to say about this remarkable man).
Maybe it is a nicely fitting personal tribute to say that in 2021 I did get to go to Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood and to see work that I had written being played on a huge screen in front of an audience of about 250 people – the film in question being Mila Zuo’s KIN., which was screening as part of the HollyShorts Film Festival 2021. While I hope that this is nothing like the height or end of my career, I would nonetheless like to dedicate this wee achievement to Tony Smith, who continues to influence me and many others, and whose example of encouragement and belief I hope to reproduce. Indeed, if I can match even a jot of Tony’s decency, then I hope that mine will have been a life well led. His was led in a most exemplary fashion.
And so now to the films of the year, starting with my proxime accessunt three star films and my films that hover both somewhere between two and three stars (not least because Zola is a film that I think I would in hindsight bump up to three stars) and those that hover somewhere between three and four stars. Of these, there are 69 films:-
Uprising (Steve McQueen and James Rogan, UK, 2021)
I might penultimately note that I saw 21 of the 50 films listed in Sight & Sound magazine as their films of the year. Ten of them are in the three- and four-star lists above (Sound of Metal, Beginning, Limbo, Minari, The Father, Zola, Bad Luck Banging, Judas and the Black Messiah and Pig get three stars; Ear for Eye gets four stars), meaning that 11 of them did not impress me so much (with even a three star film not necessarily making my own top 20 or even top 50).
While I am looking forward to seeing various/all of the 29 films in their list that I have not seen (and, indeed, 2021 was a year that for me was/is marked by a good number of films that I did not get a chance to see, even as it is of course marked by the ones that I did), I might note both how their list is primarily western and primarily white. But really, also, just how mainstream it is. Not ‘mainstream’ in the sense that it features films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, exactly; but rather in that it features standard festival favourite films, with no real surprises in there at all. It is as if the journal’s critics basically all watch the same films at the same festivals, and/or on the same websites, and that they chose their top 50 from a collective total of about 100 films that they had seen. It’s a good list. But it is so safe…
Maybe my list is also, upon reflection, very safe. But I take the opportunity to note that I want to break out of this safety if possible.
Perhaps what I am saying is that having seen what gets chosen in these end-of-year lists, and having also observed what gets selected (and how) at some pretty big festivals, I think that I have in the back of my mind some future programming of my own; not taste-making in the sense of putting into an ordered list the films that have already been curated by the main film festivals and a few others; rather, taste-making in the sense of bringing in and giving time and space to completely different films.
Doing this successfully is likely as probable as this blog post reaching a wide audience. So perhaps I am just pipe-dreaming, trying to self-promote via some backstabbing of Sight & Sound, and generally howling like a lone wolf in the night. But all the same… as everyone thinks that they know more and better about cinema than everyone else, so, too, do I maybe suffer from – and here indulge – that delusion from time to time.
Finally, a complete list of films that I saw in 2021 is attached, should it be at all of interest:-
I did not do a Films of the Year of 2019. At the time, I thought that it would involve some distasteful self-promotion, by which I mean that at times I think that to blog at all is mere self-promotion, as well as possibly a masturbatory practice in that no one cares to know my thoughts on films (and so why do it in public?).
All the same, with that fear put aside for the time being, I am doing a kind of ’round-up’ of films that I saw for the first time in 2020, which will include those that I thought were most strong, and some other thoughts/observations, which will range from being about my viewing habits to things that I noticed/thought/liked/disliked. This might make this post a bit random, and at times a work of ‘mere opinion’. I hope that this is okay.
On a further note, I also include a lot of the short films that I saw this past year, but not all of them. And the list includes for the first time a number of the television/streaming shows that I saw.
And so it is that I saw 468 films for the first time in 2020. I thought that this was a lot, but looking back on 2019, I notice that in that year I saw 454 films for the first time, and in 2018, I saw 407. So while there has been a slight increase, the number of films remains roughly consistent. And if we wanted to put the increase down to anything, it would be a result of the increased amount of time spent at home/not interacting with others as a result of COVID-19.
The massive sea change that has taken place, though, is the reduction in the number of films that I have seen at the cinema, and the large increase in the number of films that I have seen online. For, in 2020, I saw a ‘mere’ 47 films at the cinema (compared to 237 in 2019), while also seeing 11 on DVD/file (21 in 2019), 13 on television and/or PayTV (0 in 2019), and 11 on aeroplanes (17 in 2019). All of these are dwarfed by the 386 films that I saw online (compared to 179 in 2019).
I do not include in my list of films the movies that I watched as part of the fabulous Small File Media Festival, run by, among others, Laura U Marks of Simon Fraser University. Many of these were micro-films of barely a minute in duration.
But while there is surely much more to say about those films than the mere mention that I give to them here, evoking the Small File Media Festival also allows me to mention how Marks has been charting/estimating the carbon footprint of watching films in high definition and/or 4K at home – and the numbers are not pretty.
I am not sure how home consumption of films compares to theatrical consumption, but overall the former will be more detrimental to the planet per person, since far fewer people attend home screenings than do (at least in principle) theatrical screenings. That is, home viewing is far more energy intense, and thus likely involves a bigger carbon footprint.
As we continue to watch movies at home as a result of the pandemic, and as viewing habits perhaps shift permanently away from theatres (a trend that was already taking place, but which now has intensified as a result of COVID-19), then bearing this issue in mind must be of great importance… and you can read some of Professor Marks’ work on calculating and mitigating your streaming carbon footprint here.
Where normally I just keep a list of films and their directors, this year I have also kept a note of their year and primary country of production (many are co-productions, but I basically have gone by the first named country if indeed a given film is a co-production).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of films that I saw were from the 2010s (259 films), with films from the 2020s coming also perhaps an obvious second (113 films). [It stands to reason that I saw more films from 2019 in 2020 than I saw films from 2020, because there is/will always be a lag between production and distribution/exhibition.)
I otherwise saw 19 films from the 2000s, 16 films from the 1990s, 15 films from the 1980s, 20 films from the 1970s, 8 films from the 1960s, 8 films from the 1950s, 0 films from the 1940s, 3 films from the 1930s, 2 films from the 1920s, and 2 films from the 1910s.
This clear bias for contemporary films seems a shame to me, not least because, ultimately, I feel I watched a lot of crap this year, especially some thoroughly mediocre films that seemed to merit my attention because streaming, when I likely would not have watched such films had I the usual choice of work in theatres.
To assert the latter – that I typically have a strong selection of films in theatres – bespeaks how lucky I am that London is/has become a major film hub – and the pandemic has only made me miss institutions like the ICA, the BFI, and others, as playing a key role in my life. Furthermore, places like the Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image (BIMI) are clearly of great value culturally both to me and to the city in general, and I should highlight Timité Bassori’s La femme au couteau (Côte d’Ivoire, 1969) as one of the true pleasures that I had at the theatre in 2020 – and which I saw at BIMI.
If London is a major film hub, it also in 2020 became no longer my home, as I moved from the UK to Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, in order to live with my partner, who at the start of the pandemic discovered that she was pregnant, about which more later.
Being in Vancouver during the Canadian equivalent of lockdown (not as prolonged or intense as in London) has meant that I have not discovered the city or its cinemas as much as I would like, and perhaps it is unfair to say straight off that Vancouver does not seem to have the diversity of offerings that London does (with Paris having an even greater diversity than London), because I may yet discover (and/or be part of!) a range of offerings hitherto unknown to me.
That said, I have attended in 2020 (and on earlier visits) screenings at both the University of British Columbia and Marks’ Simon Fraser University, and which have featured films that I might not otherwise see in regular theatres, this year including Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (Canada, 2020), a noteworthy post-apocalyptic zombie film in which First Nations inhabitants are immune to, and enjoy killing off those zombified by, the plague of the living dead.
I shall come back to First Nations films in a bit, but I might also mention how I have ventured to the VIFF Centre and the Cinemathèque also in Vancouver, seeing in particular the Dardenne Brothers’ Le jeune Ahmed (Belgium/France, 2019) at the latter, and I hope that in the fullness of time these can become firm favourites, with other independent theatres like the Rio similarly having given me the opportunity to see things like Les Misérables (Ladj Ly, France, 2019) and Fantastic Fungi (Louie Schwartzberg, USA, 2019).
What is more, since Vancouver enjoys a large Asian population, it seems clear that one can also see a range of Asian films at the cinema, as was the case for me this year with Feng Xiaogang’s Only Cloud Knows (China, 2019) and Yellow Rose (Diane Paragas, Philippines/USA, 2019).
In addition to the VIFF’s physical VanCity theatre, the VIFF (Vancouver International Film Festival) was also online this year, and, buying a festival pass, I surely got to see a good number of newer films that otherwise I might not have seen.
Perhaps needless to say, the shift to online film festivals this year means that in addition to VIFF and the Small File Media Festival, I have also enjoyed offerings from various other places, perhaps most notably the We Are One Festival on YouTube, a joint venture between 21 different fleshworld festivals, and which, in 2020 at least, offered up a range of non-premiere (or rarely premiere) work, but which nonetheless made for some good experiences, for example Fradique’s Ar condicionado (Angola, 2020).
I lamented above that I feel like I have watched more ‘crap’ in 2020 because alternative work is not showcased. And yet, since the internet is supposed to have everything that you could look for, it seems odd that I might say this. For surely there is nowhere that is as diverse as the internet for finding films.
And yet, what seems/seemed clear to me with a renewed intensity in 2020 is the importance of gatekeepers and curators. I have followed up on and chased down all manner of films in 2020, viewing stuff via the usual suspects (Netflix, Amazon Prime, MUBI), as well as taking out at least temporary subscription to places like OVID (and then leaving after seeing most of the content that appealed to me, and which I had not seen before; in particular this included being able to see Wang Bing’s monumental documentary, Dead Souls, China, 2018; Hôtel Terminus: Klaus Barbie, sa vie et son temps, Marcel Ophuls, USA, 1988; some shorter work by John Akomfrah; and finally the third part of Patricio Guzmán’s Battle of Chile, Chile/Cuba/Venezuela, 1979). I have also benefited from an institutional subscription to Kanopy, while of course also watching films on Vimeo, including Vimeo on Demand, and YouTube, including films released via YouTube/Google. This is not to mention various other online archives, nor iTunes, to which I equally turn on occasion if the title is right.
But across all of these, I have been browsing and/or tracking down titles. That is, I read about a film via a news story or what have you, and then I need to go and find out where to see it. Or, conversely, I hear that a.n. cinema, gallery, university or other is hosting an online screening of x or y film, and so I go to that venue for a single visit.
What to me seems clearly missing, however, is a single venue where one can go for the latest arthouse releases. MUBI comes closest to this, but a lot of the material that it shows is ‘archival’ (i.e. not new). Don’t get me wrong; I love MUBI, but it is not the same as the ICA, where three or four times a week I could physically watch a new film, generally ‘arthouse,’ and basically I’d trust that it would be halfway decent or worth watching because the ICA had decided to program it.
The VIFF may come to be closest to that in Vancouver, especially as it tries to rollout its festival year round. But even then, I think that its programming is less adventurous than that of the ICA going by what was selected for this year’s festival (much as I appreciated what I did see at the VIFF this year).
Now, I am not trying to sound ‘arsey’ or pompous by saying that the ICA hosts ‘arthouse’ films. But I mention its programming/curation specifically because I am not lacking for mainstream films online. Netflix and Prime both have their own productions, as well as hosting films from other studios, while HBO Max, iTunes, Optic, Disney+ and other venues allow me to see the full range of mainstream movies, even as studios have been withholding a lot of titles as they work out whether or not theatres are a safe option.
I will always be able to see those bigger movies. But being able to see a full world of cinema… that is what seems lacking, and a site that brings together and hosts the latest in world cinema – a bit like what MUBI is doing now, but with an emphasis on the contemporary – is what I think I miss most sorely about the ‘new normal’ of majority-online film viewing. Hunting for films can be fun; but time also becomes an issue – and especially if one has to take out a new subscription to a site, meaning that in addition to the one film that one wants to watch, one feels obliged to watch other material on that site… perhaps simply because it is there.
The issue of access to world cinema becomes clear to me when I consider where the films come from that I saw in 2020. The ‘medal table’ is as follows (with, for the sake of simplicity, co-productions being defined by the first named country only):-
Broken down into regions, I have seen films as follows (with there being some overlap and repetition below across Africa, MENA and Asia):-
North America – 193
Europe – 111
Asia – 76
Latin America & Caribbean – 31
Kurdistan – 21
Africa – 14
MENA – 11
Oceania – 10
(I wish to note that Kurdistan has a separate entry here because I was a juror for the London Kurdish Film Festival 2020, and so saw various films from the Kurdish region(s).)
While I think that the numbers of films that I have seen from Asia and perhaps also Latin America are respectable, it seems clear that online film viewing, especially with what the major streaming services offer (and even more especially with how difficult it is to search through them for non-western fare), is an overwhelmingly Eurocentric affair.
I am ashamed that I have only seen two Iranian films this year (including one short), and I am also appalled that I have only managed 1 Russian film. I feel like I normally see much more from, say, Portugal, Romania, Spain, South Korea, Turkey, Argentina and Mexico in a given year, even as this year has been (relatively) good for my viewing of Taiwanese, Brazilian, Japanese and Canadian films.
And so while I love it that Netflix randomly had the back catalog of Youssef Chahine turn up among its titles this year (accounting for 2 of the 3 Egyptian movies I saw in 2020), and while I know that I can find archives of Korean (and probably Russian, Argentine, and Mexican films) online, it is the fact that these are not brought together that leads to the imbalances. If you will, I guess I want/need someone to take care of my movie diet for me – hence my emphasis on the importance of curation/programming – rather than me having to source everything myself.
Indeed, a case in point would be the Iranian movies. This year I bought a subscription to IMVBox, and so in principle I can see as many Iranian films as I want – from classics to more recent ones. However, I have not seen a single film yet via this service. In part, this is because I continue to get sidetracked into watching ‘crap’ on Netflix, and so mea culpa.
But it also is due to the fact that having to get to yet another website, and then having to browse it to find something that I want to watch (from among IMVBox’s own swathes of ‘crap’ – with all due respect to Iranian filmmakers) just becomes too much work to do.
I understand that this is a First World problem (how can one get more ‘First World’ than complaining about one’s lack of access to work from the ‘developing world’?). But in order to address the hegemony of the West, and in order to resist the general ‘crap’ that Netflix and Amazon Prime put out there, there needs to be a site that brings together the best in world cinema.
FestivalScope is perhaps the site that is the beacon of hope for this, and I have watched a decent number of films on that site. But a) it is not a site that is readily accessible, in that one has to demonstrate a connection to the professional film world, and b) its selection is wonderful, but it also regularly very ‘dour’, it contains a large number of films, and there is no internal curation to help you pick them apart with any particular ease. Perhaps the perfect site would be a hybrid of the curational stye of MUBI – mixing ‘high’ and ‘low’ – and the emphasis on the contemporary of FestivalScope (and in some respects similar sites like DAFilms).
At this point, I might also mention how Dr Leshu Torchin at the University of St Andrews in some way stepped up to this would-be plate by (meta-)curating a series of playlists, in many instances of movies to be found online, and which did indeed spark a great deal of enjoyment for me.
While my viewing has been dominated by western films in 2020, I might say that from within these spaces, I have nonetheless watched a lot of what we might call ‘decolonising’ cinema. In part this was spurred by the efforts of places like the Criterion Channel in making available classic African-American films in the wake of the revitalised Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd, and also as a result of the concerted effort by VIFF to programme First Nations movies. I should perhaps also here mention how I saw a few First Nations films at the Cinema at the End of the World symposium organised by Dr Mila Zuo at UBC in February, where I saw the afore-mentioned Blood Quantum.
Some of the First Nations films are, dare I say it, hit and miss; I did not personally care for VIFF’s opener, Monkey Beach (Loretta Todd, Canada, 2020), nor The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw (Shelley Niro, Canada, 2019), which screened at the Cinema at the End of the World.
The latter in particular is about a woman who has just turned 25, and so its title is mathematically ‘off’, in that the film is about Mitzi’s 26th year, and not her 25th. However, such pedantry on my part does lead me to wonder that my insistence on mathematics misses the ‘untimeliness’ of the First Nations movie, in the sense of considering the western world from an outsider’s perspective, as well as my imposition on to the film of my own ‘mathematical’ and western sense of measurement and calculation.
It has been contested that the world ended for Native Americans many centuries ago, in that the arrival of white settlers marked an apocalypse of genocide, illness and displacement. Now that the white west is worried about the ‘end of the world’ as our ecology collapses, what really is revealed is its ongoing delusion that its own experience is universal. As we reach a world of ‘aftermath,’ then, perhaps it is the ‘aftermathematics’ of Mitzi Bearclaw that is what we need, but I am too stymied by my ‘mathematical’ thinking to let this be so.
And so it is with the ‘cheesey’ aesthetics of Monkey Beach and Mitzi Bearclaw. I find the films mawkish, and much prefer the more austere offerings of, say, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, Canada/Norway, 2019), or the historical dramatisation of real-world events depicted in Beans (Tracey Deer, Canada, 2020). But again, this is perhaps my own prejudice at work, and maybe we need the ‘sweet’ style of these films in order to accomplish a better world.
As it was a great pleasure to watch a number of films by indigenous filmmakers, including from Canada, the USA and Brazil (for example, Apiyemiyeki?, Ana Vaz, Brazil/France/Portugal/Netherlands, 2020 – a film mentioned by various others in their Films of the Year lists), so was it also a great pleasure to watch various landmarks and forgotten pieces of Black American cinema – with numerous being excellent, including (in chronological order): The Girl from Chicago (Oscar Micheaux, USA, 1932), Lying Lips (Oscar Micheaux, USA, 1939), The Story of the Three Day Pass (Melvin Van Peebles, France, 1968), Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (William Greaves, USA, 1968), Watermelon Man (Melvin Van Peebles, USA, 1970), The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, USA, 1973), Abar: Black Superman (Frank Packard, USA, 1977), Bush Mama (Haile Gerima, USA, 1979), Cane River (Horace B. Jenkins, USA, 1982), Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, USA, 1982), Bless Their Little Hearts (Billy Woodberry, USA, 1983), The Killing Floor (Bill Duke, USA, 1984), She’s Gotta Have It (Spike Lee, USA, 1986), Sidewalk Stories (Charles Lane, USA, 1989), New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, USA, 1991), Menace II Society (The Hughes Brothers, USA, 1993), Surviving The Game (Ernest R Dickerson, USA, 1994) and Down in the Delta (Maya Angelou, USA, 1998).
These joined a few recent landmark achievements in Black American cinema that I got to see, including Strong Island (Yance Ford, USA/Denmark, 2017), Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas, USA/Canada, 2019), The Forty-Year-Old Version (Radha Blank, USA, 2020), Time (Garrett Bradley, USA, 2020) and The Sleeping Negro (Skinner Myers, USA, 2021).
Indeed, I would place The Sleeping Negro and Time as two of my top top films of the year, with Skinner Myers’ film in particular being a revelation. Having seen the film somewhat by chance, I can only recommend that viewers seek it out; and I might add that one place to see it that I know of is at the forthcoming Slamdance Film Festival.
On this topic, I might note that the UK also had a strong year for Black film and television production, with I May Destroy You (Micaela Coel, UK/USA, 2020) being perhaps the stand-out television show, and Steve McQueen’s Mangrove (UK, 2020) and Lovers Rock (UK, 2020) also being superb. Alongside these I might recommend Remi Weekes’ His House (UK, 2020), as well as Onyeka Igwe’s short experimental piece, The Names Have Changed Including My Own and Truths Have Been Altered (UK, 2020).
Furthermore, I would like also to make a special mention for Juliet Ellis’ Ruby (UK, 2020), which is an extraordinary film made for £20,000 about a young girl and her seemingly sleeping mother, and which was made in Sheffield and Cleethorpes, having been rejected by funding bodies for having ‘no commercial value.’ For me, it is the best British film of the year, and also in my top top movies. The sort of cinema that really needs to be preserved and encouraged.
In addition to Black British and Black American films, I also managed to catch a few Asian American movies and shows, with Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing (USA, 1982) being for me a wonderful masterpiece.
And another underdog production worth lauding is Congolese rapper Baloji’s Zombies (DRC/Belgium, 2019), which in its short running time shows as much innovation and ideas as, say, Black is King (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Emmanuel Adjei, Ibra Ake, Blitz Bazawule, Kwasi Fordjour, USA, 2020).
Perhaps predictably, the UK also produced one of the worst films that I have seen about race in 2020, namely Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers’ A Brixton Tale (UK, 2020), which reproduces some of the worst myths about Blackness, and which sees a completely unrealistic Brixton fetishised through a white girl’s lens as exotic and gritty.
And while I don’t typically like to bad-mouth any film production, since I know from experience how hard it is to make a film and also how hard it is to control a film’s production, I mention this because I have noted that A Brixton Tale has also been selected this year for Slamdance.
The point I wish to make, then, is that for all of the good work that the Slamdance programmers have done in selecting The Sleeping Negro, which is perhaps the best film that I saw in 2020, that they select alongside it a film as inept in its treatment of racial politics as A Brixton Tale only goes to show that festival programmers sometimes do not have the wherewithal to know what they are looking at, with their ability to pick films about pressing issues such as race being as good as chance, rather than based on any astute analytical skills. And I would consider Slamdance to be a major festival. Given how many entries festivals get these days, and given how few films ultimately Slamdance is screening, it seems particularly a poor choice to screen such a film, thereby undoing the good work of selecting The Sleeping Negro, and indeed undermining their own claims to be making meaningful or progressive contributions to cinematic discussions of race.
I have situated the prominence of Black film in the UK and the USA alongside the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the death of George Floyd. This is not to overlook films from other parts of the world that deal with race (for me, two of note that I saw in 2020 are Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, Jamaica/USA, 2018, and Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, Portugal, 2019). But I might also mention that following the angry-making execution of death row inmate Brandon Bernard, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy (USA, 2019) also seems a film to have taken on a renewed timeliness.
And 2020 cannot but be remembered for the passing of, among others, Chadwick Boseman. Seeing him play a ghost in in Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee, USA, 2020) was indeed chilling, even as that was one of several films and shows to give the Vietnamese pretty short shrift in 2020 (Watchmen, Damon Lindelof, USA, 2020, being another case in point, much as I otherwise enjoyed it). While his soliloquy against god in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, USA, 2020) is of such power seeing it after his passing, that really it does become a performance with what Roland Barthes might call punctum. I’d not be surprised if that turn in particular lands Boseman a posthumous Academy Award.
It also felt sad to say good bye to Irrfan Khan, an actor whom I have loved since I first saw him in A Mighty Heart (Michael Winterbottom, USA/UK, 2007), where he acted everyone off the screen. I managed to see two films with him in 2020, the thoroughly mediocre Puzzle (Marc Turteltaub, USA, 2018) and the better Qarib Qarib Singlle (Tanuja Chandra, India, 2017). He plays eccentric lovers in both, and is completely amiable in both, but it seems a shame that in the former his much more interesting story is overshadowed by the hackneyed struggles of domestic life embodied by Kelly McDonald.
With Winterbottom in mind, it was pleasing as always to see Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon together again in his Trip to Greece (UK, 2020), which constitutes the original comedians- and/or karaoke singers-in-cars show, and which remains superior to all that have followed (and I suspect that Coogan would make for a significantly more entertaining companion than most of the people that Jerry Seinfeld decides to reveal as pretty boring in his coffee-driven Netflix show).
Sacha Baron Cohen had a busy 2020, appearing in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Jason Woliner, UK/USA, 2020) as well as The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin, USA/UK/India, 2020), in which he was in particular very good. These screenings accompanied my first-time viewing of earlier turns from him in The Dictator (Larry Charles, USA, 2012) and The Brothers Grimsby (Louis Leterrier, UK/USA, 2016). As a note, though, while The Chicago 7 had various pleasures, the superior courtroom drama of 2020 was for me Steve McQueen’s Mangrove.
Among the various actors who seem to have had a good year, I might mention Gina Rodríguez, who stood out in the otherwise mediocre Someone Great (Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, USA, 2019), and who in Kajillionaire (Miranda July, USA, 2020) was forced to play second fiddle to Evan Rachel Wood’s well-acted but otherwise wilfully quirky and white Old Dolio Dyne. Indeed, women of colour playing second fiddle to, or absent from the world of, white women seemed to be a common theme in films from 2020 – with movies like Babyteeth (Shannon Murphy, Australia, 2019) and System Crasher (Nora Fingscheidt, Germany, 2019) validating the (blonde) white girl as perhaps the stake of the future, posited by the latter film as a ‘system crasher,’ when in fact they are the beating heart of the (contemporary world, i.e. modern capitalist) system.
Some of the films about white women were better than others, with The Assistant (Kitty Green, USA, 2019) perhaps standing out, with this viewer not being as taken as others by Bombshell (Jay Roach, Canada/USA, 2019), Swallow (Carlo Mirabella-Davis, USA/France, 2019), Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman, USA/UK/Germany, 2019) or The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, Canada/Australia/USA, 2020) – even as these films did have their merits.
Kristen Stewart perhaps gets a special mention as a performer whom I like a lot, but who appeared in a string of pretty forgettable films this past year, and in which her whiteness is at times core, including Underwater (William Eubank, USA, 2020), Seberg (Benedict Andrews, UK/USA, 2019) and Happiest Season (Clea DuVall, USA/Canada, 2020). While the latter is relatively pleasant in its depiction of coming out, its chief point of interest is the under-used Daniel Levy (from Schitt’s Creek), and whom I hope to see in many more films.
Indeed, in the year of ‘Karen,’ it seems as though the white-women-focused narrative seemed slightly off-kilter, and I might mention that White Chicks (Keenen Ivory Wayans, USA, 2004) seemed an appropriate film to watch for the first time.
It was also pleasing to see women taking the helm for otherwise average blockbusters like Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (Cathy Yan, USA, 2020), The Old Guard (Gina Prince-Blythewood, USA, 2020) and the disappointing Mulan (Niki Caro, USA/Canada/Hong Kong, 2020), with my estimation in 2019 already being that it is a sign of strength – at least in some respects – when women are as able to make, and do make, as basic films as men do.
That is, women directors – like directors of colour and indigenous filmmakers (as also suggested in the discussion of Mitzi Bearclaw above) – should always have jobs making not just the best films, but films from across the spectrum of quality or, put differently, making films for different audiences, with different budgets and so on.
I mean, I wish that every film could be a masterpiece and that there were no disappointments, or that there were not even merely forgettable films; but if there are going to be all of these types of film, then who gets to make them should be distributed equitably.
That said, of the 468 films that I saw for the first time in 2020, only 116 were directed by women, with a further 22 being made by male-female directing teams/collaborators. With a handful of films made by trans/non-binary directors, this nonetheless left the vast of majority of films being directed by men, or groups of men.
Of course, this could reflect my choices of films to watch rather than the state of the various industries from which I saw enough films to get a sense of the gender (im)balance in terms of directors. But really, I think that this reflects the ongoing gender bias in terms of few women getting to direct movies.
All the same, a number of films by women did stand out, as per various listed above (Yellow Rose, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Beans, Queen & Slim, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Time, I May Destroy You, Ruby and The Assistant).
And to this list I might in no particular order add the notable A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller, China/USA, 2019), A Febre (Maya Da-Rin, Brazil/France/Germany, 2019), Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Céline Sciamma, France, 2019), Mignonnes (Maïmaouna Ducouré, France, 2019), Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, USA, 2020), First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2019), Present.Perfect (Shengze Zhu, China/Hong Kong/USA, 2019), Little Joe (Jessica Hausner, Austria/UK/Germany/France, 2019), and Honey Boy (Alma Ha’rel, USA, 2019).
Should it seem that I am picking unduly on the narrative focused on the (bland) white female character, I should add that there are plenty of films that do the same with white male characters, although again there were some good exceptions to this, including Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie, USA, 2019), True History of the Kelly Gang (Justin Kurzel, Austala/UK/France, 2019), Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands, 2020), Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, Italy/France/Germany, 2019) and Siberia (Abel Ferrara, Italy/Germany/Greece/Mexico, 2019).
That said, watching older American ‘mumblecore’ films by the likes of Joe Swanberg and Nathan Silver this year, I did come to think that they seem dated now, not least in their whiteness, which in the language of Kehinde Andrews constitutes a psychosis (a term that Andrews uses in relation to Amma Asante’s Belle, UK, 2013, a film I also saw for the first time in 2013). And yet, mumblecore has produced a couple of playful takes on precisely psychotic whiteness, as evidenced in the two Creep films that I saw this year by Patrick Brice (USA, 2014 and 2017), and which star mumblecore mainstay Mark Duplass as precisely that white psychopath.
What is more, Mark’s brother, Jay Duplass, also was one of the stars, with Tatiana Maslany, of Pink Wall (Tom Cullen, UK, 2019), which was one of the standouts of the year and certainly the best relationship/end-of-relationship film that I have seen for a while. Wim Mertens’ ‘Iris,’ which plays over the closing credits, was also a revelation for me. Fabulous acting, smart script writing, getting to grips with the depth and difficulties of human relationships and emotions.
Returning to (or staying with?) psychotic whiteness, this also seems in its most horrendous form to be at work in a range of films that I saw about manhunts, including the afore-mentioned Surviving the Game, as well as Craig Zobel’s utterly unlikely – and not particularly likeable – The Hunt (USA/Japan, 2020), wherein, as a direct contradiction of the logic of the Proud Boys, it is Democrats that hunt down Republicans for sport. Superior to both, however, is Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Brazil/France, 2019), which is definitely one of the best of 2020, and which tells the tale of poor Brazilians in the sertão hunting back the white hunters who come to kill them for their amusement.
I might mention that psychotic whiteness is also at the core of (the same) Mila Zuo’s short film, KIN (USA, 2020), which was one of the most affectively rich films about a group of disaffected whites in rural Oregon that I have seen. I must confess to total bias, since I co-wrote the film, but I also think it worth puffing how this short is a dense, complex and powerful look at white America today – with a searing edit by Dougal Henken that takes the film a long way from the script that I co-wrote with Zuo (and for the better!), as well as powerful performances from Frank Mosley, Sophie Traub and Cameron Shuman.
And this mention allows me to segue into how Mosley is himself on the up and up. Having worked last year in Thunder Road (Jim Cummings, USA, 2018) and Chained for Life (Aaron Schimberg, USA, 2018), in 2020 we got to see him in The Ghost Who Walks (Cody Stokes, USA, 2019) and Freeland (Mario Furloni and Kate McLean, USA, 2020), while also catching his directorial effort, Her Wilderness (USA, 2014) reworked as an online interactive movie. Here’s hope for more in 2021!
From Creep, we might also segue into Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s excellent Creepy (Japan, 2016), one of several films from the director that I saw this year. This is a film that at one point features a jellyfish prominently displayed on a television screen, one of numerous examples this year of tentacles and cephalopodic creatures, which were the focus of David H Fleming and my recent book, The Squid Cinema from Hell: Kinoteuthis Infernalis and the Emergence of Chthulumedia (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). Such creatures also turned up in the afore-mentioned Watchmen, His House and Underwater, as well as in Ad Vitam (Thomas Cailley, France, 2018), Chanson douce (Lucie Borleteau, France, 2019), My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, South Africa, 2020) and Lovecraft Country (Misha Green, USA, 2020). And with HP Lovecraft in mind, we might also mention Richard Stanley’s The Colour Out Of Space (USA/Malaysia/Portugal, 2019)… Indeed, it would seem that tentacular and cthulhoid creatures continue to abound in contemporary film and television, such that David and I should prepare a second book on the topic (which in fact we are doing).
From Kurosawa, I also saw Before We Vanish (Japan, 2017), one of numerous films that seemed to announce and/or to rehearse life under COVID-19, some of which were more powerful (Vivarium, Lorcan Finnegan, Ireland/Belgium/Denmark/Canada, 2019) than others (I was not particularly taken by She Dies Tomorrow, Amy Seimetz, USA, 2020).
In terms of horror, I might also say that I enjoyed retrospectively seeing Insidious (James Wan, USA/Canada, 2010), which was esteemed to be cognitively the scariest movie of all time, as well as The Wailing (Na Hong-jin, South Korea/USA, 2016) and It Comes At Night (Trey Edward Shults, USA, 2017), which I found much better than the same director’s subsequent Waves (Trey Edward Shults, USA/Canada, 2019).
With regard to COVID-19, there were a few productions made to reflect life during the pandemic, with the one that I shall mention being Cinema-19 (Courtney Stephens, Kalpana Subramanian, Usama Alshaibi, Scott Cummings, Lori Felker, Matt McCormick, Eman Akram Nader and Alex Megaro, Christin Turner, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Kelly Gallagher, Sarah Ema Friedland, William Brown and Mila Zuo, Amir George, and Adam Sekuler, USA/Canada, 2020).
As the list of directors surely makes clear, I am blowing my own trumpet again, but I toot it to say how I proud I was and continue to be to participate in a project with such exceptional filmmakers, with Mila Zuo and I collaborating on Coyote, a short film about which I also shall be writing an essay for The Projector in 2021.
If Cinema-19 is a compendium of films of life under lockdown, then Ai Weiwei’s CoroNation (China, 2020) functioned for me as the best documentary yet about the pandemic, as it depicts the emptied streets of Wuhan and the almost science-fictional procedures put in place to control the spread of the disease.
Perhaps predictably, COVID-19 produced a rash of films about confinement, with window films becoming increasingly common, be those the windows of the digital machines that we consult at home, or the windows that we look out of into relatively empty streets.
While this aesthetic has been announced by Alfred Hitchcock in Rear Window (USA, 1954), thereby making an implicit connection between the window film and disability/disease, it is an aesthetic that also bespeaks surveillance. And it is surveillance that we see taken up explicitly as a theme in Ulu Braun’s remarkable Saturne (Germany, 2020), shot in Berlin as if uniquely from the viewpoint of CCTV cameras as a man seeks to spread the ashes of his dead mother, among other things.
Not only might we note the ongoing legacy of Rear Window in films like Number 37 (Nophiso Dumisa, South Africa, 2018), but we might also begin to weave together how the window aesthetic, tied as it is to surveillance and illness/disability, is also tied to the pandemic, as per some of the Cinema-19 films and as per Mati Diop’s In My Room (France/Italy, 2020).
The quasi-academic/theoretical point I wish to make, then, is that COVID-19 is perhaps linked, at least aesthetically if not politically, to the rise of a surveillance society, and that this surveillance society constitutes a sort of illness (with those who are disabled perhaps being best placed to perceive as much).
As made clear by Mati Diop’s other work, including her renowned short Atlantiques (France, 2009), which I also saw for the first time in 2020, surveillance is also linked to migration. Indeed, the confinement/carceral aesthetic of COVID-19, as well as the window aesthetic to which it is related, is demonstrated in His House, with Christian Petzold’s Transit (Germany/France, 2018), a hangover film that I also only saw late in 2020, equally relating the contemporary moment to a moment defined by the plight of those undergoing forced migration. (A propos of Petzold, I found Transit far superior to his more recent and aquatic Undine, Germany/France, 2020.)
Finally, if we see the window aesthetic already at work in films like 9 Days: From My Window in Aleppo (Floor van der Meulen, Thomas Vroege, Issa Touma, Netherlands/Syria, 2016), a film that I saw when it came out four years ago, then in some senses the ‘COVID-19’ aesthetic was also already announced by the refugee crisis prompted by the war in Syria. And this carceral aesthetic also is linked to the radicalised carceral logic at work in the contemporary USA and so brilliantly analysed by Garrett Bradley in Time.
While I am proposing somewhat provocatively, then, that there is an aesthetics, thematic and indeed a conceptual through-line from Blackness to surveillance society to refugees to aesthetics of confinement and/or fenestration, then I say this also to introduce the final ‘best film of 2020.’
While documentaries like CoroNation, The Two Lives of Li Ermao (Jia Yuchuan, China/UK, 2019) and Goodbye CP (Kazuo Hara, Japan, 1972) were among the best that I saw for the first time in 2020, it is Abbas Fahdel’s Bitter Bread (Lebanon/Iraq/France, 2019) that is my final ‘best film of 2020’ – which is perhaps unlike anything else in its weave of staged and documented scenes made with inhabitants of Syrian refugee camps in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. The film is urgent and powerful, and in some ways it brings together many of the key concerns for our planet right now.
In a final bit of puffery, I shall also mention that I finished a film called The New Hope 2 (UK, 2020) this year, a sequel to my earlier adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and which was shot in London’s Hyde Park back in 2014. Set in London and Los Angeles, I think that the sequel is, like the first part, a deliberately punk, DIY and no-budget film that also hopefully says something for/to our ‘DIY’ and ‘guerrilla’ filmmaking times, and which I offer up for free (as usual). May it provide some comic relief in these tough days.
However, even as I ‘big up’ KIN, my book and The New Hope 2, the best production for me was the one announced in Coyote, the contribution made by Mila Zuo and me to Cinema-19, and which comes in the form of Radian Winter Zuo Brown, a daughter born to me and my partner in 2020. No film can match even an instant in her company.
In sum, then, my best of 2020 – meaning films from 2019 and 2020 – are as follows, ranked in a Halliwell-style *** and **** system, since I don’t believe in shoe-horning together 10 films (or 100 films) for a Top 10 (or Top 100) if there aren’t enough that are of sufficient perceived quality.
Numerous of the above-named are films do not feature below. This is not because I don’t like them; indeed, to my mind – and still thinking Halliwell – many of those films would would get ** or * and lots of italics for standout contributions. And there are plenty of films I’ve not yet seen and yet which I imagine I would like (and in fact have already seen in 2021 a couple of films that might well have a got a mention here if I’d seen them only a few days earlier: Shirley, Ammonite, St Maud, Fourteen, Saint Frances, Clemency, Rocks, the rest of Small Ax, Minari, etc)…
All the same, the *** and **** films are as follows:-
The Forty-Year-Old Version, I May Destroy You, Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Black Mother, Martin Eden, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, Vitalina Varela, The Assistant, Uncut Gems, Another Round, A Febre, Present.Perfect, Bacurau, CoroNation.
Ruby, Time, The Sleeping Negro, Pink Wall, Bitter Bread.
Should it be of interest, my top films of 2019 are/were as follows, according to the same system:-
13th (Ava DuVernay), Destroyer (Karyn Kusama), Dragonfly Eyes (Xu Bing), Ray & Liz (Richard Billingham), Long Day’s Journey Into Night 3D (Bi Gan), High Life (Claire Denis), Donbass (Sergei Loznitsa), Nuestro tiempo (Carlos Reygadas), The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot), Museo (Alonso Ruizpalacios), The Infiltrators (Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera), Le Franc (Djibril Diop Mambéty), Le Daim (Quentin Dupieux), Muna Moto (Jean-Pierre Dikongué Pipa), What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire? (Roberto Minervini), Monos (Alejandro Landes), Afrique, je te plumerai (Jean-Marie Téno), Campo (Tiago Hespanha), High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh), 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami), Vulnicura VR (Björk/Andrew Thomas Huang), Beats (Brian Welsh), Cómprame un revólver (Julio Hernández Cordón), Leto (Kirill Serebrennikov), Talking About Trees (Suhaib Gasmelbari), The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent).
Happy Hour (Ryusuke Hamaguchi), Hale County This Morning This Evening (RaMell Ross), The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)
And now, for what it’s worth, here are all of the films I saw in 2020, followed by a complete list of the films I saw in 2019.
USA et al
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
A Brixton Tale
Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers
A Dance for Death
A Hidden Life
A Rainy Day in New York
A rosa azul de Novalis
Rodrigo Carneiro and Gustavo Vinagre
A Russian Youth
A Secret Love
A Shape of Things to Come
Lisa Malloy and JP Sniadecki
A Trip to the Moon
A Wrinkle in Time
Abar: Black Superman
Alfred & Jakobine
Jonathan Howells and Tom Roberts
An American Pickle
Are You Listening Mother?
As boas maneiras
Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas
Asako I & II
Así habló el cambista
Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
Khavn de la Cruz
Beautiful New Bay Area Project
Before We Vanish
Between Heaven and Earth
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
This post will segue from a discussion of Booksmart to a discussion of issues relating to the Karen meme.
The link might not for some readers be fully concrete, but in a week when Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake 7 times, and in which Kyle Rittenhouse killed two protestors and seriously injured one more in Kenosha, Wisconsin – before going to the police, who, it is alleged, initially gave him water before sending him on his way (only later to arrest him), the wider contemporary context of Black Lives Matter seems worth bearing in mind, and, indeed, addressing.
This is not to mention the appearance at the Republican National Convention this week of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, after they pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protestors in St Louis, Missouri, back in late June.
I open a blog on a well-meaning and enjoyable comedy like Booksmart with an invocation of Sheskey, Rittenhouse and the McCloskeys in order to suggest that the white supremacy of the film perhaps requires a certain (‘black’) lens in order to be seen (or, after Denise Ferreira da Silva, the white supremacy of Booksmart might be seen if we look at it under a ‘blacklight‘) – something that is far less necessary when we consider the (more obvious) white supremacy of, say, The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie, UK/USA, 2019).
In his essay, he discusses how the non-white characters in the film are reduced to minor roles, and that these are all somewhat stereotyped. Click on the link above to check out Wright’s brief but informative essay to get the full details of this.
But in order to summarise, I might simply quote Wright in order to say that, although Olivia Wilde’s film was well received critically,
[a] lack of both complex nonwhite characters and women of color who are the same age as the protagonists point to the fact that Booksmart was a white victory, and that with only white victories, there follows white superiority.
Beyond Wright’s important intervention, then, I would like simply to highlight two moments in the film – neither of which gets a mention in his short essay.
Susan B. Anthony
The first takes place early on in the film when ‘booksmart’ protagonists Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) discuss how they should be more rebellious, especially as they approach the end of school.
‘Name one person whose life was better ’cause they broke rules,’ says Amy in a challenge to Molly, who promptly names Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony as examples of unruly women who, indeed, broke rules and made a case for a more inclusive, and less sexist USA.
It is Anthony with whom we shall stick in this discussion, and her name might well be familiar to contemporary readers, not least because of this mention in Booksmart (which no doubt has prompted numerous Google searches), but also because Donald J. Trump recently called for Anthony to be pardoned posthumously for voting illegally in 1872.
Anthony is a formidable and venerable figure in the history of women’s rights in the USA, and the aim here is not to deny what work she has done in furthering the rights of white women in that country.
However, as Angela Y. Davis has outlined at some length in her classic text, Women, Race & Class, Anthony also was quite prepared to forego her interest in emancipation for Black Americans when the issue of the vote for white women was concerned.
Indeed, Davis reports exchanges between Anthony and Ida B. Wells, who founded the first Black women’s suffrage club, in which Anthony explains how and why she dis-invited Black emancipation campaigner Frederick Douglass from a visit being made by her Suffrage Association to Atlanta, Georgia.
As Anthony said to Wells, and as she is quoted by Davis: ‘I did not want anything to get in the way of bringing the southern white women into our suffrage association.’
That is, Anthony did not want the presence of a Black campaigner to diminish support for her bid for women’s suffrage – which here means white women’s suffrage.
Furthermore, as Davis goes on to report, Anthony ‘also refused [this is in 1894] to support the efforts of several Black women who wanted to form a branch of the suffrage association. She did not want to awaken the anti-black hostility of her white Southern members, who might withdraw from the organisation if Black women were admitted’ (Davis 1983: 111-112).
Davis goes on to detail various other ways in which, when faced with the choice between fighting for the rights of all women and fighting for the rights of white women, Anthony chose white women.
From a white perspective, we might say that Anthony was in an ‘impossible’ situation, and that it is better to achieve the vote for at least some people/one ‘minority’ than to achieve the vote for no one because one is demanding too much (by demanding for the equal rights of Blacks).
However, this does not change the fact that Blacks were effectively thrown under the bus – and Anthony sided with the powerful in order to achieve something for white women only, rather than siding with the oppressed in a bid to achieve something for everyone.
Perhaps a ‘realist’ would say that history does not remember idealists who ask for ‘too much.’ But even if this were so, it is a position that accepts as legitimate a white supremacist system that only continued as the USA progressed from slavery to Jim Crow.
Furthermore, if this position is ‘realist[ic],’ then it really is suggesting that white reality is a ‘truer’ or more legitimate reality than a non-white reality. That is, ‘realism’ is determined by white supremacy.
The appeal to reality and realism, while hypothetical (in that it is I who speculate what a ‘realist’ might argue, without having actually encountered such an argument), is nonetheless important.
For equally at work in Anthony’s choice of white women over all women is the implication that white women are worth more than Black women, and that Black women are somehow not women, or not ‘real’ women.
If one wanted to win the vote for women, then one must want to win the vote for all women; if one settles for white women only, then either one does not consider Black women to be women, or one does not really want to win the vote for all women at all.
And if a black woman falls into a secondary category ‘below’ white women, such that she may not, as Sojourner Truth might suggest, be awoman, then this only reflects how Blacks have not historically been considered real humans/have historically not really been considered human, in the USA and further afield (including the UK).
Not being ‘as human’ as a white, and perhaps not even being ‘human,’ means that Black lives are deemed not to matter as much as white lives, and that perhaps Black lives do not matter at all.
Black Lives Matter, then, exists to remind us precisely of the opposite; that Black lives do matter. And that there is not a hierarchy whereby white lives matter more than black lives, which is what we would call white supremacy.
By this token, we can indeed say that ‘all lives matter,’ but to insist on saying this when the contemporary USA, as well as a contemporary postcolonial globe, insists repeatedly on demonstrating that not all lives do matter (to paraphrase George Orwell, all lives may well be equal, but apparently some are ‘more equal’ than others) is what is typically (and problematically?) referred to as ‘tone deaf.’
(Perhaps it is problematic since, in eliding [quasi-]racism with both those without a musical ear and those who are hard of hearing, it is perhaps an insult to the latter two groups.)
To return to our main argument, though, to argue that ‘all lives matter’ misses the point that to assert Black Lives Matter is done in the face of clear evidence that for many people they do not.
Willfully to diminish the Black Lives Matter movement is in effect to reaffirm white supremacy; to insist that ‘all lives matter’ wants to deny a moment of Black centrality in order to restore the historical and ongoing status quo whereby white lives matter most.
For all of its charm, then (and I am happy to say that I enjoyed Booksmart upon initial viewing, even as it might also be critiqued not only from the perspective of race, but also from the perspective of class, in that all of the Angelinos that we see in it are basically rich kids), Booksmart invokes an historical figure who stood for white women’s suffrage at the expense of women’s suffrage – in order to inspire two white women to… party and get drunk for a night, surrounded by a supporting cast of less-developed characters of colour.
The fact that white women’s suffrage is here expressed in the form of getting drunk carries several important connotations. The first is that even if political engagement by the likes of Anthony is in hindsight understood as problematic and/or incomplete, such political engagement now justifies hedonism and consumerism.
As such, Booksmart might embody what in academic parlance is sometimes referred to as a shift from feminism to postfeminism: feminism reworked not against but rather for capitalism – something that we shall also see manifest in discussions of consumerism towards the end of this blog.
Furthermore, that Amy and Molly’s night of drunken mayhem is spent with various non-white characters suggests that hedonism is a kind of ‘slumming’ done here by whites among the non-whites who supposedly do it regularly – even though whites are more commonly arrested in the USA for alcohol-related misdemeanours.
Finally, and more importantly, is that when Amy is arrested precisely for being drunk, the entire scene goes down in an amusing fashion.
White perp walking
We in fact see the scene of Amy’s arrest via social media, in that Molly wakes up after her night out to a series of text messages lauding Amy, whom she then sees in a video getting arrested by the cops.
‘There are more prisons than colleges in the US, did you know that? And it costs $71,000 to house an inmate in the state of California. That’s more than Harvard!’ says Amy as she gets ‘perp walked’ to the cop car.
Then, as they move her towards the backseat, she says: ‘This seems excessive. Shotgun. Just kidding. I don’t have one.’
It is a moment that contains various important, if understated, details.
First of all, the ‘heroic’ arrest and/or moment of ‘hilarious’ insolence towards cops is a staple of the teen film, with a notable example being Superbad (Greg Mottola, USA, 2007).
(I have another blog to write at some point in time about how Seth Rogen’s films continue to demonstrate a pretty conservative streak, even though as a comedian Rogen might come across as ‘liberal’; for some notes in this direction, see a relatively recent blog on Long Shot, Jonathan Levine, USA, 2019; with the recent American Pickle, Brandon Trost, USA, 2020, moving in a similar direction. That Rogen plays a cop in Superbad would probably make for a decent starting point for considering this aspect of his star persona…)
What is more, this funny irreverence towards cops is not isolated to white kids, as per Superbad and Booksmart. Indeed, in 21 & Over (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, USA, 2013), Justin Chon’s Jeff Chang dances on a cop car and gets arrested, suggesting that not only white kids, but also Asian kids (who are, after all, the ‘model minority’) can defy the authority of the police.
However, when we consider the way in which irreverence towards cops by Black characters can lead to death, as per recent films like The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr, USA, 2018) and Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas, USA/Canada, 2019), then it seems clear that Blacks cannot ‘enjoy’ humour and heroism in the same way that white characters can.
And when we now consider not movies but real-world police shootings of Black people, like Jacob Blake and so many others, then we might understand that every time a Black American comes into contact with a police officer, there is no joking to be done – since one’s life is at risk.
To joke with the cops, then, is something that is acceptable for whites, tolerable for ‘yellows,’ and intolerable for Blacks. And so to show such a joking moment in Booksmart and for it to be funny demonstrates unthinking whiteness on the part of the filmmakers and an assumption of whiteness on the part of the viewer.
(It is not that you have to be white to find this moment funny; but I might suggest that you do adopt a white perspective when/if you do find this moment funny, regardless of one’s actual [perceived] skin colour.)
Now, I wish generously to suggest that the whiteness of Booksmart‘s white perp walking does not necessarily mean that the moment is white supremacist; in joking with cops, Amy is expressing her empowered white status, but she is not necessarily expressing antiblackness.
However, the scene does in many ways set Amy up as the typical white woman that Hazel V. Carby calls ‘the prize object[s] of the Western world’; that is, Amy is not only defiant of the police, but in some ways she is also protected rather than threatened by them, such that she can make a joke about having a weapon in front of them and get away with it. The police were never going to shoot Amy; they wouldn’t, because as a young white woman, it is her service and protection for which the police stand.
But more than this, Amy’s explanation to the cops about the cost of American prisons suggests not just a white logic but a white supremacist logic at work at this moment (if the two can actually be separated).
This might seem counter-intuitive, in that Amy speaks a truth about the incarceration system of the USA, and she is, after all, planning on spending a year in Botswana before going to university – unlike most of her friends who are heading straight for the Ivies.
That is, Amy might speak here as someone invested in social justice and Black lives – both in the USA, where African Americans are disproportionately kept in prison (as the same Angela Y. Davis, among other writers, has argued across various texts, including this one), and in Africa itself.
However, that Amy offers these statistics at the point of her arrest would seem to suggest that she does not feel that she should be arrested. That is, in saying to the cops that ‘[t]here are more prisons than colleges in the US,’ and that ‘it costs $71,000 to house an inmate in the state of California… That’s more than Harvard,’ Amy seems to be saying that she should NOT be used to swell prison numbers, that she is not the sort of person that needs to be arrested, not least because she will end up costing the American taxpayer more than if she went to an Ivy League school like her friends.
This moment might in some senses involve canny writing on the part of Booksmart‘s (white) screenwriters, in that Amy betrays here her own belief that she is the ‘prize object’ and not a ‘real’ criminal. However, it would seem that the film also endorses Amy’s perspective by playing this moment for laughs.
That the moment is also accompanied by a statement from a relatively wealthy white woman about prisons basically not being for her (she should not cause the American taxpayer any undue expense – because she is white) in effect reveals a truth: prisons are not really for white Americans, but actually ways for (white) American taxpayers to pay for Black Americans not to be otherwise out in society.
Forasmuch as it is ‘good fun,’ then, Booksmart demonstrates that good fun is much more readily accessible if your skin is white, even as it reclaims from Superbad the idea that irreverent and empowering ‘fun’ is uniquely a masculine pursuit.
In other words, empowering hedonism is only empowering to those who are already empowered; those who are not empowered simply cannot act in the way that Amy does here, since it might well lead to death.
In some senses, then, Booksmart offers to us perhaps exactly the legacy of Susan B. Anthony: white women are here empowered at the expense of non-whites. In this way, Booksmart in the contemporary moment arguably takes on dimensions of being a ‘Karen factory,’ while also showing how Susan B. Anthony might well be a proto-‘Karen,’ an association made between the two by Helen Lewis in her Atlantic article on the Karen phenomenon, to which we shall turn presently.
‘The Mythology of Karen’
What follows is going potentially to be controversial – because the term ‘Karen’ conveys several linked but slightly different meanings, and in choosing its white supremacist connotations as my preferred meaning of ‘Karen,’ I run the risk of negating the reality of those other meanings (which tend to focus primarily on the idea that the term is sexist).
All the same, I wish to suggest that the very conflation of Karen’s slightly different meanings (racial and sexist) functions as a means to negate the one positive political use to which the term can be put, namely to critique white supremacy.
In her article, Lewis carefully identifies the racialised history of the term, explaining herself that it started out as ‘an indictment of racial privilege,’ with a key example from 2020 being the accusation by Amy Cooper against Christian Cooper that he was threatening her in a park in New York on the day that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.
What is more, Lewis as mentioned evokes Susan B. Anthony, thereby further suggesting that the latter is/was a proto-Karen avant la lettre, not least for her notorious 1869 statement that ‘[i]f intelligence, justice and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of women be brought up first and that of the negro last’ – although Lewis does also contextualise this statement by saying that Anthony was ‘responding to the suggestion by Frederick Douglass that Black male enfranchisement was a more urgent issue than women’s suffrage.’
That is, contra Davis, Lewis suggests that Anthony ‘only’ put white women ahead of Blacks because Douglass threatened to put Black men ahead of white women.
Notably omitted in Lewis’ brief analysis of this moment is that for Anthony to insist in this way on white women’s suffrage over that of Black men, she must both have accepted that white men are superior to Black men (the ‘realist’ position defined above), and that men are superior to women (in that Anthony could not support Black women in seeking to get the vote, because this would de facto mean that Black men would have to get the vote, too; that is, Anthony accepts the patriarchal status quo if she cannot get on board with Black men and all women getting the vote – even as she tries to challenge it).
Furthermore, that Lewis dresses up Anthony’s argument for white women’s suffrage as a bit of tit for tat with Douglass demonstrates that for Lewis (as the interpreter of history) and for Anthony (as the historical agent), the Black man functions as a threat. That is, there is no seeking of alliances when push comes to shove, but only competition between these ‘minority’ groups.
We might say that the onus is on Douglass as a man (regardless of his race) to get on board with Anthony – and surely there is some (qualified) legitimacy in this claim.
However, this legitimacy is arguably qualified indeed, because while we should charge Douglass with overlooking the suffrage of Black women as he seeks the suffrage of Black men, Douglass is not really in a position to help Anthony because he is Black.
For, as a Black man, Douglass is not just in a perceived ‘inferior’ position to Anthony within the hierarchical American system, but also, even though now a ‘free’ man, Douglass is still not considered human (or not ‘as human’) as Anthony.
In some ways Douglass ‘cannot,’ therefore, call for the inclusion of white women as political/voting subjects within the USA.
I place ‘cannot’ in scare quotes because Douglass did, contra Lewis, support the cause of women’s suffrage until his death in 1895 (‘right is of no sex, truth is of no color’). However, his support of women’s suffrage was also in some senses impossible – and not just because to do so would be/was ‘uppity’ in the eyes of white men. Rather, and more specifically, it would be/was ‘uppity’ in the eyes of white women, who might well see in such an otherwise well-meaning gesture a threat to their position within society.
That is, a Black man cannot in effect help a white woman, since to do so would involve him telling a white man what to do (you should give the vote to white women, Black men, and Black women – which is not to mention people of other races within the USA). A Black man can only, in this sense, represent his own race (and as mentioned it is indeed a flaw in Douglass’ reasoning that he does/did not lobby for the suffrage of Black women, at least at certain points in his career).
Meanwhile, the obverse is not the case; a white woman can indeed (more easily?) lobby for Black men (and women) – and yet at a crucial moment this did not take place.
But more to the point, when Lewis casts Anthony’s rejection of Douglass as a bit of historical tit for tat (he wasn’t going to help her, so she didn’t help him), it denies the fact that Douglass, as a Black man and thus as a ‘non-human,’ was not necessarily in a position to help Anthony, as a ‘human.’
For, how can a human (Anthony) recognise help from and equality with a non-human (Douglass) without destroying the way in which the humanity of the one is dependent on the non-humanity of the other?
Put differently, Anthony might be a ‘prize object,’ but Douglass, as a former slave, is merely an abject (someone ‘cast out,’ from the Latin ab- + jacere = ‘thrown away’).
For Anthony to refuse to help Douglass, then, because Douglass did not help Anthony, is in some senses to misunderstand what Blackness means and how antiblackness works – and it is verily to play into the hands of white supremacy when one sacrifices Blackness for the furtherance of whiteness.
The proof of this difference in power between Anthony and Douglass is, as it were, in the pudding – in that while Black men were in principle given the right to vote in 1870 through the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment (which stated that ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude’ could not be a barrier to voting), and while women were only given the vote in 1920 following the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, the introduction of Jim Crow laws in the immediate aftermath of the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment saw swathes of Blacks being denied suffrage on account of taxation, illiteracy, ‘grandfather clauses’ and other discriminatory procedures, right up until 1965 (although it could be argued that such measures continue in various forms until the present day).
That is, while Douglass tried to make a claim for Black male suffrage, and while Anthony made a counter-claim for white women’s suffrage, the history of Jim Crow would suggest that Blackness is a greater hindrance to empowerment in the USA than is femininity (but this is not to suggest that the history of women’s suffrage is easier or plain-sailing).
By this token, we might suggest that it is not the job of the most disempowered/the abject to help the more empowered (‘objects’) in their pursuit of more power – but that it is the job of the more empowered (here, an object) to help the more disempowered (here, an abject) to gain some power.
To apply this dynamic to the contemporary moment: it is not for Blacks to support an All Lives Matter movement, in that it is not for Blacks to march with whites who are seeking a reaffirmation of their own importance in contemporary society. However, it is for non-Blacks to support Blacks at this moment in time. It is for whites and other non-Blacks to march with Blacks. It is for whites to fight for the safety and inclusion of Blacks in an otherwise antiblack society.
However, what seems to be happening at this moment in time – and as perhaps is reflected in Booksmart – is a quasi-repetition of history: Black Lives Matter is being cast aside (abjected) for the restitution of white women as the prize object of capitalist modernity.
This is a thorny issue, and its expression is perhaps unconscious, while also emerging in subtle and not-obvious ways. However, we can see how this is so both in Lewis’ article and in a recent essay co-authored by Diane Negra and Julia Leyda on the topic.
Race and sex
In short, both pieces of writing boil down to suggesting that now that white men are using the term Karen to describe any white woman (but most typically a white woman ‘of a certain age’) who makes complaints and is unruly, the term has been co-opted away from its critical potential and now is being used to reinforce patriarchal values.
In some ways, this charge is a valid one – and it is a charge that I can and must level at myself (as a nominally cis-gendered, white male) as I consider my own unconscious biases, prejudices and so on. For, indeed, perhaps the term has now become in some quarters a kind of term used by male chauvinists to put down white women.
But I am not sure that this ‘mis-use’ of the term means that its initial point of critique, namely that white supremacy can be as present in white women as it can be in white men, is worth abandoning because white men now use the term against white women.
Having gone through a history and present of the Karen meme, starting as mentioned with Susan B. Anthony, Lewis makes an interesting turn when she distances herself from that history on the basis of nationality.
I quote a full paragraph, in which Lewis mentions how in the UK there was no case history like that of Emmett Till, a young Black man killed in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman. As follows:
The potency of the Karen mythology is yet more proof that the internet “speaks American.” Here in Britain, there is no direct equivalent of the Till case, and voting rights were never restricted on racial lines. The big splits in the British suffrage movement were between violent and nonviolent tactics, and on whether men under 30 should receive the vote before women. Yet British newspapers have rushed to explain the Karen meme to their readers, because Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—the prime sites for Karen-spotting—are widely used in this country. (In fact, the Karen discussion has spread throughout the English-speaking internet, reaching as far as New Zealand.)
There is a confusion here in that Lewis initially asserts that the internet ‘speaks American.’ However, she then makes a clear distinction between the USA and the UK (which comes relatively close to asserting that there is no racism in the UK, in part because the UK does not supposedly have a history of slavery), before reaffirming that the internet is ‘American’ (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are widely used in the UK), before then suggesting that the internet does not speak ‘American,’ but rather that it is English-speaking, and finally registering some surprise (via the emphatic ‘as far as’) that the Karen meme is known and repeated in New Zealand.
The confusion is created by the zigzagging between positions here. The internet speaks American, but British people don’t speak American, except that they do speak American (and maybe even New Zealanders also speak American).
The internet is in some respects without geographical boundaries; firewalls, geoblocking, some censorship issues and linguistic abilities aside, one can (especially if one has the ingenuity to use a VPN) access and engage with the internet from anywhere with a computer, phone line and modem.
That is, it is no surprise that the Karen meme reaches New Zealand, because the Karen meme is not (just) ‘American,’ but on the internet. That it is presented as surprising that someone in far-flung New Zealand might have encountered the Karen meme suggests that Lewis – who otherwise expresses great familiarity with relatively specialised feeds on Reddit – does not really comprehend the internet.
In short, the internet in many respects breaks down national boundaries. And so for Lewis to resurrect those national boundaries involves a sleight of hand that serves to disavow how the Karen meme might apply to someone in or from the UK.
Lewis makes as much clear when she goes on to say that ‘[a]t some point… the particular American history behind Karen got lost’ – another suggestion that the point made in the most recent spate of Karen-outings do not apply to anyone in the UK, and that women like Amy Cooper are unique to the USA.
However, to suggest (or even loosely to imply) that racism, white supremacy and systemic imbalances of power along race lines are non-existent in the UK, such that they appear not to merit mention in Lewis’ argument, is simply false. The UK has its own fair share of issues of racism, as numerous authors, from the afore-mentioned Hazel V. Carby through to Reni Eddo-Lodge can attest.
What is more, while the USA had slavery within its own borders, as an imperial nation the UK outsourced its racist practices, running plantations perhaps not on its own shores, but across the rest of its vast Empire, and from which Empire the homeland benefitted enormously (to the tune of untold, unimaginable sums of money).
Lewis is surely correct to identify that white men calling white women Karen is a mis-use of the term – and that mis-use is surely worth critiquing. But the point can be as simply made as that: the Karen meme (at least in its most well-known iteration) had an initially and ongoing valid point of critique, namely to expose white supremacy/antiblackness, but that it can also be used as a tool for sexism.
To invoke a slightly twisted history of national specificity and problematic disavowals, though, suggests not a search for solidarity across what W.E.B. DuBois called ‘the color line,’ as progressive white women join forces with Black men and women alike to combat patriarchy (which in its most ‘simple’ guise is both sexist and racist), but rather a desire to shift focus away from issues of race and to place them once again on to issues of sex.
(In her book, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, Lewis achieves a similar sleight of hand. While the overwhelming majority of her examples are white, she does report an encounter with two black feminists, who over coffee explain to Lewis that her commissioning work as a journalistic editor ‘was leaving out women of colour.’ Lewis does admit that in this encounter she became ‘defensive, when I should have simply done them the courtesy of listening’ – before then dismissing the complaints of the women as ‘driven by jealousy, or that heady mix of sadism and self-righteousness which characterises a moral crusade.’ That is, Lewis says not that she does or did listen – which she would only have done out of courtesy, but that she should have listened to them but did not, before then confirming as much when she dismisses the critique as being a case of envy.)
In other words, while Black Lives Matter rages, Lewis’ article comes across as an attempt to remind us not only that white women can be and are victims, too, but that they are perhaps the ‘real’ victims, with the article saying that of course the history of race is important, but that the history of sexism is even more pernicious.
And yet, I might follow in the line of numerous influential thinkers – scholars including but not limited to Frantz Fanon, Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Winter, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Jared Sexton, Katherine McKittrick, Frank B. Wilderson III, Rizvana Bradley and Calvin L. Warren – to suggest that antiblackness is the structuring antagonism (to use Wilderson’s term) upon which modernity is built.
And that modernity may well ‘speak American,’ but it is not American alone (and there is a strong historical reason why American people speak English). Indeed, modernity is not American, but global. And by virtue of being global, it affects us all – even the people in ‘far-flung’ New Zealand (far-flung for whom?).
The basic premise of antiblackness has already been outlined above: it is the treatment of non-whites, but perhaps especially Blacks, as not-quite or not-even human. It is to be treated as abject, or discarded – much as Lewis invokes a racial history of the racist roots of Karen, only to discard it, and much as Lewis claims to listen to her two black female critics, only to discard them and their feedback.
Towards the end of her article, Lewis draws upon Ta-Nehisi Coates, in particular his essay ‘The Great Schism,’ in order to remind us that Anthony’s fellow suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sarah Grimké, were let down by abolitionists for having fought for the end of slavery, only for that not to lead to any progress in the pursuit of women’s suffrage. Or, as Coates puts it in relation to Stanton and Anthony, ‘the two spent much of their early careers very much devoted to the cause of black people, and took their share of abuse for it.’
Grimké ‘credited abolition with helping awaken her to the persistent oppression of women,’ while Frederick Douglass eventually reconciled with Anthony and Stanton, ‘singling out Stanton, in particular, for making him a “Woman’s Rights Man.”‘
That is, Coates attempts to understand the lack of solidarity between Anthony and Douglass, a fact to which Lewis appeals in defence of her argument (if Coates can feel solidarity with Susan B. Anthony, then so should Blacks today feel solidarity with Helen Lewis).
However, where Coates does indeed ‘forgive’/condone/contextualise the white supremacy of Anthony, Lewis seemingly expects the same forgiveness and condonement, but without offering anything in return. For, while Anthony did spend years ‘devoted to the cause of black people,’ Lewis in this article and in her interaction with Black women journalists in her book only seems to pay lip service to that cause as a means to bring us back to the real cause: the fight against sexism.
It is not that sexism is unreal; sexism is very real and must be addressed – but to use sexism as a tool not to address racism is not progressive, and even if it does not come across fully as a (probably unconscious) white supremacist manoeuvre, it can still come across as ‘tone deaf,’ especially at a moment when Black Lives Matter is attempting (and needing) to gather momentum in the USA and globally.
Now, Coates is most famous for his essay ‘The Case for Reparations,’ which is reproduced in his book, We Were Eight Years in Power. That particular article outlines how and why contemporary American wealth is built upon the racialised exploitation of Black slaves – as well as outlining a particular and overlooked moment of violence in the history of the USA, namely the Tulsa race massacre that took place in 1921.
We shall return to ‘The Case for Reparations’ in the face of consumer society imminently, but it might also be worth noting that the article inspired Damon Lindelof to set his highly regarded ‘adaptation’ of Watchmen partially in Tulsa in 1921 – exploring the race massacre and its afterlives throughout the show.
I mention this for two reasons. Firstly, antiblack oppression leads to a Black protest in that show, where a young boy kills a police officer by firing a gun at him at point blank range. It is ironic, then, that during a pro-Black lives protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, it was not a young Black who shot a (white?) police officer, but a young white boy who shot three protestors, killing two of them.
That is, while Watchmen takes a moment to depict Black vengeance, the reality is that whites continue to enact violence on Blacks and their supporters.
And the second reason I mention this is that allegedly Trump held his Juneteenth Rally in Tulsa as an antagonistic reminder of the race massacre; that is, Trump took the event to Tulsa in order to intimidate Black (democratic) Americans regarding how history might repeat itself (even as the history of that massacre repeats itself constantly – with every massacre of an innocent Black American).
If Trump took his Juneteenth Rally to Tulsa in order to antagonise his opponents about the racial history of the place, then Trump’s call to pardon Susan B. Anthony in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential election can also be read as an attempt to appeal to a certain kind of feminist voter, specifically a white feminist voter.
Even as Anthony herself might roll in her grave at the mere thought of Trump using her spirit to win votes (and as the Susan B. Anthony Museum rejected Trump’s pardon), the move by Trump does convey the way in which she and he both – as people linked to the Karen meme, including by Lewis – use whiteness, or more specifically antiblackness, to further their own, white cause.
Put differently, while Lewis and Negra/Leyda (to whom I shall turn imminently) recognise but then obfuscate (if not deny) the racial politics of the Karen meme, Trump himself (the ‘ultimate Karen,’ as Lewis acknowledges) and Anthony (as a figure heavily invoked in Lewis’ article on Karen) are indeed Karens in a struggle that has at its core not sex, but race.
From slavery to consumerism
However, like Lewis, Negra and Leyda seek in their essay to highlight how the Karen meme is not just about race, but also and perhaps more about sex. In particular, they write that
Karen is doing particularly important work to mark an interface between (actual or attributed middle-class) white femininity and individuals/communities of color in a period in which everyday situational racisms are being increasingly called to account. She summons a boundary point between recidivist whiteness and “wokeness” at a time when many white people are both becoming more sensitized to racist micro-aggressions and put on alert to threatening breaches of public decorum. And it is apparent that Karen’s utility has heightened relevance now, in a pandemic moment marked by the charged nature of commercial (and other social) spaces. Less frequently noticed, however, may be her role in conservatively reinforcing prohibitions on white female agency in an arena in which that agency has historically been significant – that of goods and services/shopping.
Negra and Leyda then spend the remainder of their essay more or less explaining how frustrating it is to engage in consumer complaints in the contemporary age: customer service is on the wane, contacting someone who can actually help resolve a complaint is increasingly inaccessible, and so on.
It is not necessarily clear how and why white women engage in customer complaints more than any other demographic – although Negra and Leyda seem to suggest that it is because they have the time to do so.
Since apparently no one else has to or can, then, it would seem that the ‘Karen’ as they define them is in fact doing the world a favour, because they are the only demographic that can stand up for consumer rights in a time when those rights are being eroded.
In the face of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many more, and given how these killings connect both with the calling of the cops by Amy Cooper (the implication for Christian Cooper is that his life is in danger, even as Amy Cooper fears for hers, because once the cops arrive, they might well shoot him), and given how these killings connect with the armed defence of property that we saw via the McCloskeys (notably also used antagonistically at the RNC to demonstrate that the upcoming US election is not about sex but race), to sit on a customer service complaint line seems small beer at best.
To imply that to do so is in fact not the act of a Karen but in fact doing the world a favour likewise begins to seem ‘tone deaf.’
Indeed, Negra and Leyda quote Sara Ahmed, who herself reports ‘a conversation with an Indigenous woman academic,’ who says the following:
the project of surviving the violence of colonial occupation led her both to complain and not to complain. Both actions – complaining and not complaining – were for her about survival, not just her own survival, but the survival of her family; her people.
That is, Negra and Leyda situate complaint as a political act, even as complaint has swiftly become more of a capitalist/consumerist act by the time that they discuss waiting on endless phone lines in order to complain about customer service.
More than this, to equate sitting on a customer service line to ‘surviving the violence of colonial occupation’ seems in somewhat poor taste, with Ahmed’s example being staged as a matter of survival, something that also applies today to Black Lives Matter… but something that really does not apply to sitting on a customer service phone line at all.
Negra and Leyda conclude by suggesting that the Karen ‘seems to seek an ontological reassurance that consumer capitalism is on her side (and on the side of whiteness). We suggest it is productive to consider the sources of “Karen’s” misdirected anger.’
Or, put differently Negra and Leyda do usefully posit in the end that Karen does indeed want to know that their sense of being in the world (Karen’s ontology) is not under threat – and that this sense of being rests in large part on Karen’s (unthinking) whiteness.
But while in some senses it might be ‘productive’ to know that the ‘misdirected anger’ of Karens as they complain about the low quality of customer service stems from a sense of disempowerment as complaining about shopping becomes increasingly difficult in the contemporary age, this again seems to miss the mark of engaging with white supremacy.
This is not to mention how, even if white women (of a certain age) are the ones who purportedly have the time to sit in endless call queues to get through to an exploited customer service worker (who might well be non-white), this experience is not confined to white women at all – and indeed everyone who wants to complain about crappy service has to go through the same process, regardless of age, race or sex.
That is, everyone is disempowered as a consumer in the contemporary moment, and yet Negra and Leyda seem to make a special case that the white woman (of a certain age) is ‘especially’ disempowered, or disempowered in such a fashion that it requires a special explanation.
And yet, forasmuch as being treated poorly as a consumer is in effect universal, so is equally universal the concomitant ‘ontological’ disruption. And yet, it is Karen alone who apparently feels the need to be reassured against this disruption, a singleness of thought that seeks to reduce to nil the other, more dangerous ontological disruptions taking place at the moment, and which in its very singleness reaffirms that Karen must be a ‘prize object’ in capitalist modernity.
(In this blacklight, the recently acclaimed Systemsprenger/System Crasher, Nora Fingscheidt, Germany, 2019, can be seen as a working example of the tantrums that are induced when the white woman does not get her way. The film also seems to endorse the unruliness of its central character, the out-of-control 9-year old Benni, played remarkably by Helena Zengel, since the scenario sees her forgiven repeatedly by all in the film for her appalling behaviour, including bizarre sequences when a care worker, Micha, played by Albrecht Schuch, allows this dangerous child to play with his own children, before then running after Benni to make sure that she is okay, even though Benni has just threatened the life of Micha’s own child. That Micha’s child is mixed race, since he is married to an Iranian-German, Elli, played by Maryam Zaree, only furthers the idea that the white girl, Benni, is indeed the ‘prize object,’ who supersedes in importance all of the other children that surround her, even as she hospitalises many of them. Perhaps this is how fascism in its most hideous form comes truly to erupt into our world…)
And yet, to return to Karen’s need for ontological reassurance, which supposedly is at the base of Amy Cooper’s desire to call the cops on Christian Cooper: the ontological disruption that causes it shrinks into nothing when we understand that to be a Black American (if not a Black in many parts of the world) is constantly to experience what Calvin L. Warren has defined as ontological terror.
That is, while Karen needs reassurance because her ontology has been disrupted – by having to wait in line just like everyone else in order to make a complaint and/or because her white supremacy and/or consumerist tendencies have been pointed out to her – the Black American (and many other Blacks around the world) have no such luxury.
Or rather, such things are the least of their worries – as being pulled over by the police, going for a jog and/or wearing a hoodie might be reason enough for a cop to ***kill*** you.
Perhaps Amy Cooper is indeed upset about call waiting times, and perhaps this does help to explain where she is coming from when she attempts to set the cops on Christian Cooper. But the imbalance between these two ontologies is almost unfathomable; to try to balance them seems to me misguided; to appropriate the language of ‘survival’ in the face of histories of colonialism seems to me (precisely) inappropriate (it is an in-appropriation).
Negra and Leyda quote Audre Lorde’s influential essay, ‘The Uses of Anger,’ and yet they seem to pay little heed to Lorde’s actual words when she writes that
Women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anguish at being silenced, at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a whole world out there that takes for granted our lack of humanness, that hates our very existence, outside of its service.
For white women to claim equivalence to this experience – in effect, to deny race – is to undermine and to demean the argument of those People of Colour, especially Women of Colour; it is to repeat the silencing that Lewis by her own admission enacted on the two black journalists who confronted her; and it is not to listen to what the major proponents of the Karen meme are trying to say.
As per Booksmart, white supremacy can be at work in even light-hearted, fun and ‘progressive’ movies, as well as in everyday moments in life. Sexism is also regularly at work; to deny one in order to put forward the other, especially when doing so results in an erasure of race and a repetition of the silencing of non-whites, especially Blacks, is counter-productive.
I have to check my own privileges, as well as to acknowledge my own propensity for unthinking sexism and racism. However, I am wary that to use sexism against racism is not going to take the world where we need to go; Anthony, Douglass and others have all made mistakes along these lines. But it is time to not repeat these same mistakes and for anti-racist and anti-sexist activists and sentiments to be working in concert in order to overthrow an antiblack world order.
Remembering the way in which Karen can ask us productively to address unthinking white supremacy, rather than trying to deny it, excuse it, or indeed to morph it into a renewed sense of (uniquely) white victimhood, seems to me a hopeful path to follow. To enjoy Booksmart and yet to check its blindspots equally seems to me a hopeful path to follow.
As Coates might say, ‘I invite the professionals to fill in the gaps here — both in terms of actual facts and context.’
However, I hope that this blog does go some way to enabling a more progressive, holistic and/or ‘intersectional’ approach to key issues that today have our world hanging in a precarious balance…
Over the past two weeks or so, it has been a huge honour and a great pleasure to act as a member of the jury for the 2020 London Kurdish Film Festival (as well as to do a workshop/’masterclass’ on no-budget filmmaking with them).
I was lucky enough to catch 30 short films during the festival, including the 26 that were in competition for the festival’s main prize and special mentions. Many of these are available online here. (And you can, if you so wish, see my ‘masterclass’ here.)
However, rather than repeat anything from that masterclass, and rather than try to place into a hierarchy of better and worse the 30 films that I saw, I’d like to offer up some general observations about the films.
That is, rather than analyse any one film especially, I’d like to consider the 30 films as a single body in order to say what the LKFF was telling us this year about Kurdish cinema, Kurdish culture more generally, and Kurdistan itself, be that in the sense of a geographic place or as a ‘national’ concept (and I place national in scare quotes to signify/acknowledge the contested status of Kurdistan as a recognised, autonomous country/region, or, if you will, collection of countries – in that Kurdistan spans at least what today are recognised as parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey).
By making some observations and suggestions about what the LKFF films are telling us, we can potentially, if warily, make some extrapolations about what Kurdish cinema is today telling us – in that the concerns and techniques that repeat themselves across numerous of the LKFF films clearly do therefore repeat across Kurdish cinema, even if the films selected for the festival cannot represent the totality of Kurdish cinema.
Naturally, perhaps, I should start by saying that of course the films that I saw demonstrate a diverse and complex set of concerns, with films set in not only Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, but also films about the Kurdish diaspora in, for example, Norway (see Brwa Vahapour’s The Shepherd and Christopher Wollebekk’s My Brother Amal). Various languages are spoken across the films, including several sequences where characters cannot understand each other (especially Return, by Selman Deniz).
What is more, the films received funding from a mixture of sources stretching beyond the five countries mentioned above, and into places like Germany and the UK (although not seemingly beyond the Middle East and Europe).
Finally, the films involved various different styles and genres, ranging of course from fiction and documentary to animation and more.
But beyond these perhaps expected provisos about the vibrant diversity of contemporary Kurdish cinema, I’d like to focus in particular on repeated patterns and tropes across the films.
First of all, I would say that the majority of the films were set in the countryside, meaning that while there may not at present be an internationally recognised country called Kurdistan, the latter does exist as a land, as its very name suggests, in that Kurdistan means ‘land of the Kurds.’
If Kurdistan emerges as precisely a land thanks to the repeated use of landscapes and rural settings, this does stand in some sort of contrast to urban spaces, which do appear in a few of the films from the festival, but in a minority to say the least.
Indeed, those films that do feature cities tend to feature urban spaces as spaces of diaspora, ruin and/or lost memories. For example, Two Ends of a Bridge (Muhammed Seyyid Yıldız) features a man selling Turkish flags on a bridge as a protest seems to erupt in Istanbul, and who walks past a beggar – with the implication being in some respects that the two are Kurds, which is why the flag salesman gives some money to the silent beggar (although not as much money as he might).
Meanwhile, in The Worn Beak of the Crow (Ferhat Özmen), the city is a space that prevents an old woman from (if I am not mistaken) carrying out the traditional practice of burying cheese in the ground in order for it to mature.
Finally, in Last September (Gülsün Odabaş), an old Greek man wanders through the streets and finds his old home, where he hopes to meet his sweetheart from adolescence, and from whom he was separated by the so-called Istanbul Pogrom that took place in September 1955 following the bombing of the house of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
In all three films, then, the city, especially in its contemporary iteration, in some senses gives shape to the isolation of the Kurdish (and in Last September, Greek) characters; that is, unlike the land/countryside, the city does not really function as a home, and even when it does, as in Last September, this ‘home’ is impossible to maintain owing to political events.
Meanwhile, in films like the State we’re in (Savaş Boyraz & Mahkum Abi), There Was a Country (Hebun Polat) and The Heart of Raqqa (Rita Duarte), urban spaces (especially in Syria) have been reduced to rubble, further suggesting that the city is a threatening space for Kurds.
This dichotomy of the city/countryside is worth exploring in a bit more detail, but before we get to that, I’d like to point out that the ‘traditional’ is at times contrasted with the ‘modern’ in ways not just suggested by the rural versus the urban.
In a fashion similar to The Worn Beak…, for example, Trouser (Tahsin Özmen) sees traditional rural clothing being praised for its durability, while modern clothes, including a pair of trousers that various characters share for journeys to the city (where they are not allowed to wear their traditional clothes) wear away after few uses – this despite the fact that the main character, Dilo, is desperate to get to the city.
Furthermore, we see various other Kurdish traditions, customs and practices being threatened by the limitations of the contemporary world in a range of the films, from dancing in A Dance for Death (Zanyar Azizi), weaving in The Pattern (Azad Jannati), making pottery in The Heritage (Baran Reihani), and perhaps even hanging clothes in Are You Listening Mother? (Tuna Kaptan).
The latter, like The Worn Beak… and Last September, features an old woman who basically refuses to follow orders and who as a result creates some chaos in the place where she now lives. Indeed, the trope of the unruly older woman can also be found in Life Gone With the Wind (Siavash Saedpanah) – with each of these examples perhaps signalling that the borders imposed upon and dividing the Kurdish land are arbitrary, especially to a certain generation and gender that does not feel the need to respect the patriarchal practice of creating and fixing national boundaries and privatising space, and even if Kurdistan is a country that has no national boundary since it is not internationally recognised as a nation at all.
Are You Listening… is about a mother who keeps getting into trouble with the law when she sets off her police tag for wandering too far from home – something that she cannot help but do every time she tries to hang up her clothes (in a similar clothing trope to the one explored in Trouser, the mother here seems to be wearing the police tag for having been arrested for knitting an inappropriate sweater for her prisoner nephew). In other words, the film also tells a story where borders are reaffirmed by the official state (here Turkey), while being disruptive and alien for the actual inhabitant.
The arbitrary nature of the border is also highlighted in a film like The Heavy Burden (Yılmaz Özdil), in which we see an old man’s livelihood being decommissioned when his carrier-donkey is deemed too old for service. A young man, Salih, has a replacement donkey – the only catch being that it is back over the border, seemingly in Syria. He goes to collect it, only for the donkey to step on a mine on the way back.
The border itself is represented by a wall – with walls being things that proliferate in urban areas (indeed, the more ‘urban’ a space is, the more walls it has). The border might be represented only by one wall, then, but it nonetheless signifies how borders themselves are part of an ‘urban’ and modern mindset, which can be contrasted with the land, which is open and boundary-less.
What is more, the border is not just represented by a wall, but it is also something that is constructed through media. There are television screens present in a good number of the films (Are You Listening Mother?, The Heavy Burden and For Camera, by Mustafa Shahrokhi, to name but three), but the State we’re in starts in particular with a bravura shot of a distant city that recedes from view as the camera pans (and perhaps tracks) backwards, eventually passing through the screen of a broken television, which then functions itself as a ‘border’ between the city in the distance and the countryside that surrounds it and the camera itself (and by extension us as viewers).
In other words, the films collectively suggest that modern technologies like walls and media alike shape our reality, indeed determining what is ‘real’ (a country like Syria, for example) and what is ‘not real’ (a country like Kurdistan).
However, it is not simply that the countryside and the land alike are a bucolic paradise, even if the status of Kurdistan as, precisely, a land (and not an urban space) would seem to suggest as much.
For while there are beautiful vistas and ethereal lighting in a number of the Kurdish films on offer at the LKFF, the outside is also depicted repeatedly as a dangerous space.
This is represented not just by the landmine in The Heavy Burden, but also by a landmine that kills a young toy-maker called Picasso in Showan (Bijan Zarin). Picasso is, like the lead character Sirvan, reduced to doing illegal smuggling work as a result of the lack of opportunities in the countryside. And while climbing through the mountains with their own ‘heavy burden,’ not only does he succumb to the landmine, but he also is shot at repeatedly by unseen forces monitoring the border space that the smugglers are crossing.
A couple of notes. The first, which hopefully is not too tasteless or wistful: the ‘landmine’ in its very name comes to suggest the way in which common space (the land, or what we might by way of contrast call ‘landours’) is rendered a possession (‘landmine‘) – and the violence that is involved in grabbing land in this way.
The second is that the outside is thus not a happy, peaceful space, but a space that is dangerous, and where numerous characters die – as per The Heavy Burden, Heritage, Return and Akam (Hossein Mirza). And/or it is a space where fights take place, as in Slaughter (Saman Hosseinpuor).
Indeed, as much as there are beautiful landscapes in brilliant light, so do we see exterior spaces that are snowy and unwelcoming. But the impression that one gets is that they have become more unwelcoming as a result of the imposition of borders and the imposition of a modern logic whereby it is increasingly difficult to survive in rural spaces via traditional means.
This seems especially to be the case if one is not to be left behind technologically; people either face suffering and death by staying behind, or they are forced increasingly to shift towards urban spaces, where they are disenfranchised and unhappy. But not only do they go to the urban spaces, be that for better or for worse (in that a character like Dilo in Trouser really wants to go to the city), but the ‘urban’ and ‘modern’ logic of walls and the ‘city’ comes to them in the form of borders and, indeed, weapons like landmines.
This modern logic can also be seen at work in flags, with the main character in Two Ends of a Bridge selling Turkish flags to passersby, while lead character Sami in My Brother Amal is tasked at one point with raising the Norwegian flag, something that he summarily fails to do.
That is, the modern concept of nationalism and, by implication, the nation itself (as defined by the flag) is denied to Kurds and thus comes across as alien to them.
I shall return later to My Brother Amal, but I would like presently to discuss how in contrast to the media being tools for reaffirming national boundaries (and we can think of the flag as exactly a medium for nationalism), this stands in some contrast with art as it features in the films.
For while traditional art forms like dance, as per A Dance for Death, and traditional instruments like the erbane in hush! (Çaxe Nursel Doğan), might well help to define Kurdish culture, the films collectively also suggest that art in fact goes against the modern and ‘urban’ logic of the nation/the national.
This can be seen in a few examples, including via a couple of references to Pablo Picasso. The first is in the afore-mentioned Showan, where the artist-sculptor-toymaker character nicknamed Picasso would seem to represent a creative spirit unnecessarily destroyed by the modern world of media and borders.
The second reference to Picasso is, meanwhile, in the State we’re in, whereby after its opening shot, Picasso’s famous painting Guernica (1937) is used to give expression to the execution of Kurdish activists in the Turkish town of Cizre. It is not that art somehow ‘saves lives’ or some such; however, art does stand as a means to critique state violence and the violence of states, since art itself is stateless and borderless.
A similar lesson might be learnt from I Am Raining Down into the City (Kasım Örderk), in which a poem by the superlative Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad functions to bring peace to the otherwise struggling family that ekes out an existence in a crumbling town.
Finally, The Mandarin Tree (Cengiz Akaygün) features a young girl who draws paintings for her father, who himself is in prison for being an ‘anarchist.’ Even though only a child, the girl’s images of fruit, birds and even of a tree are suspected as themselves being propaganda.
However, after a prison guard nastily destroys one of her images, the girl has the last laugh when she sneaks into the prison some sunflower seeds, that the father then uses to imagine enticing birds to come feed from his hand, and which nest in the tree that she has drawn for her father.
In other words, art here helps to break down prison walls and, by extension, the ‘urban,’ ‘modern’ and ‘nationalistic’ use of walls in general, at least in an imaginary fashion. In this way, art helps the imprisoned father to be out amidst nature’s flora and fauna once again.
And fauna, perhaps especially livestock, are themselves a constant presence in the films, including as major figures in the film’s stories, as per The Heavy Burden and Slaughter. What is more, birds perhaps inevitably signify a kind of desired freedom in the films – although the State we’re in suggests somewhat pessimistically towards its end that the ‘bird of peace’ is dead (a moment to which I shall return below).
While we might think that working relationships with animals signify a kind of ‘primitiveness,’ the constant presence of animals nonetheless bespeaks a borderless existence, in that animals have no knowledge nor care for national boundaries and human squabbles.
In some senses, then, humans would do better to learn from their animals rather than simply to exploit them; that is, to live symbiotically with animals rather than just using them would be part and parcel of a perspective/way of life that is not ‘modern’ or ‘urban,’ and thus detached, but which instead is entangled and respectful.
Indeed, My Cat (Imad Mahmadany) features a young man trying to commit suicide in his spartan bedsit, only for his efforts to be thwarted by a cat that cunningly keeps on making its way indoors and distracting him.
While My Cat presents a potential case of death taking place inside (as opposed to the many deaths that take place outside), the presence of the animal notably prevents it (meaning that even if Kurdistan cannot exist ‘outside,’ it cannot conversely be killed inside)…
This being said, the treatment of animals is not necessarily romantic, just as life in the countryside is not uniquely romanticised, with the outside being a dangerous place, as mentioned.
For, the interior can at times also be a dangerous place, especially for women, as is explored effectively in For Camera, a film that uses documentary techniques to give the viewer the impression that they are seeing a found footage/home movie of domestic abuse.
In this film, notably we see an authoritarian father figure, who is a captain in the police force, abusing his family, especially his wife. The film suggests that Kurdistan has problems ‘inside,’ beyond the problems that Kurdistan faces ‘outside’ (Kurdistan’s issues stem from the Turks, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Iraqis, and so on), and beyond the idea that ‘outside’ is a problem to/for Kurdistan (in that Kurdistan is not recognised internationally as a ‘legitimate’ nation) – as many of the other films in the festival suggest.
Indeed, the domestic spaces that characterise much of For Camera suggest that Kurdistan is not simply a country beset by a dangerous exterior, but that it also has a dangerous interior.
Something similar perhaps happens in hush!, where the girl who wants to play the erbane, Zere, is forbidden from doing so not by, say, an oppressive Turkish system in which traces of Kurdish culture are to be eradicated, but rather by her own grandmother, who feels that music is not an appropriate pastime for her (meaning that this grandmother stands in stark contrast to those unruly older women in the other films mentioned above).
What is more, the Kurdish films collectively suggest that we live a world not only where wars can leave people crippled, but where disability can affect anyone. From deafness in Akam, to memory loss in Last September, to lost limbs in Testament (Kamiran Betasi), to Down syndrome in Slaughter, to lameness in The Summer of the Swans (Maryam Samadi), there is a sense here that Kurdish existence is in some senses always dis-abled, in that it is barred from leading a ‘regular’ and ‘modern’ life…
As not all of the films depict problems only bombarding Kurds from the outside (see For Camera), so do not all of the films depict plucky Kurds overcoming dangerous odds. Not only are many of the films pessimistic (a point to which I shall also return below), but they can also critique Kurdish existence.
It is notable, however, that the main film that does this, namely For Camera, carries such a self-conscious title.
For, not only does this title complicate the ‘documentary’ ‘truth’ of what we are seeing, but it also suggests indeed that the nation as a concept is tied to images (all nations really exist for the camera). Furthermore, since Kurdistan is a land without a nation (or a nation without a state), so is it in some ways a nation without an image (something akin to what I have argued elsewhere in relation to Afghan cinema). Or rather, For Camera does not try to create a positive and propagandistic image of the nation (a national image that is posed for the camera, much as we check our hair and put on our best smiles when we are asked to say cheese), but rather it seeks to deconstruct the constructed nature of all images, including perhaps the ones that we see in this film itself.
I might briefly add that this deconstruction is achieved remarkably through the use of handheld digital cameras, with the cinematography and the editing of the film being far more ‘choppy’ than perhaps the majority of other movies, which are much more ‘slow’ and ‘cinematic’ in the perceived ‘richness’ and ‘beauty’ of their images.
In other words, For Camera in many ways is a kind of anti-image of Kurdistan, but in becoming as much, it also becomes anti-images in general (in the sense that it makes us wary not just of the images that we are seeing, but wary of the constructed nature of all images, and perhaps of all national images in particular). This in turn suggests perhaps that Kurdistan (the ‘real’ Kurdistan?) exists beyond images – and beyond the nation (again, Kurdistan really exists inside and not outside; it cannot, if you will, be seen, but can only be felt).
This critique of images we might compare to My Brother Amal, which notably is a film made by a Norwegian director. I am not sure of the filmmaker’s connection to or knowledge of Kurdistan; but in being a relatively generic, if well-made, tale of a boy haunted by the ghost of his dead brother, who seems in the young Sami’s paranoid fantasies to hate Sami for coming close to assimilating to Norwegian life, the film rang oddly false.
While many refugees may lament not being in and with the land of their home, for Sami to be safe would surely be of greater importance than his not being at home (he cannot ‘betray’ Kurdistan by leaving, since this is only the ‘outside’ of the nation, and thus simply an image; he could only betray Kurdistan inwardly, but his very memories of his brother mean that this cannot happen – in that he will always remember his brother).
Put differently, we might critique the film by asking from a pragmatic level who would not wish their own brother happiness, even if in a new land?
And yet, as mentioned, Amal’s criticism of Sami (Amal’s seeming desire for Sami not to be happy) is the latter’s paranoid fantasy; Amal is not really there and it is Sami who is worried that if he makes an effort to fit into Norwegian life then he is the one betraying his roots. But while this is comprehensible, it perhaps is not sufficiently signalled that this is not really Amal, and so it just seems as though the film is an exercise in using the tropes of horror to ‘spice up’ a film that would surely be interesting enough when dealing with a young refugee not on cinematic terms (using stylistic tropes from horror), but on a more, can I say?, realistic level.
That is, My Brother Amal posits the inner life of Sami as precisely cinematic/an image, as an exterior/an outside, when our inner lives are in fact ‘beyond’ images – something that makes the film differ sharply from the other movies made closer to the Kurdish region.
But this is perhaps a minor quibble, and across all of the films a love of cinema as much as for Kurdistan and Kurdish culture is what is apparent. Indeed, I enjoyed how there are heart graffiti painted on walls in various films – a minor detail and likely a coincidence, but something that semi-consistently seems to connote love as part of the ‘Kurdish’ mise-en-scène (furthermore, various films also feature toy soldiers, as if to suggest that there is an inherent childishness to contemporary violence?).
In the use of landscapes and in their pacing, many films reminded me of the work of Abbas Kiarostami, while in the handheld films, and in the landmine and mountain movies (especially involving smuggling), as well as in various films’ use of music, including the erbane/daf in hush!, the influence of perhaps the most famous Kurdish filmmaker, Bahman Ghobadi, seemed also to be felt.
While Sami finds a bird that then dies in My Brother Amal, while the bird of peace is dead in the State we’re in, and while a deer dies that a man tries to rescue in The Shepherd (among many other downbeat endings – as mentioned above), films like The Mandarin Tree, hush!, Last September and Life Gone With the Wind all suggest that hope may yet be found for Kurdistan.
Certainly, based on the breadth, quality and intelligence of the films screened at this year’s London Kurdish Film Festival, which themselves reflect the vibrant nature of contemporary Kurdish culture, there is much about which to feel hopeful and positive.
Furthermore, while a film like The Heart of Raqqa not only gives to us another heart in its title, akin to those hearts featured on the wall graffiti of ruined houses, it also in its celebration of Mehmet Aksoy, a journalist who lost his life in the service of reporting on the work of Kurdish forces against ISIS, inspires viewers to think about the role that cinema can play in helping to change the world – and hopefully for the better.
With the example of Aksoy in mind, may many more Kurdish cinematic flowers bloom.
*** Many thanks to festival organiser Kaveh Abbasian both his invitation to take part in the LKFF 2020, and for his help in clarifying a couple of plot points around some of the above films.
Perhaps the biggest problem with racism in the UK is the UK’s belief that it does not have one.
The ‘it’ from the previous sentence should be defined as pertaining most specifically to the UK’s white population, perhaps especially those white citizens who identify solely as British nationals.
And yet, when we watch a film like The Gentlemen, it seems clear that racism is alive and well in the UK, including in British cinema (which is not to say that cinema as a whole might be a tool built upon racism).
Or, at least, The Gentlemen would wish to suggest that its white, male and Anglo-American values are ‘cinematic,’ while other, diverse forms of expression belong to smaller, ‘inferior’ screens.
We’ll get to the treatment of race in The Gentlemen shortly. First, however, we should get to grips with what I mean when I include the phrase ‘white supremacy’ in the title of this post.
For, in order to understand how white supremacy works, it is important to understand what it is, and because The Gentlemen is not especially subtle in its white supremacy, it functions as a good tool for us to think about how and why white supremacy is at work in the film.
So, as perhaps needs to be said every time one engages with the issue of race in the UK, white supremacy, as well as racism more generally, are not uniquely defined by hood-wearing white people lynching non-white people.
Rather, white supremacy is, simply enough, the belief that whites and whiteness are of greater value than non-whites and non-whiteness, perhaps especially blackness, but for certain in The Gentlemen, more valuable than yellowness.
The immediate defence mechanism that a white supremacist will put into play is the idea that I just betrayed my own racism by using ‘racist’ terms like black and yellow, as well as perhaps white.
To be clear, ‘yellow’ especially is a term that is loaded with a racist history, not least because it has historically been and continues to be a term applied by whites (and others) to various Asian peoples in precisely a derogatory fashion: the ‘yellow peril,’ for example, has long expressed the fear of whites that the Chinese (or others) will ‘take over’ the white world – a fear that is overtly at work in The Gentlemen.
All the same, while Asian people rarely and perhaps only ever with some sense of irony define themselves as ‘yellow’ (unlike Blacks, who do define themselves proactively as black, even though what ‘black’ really is or means has never been accurately or exactly defined – except perhaps by whites), I use the term(s) here to get us to think about how white supremacy works from the inside.
By this, what I mean to say is that white supremacy sees whites and whiteness as being superior to all other colours. In order to do this, it has to cast those other, non-white people into those other colour categories (black, yellow, brown) in order specifically to highlight that they are not white.
Having made this conceptual distinction, which allows the white to value himself above the non-white, the white takes the ‘supreme’ position from among the different colour categories. It is not that there are different colours, so much as a hierarchy of colours, with white at the top. Hence white supremacy.
Thereafter follow myriad ways in which whites and whiteness receive preferential treatment, get more opportunities and so on and so forth, all because they are white, while those non-whites (yellow, black, brown and so on) get inferior treatment, fewer opportunities and so on and so forth.
The point that I wish to make at the outset, then, is that you don’t need to be an overt racist to be a white supremacist or, at the very least, to benefit from a white supremacist system, or to thrive within a society that is white supremacist.
Nor, I might add, do you need to be white to thrive in a white supremacist society. You can be non-white and thrive; and you can be white and not thrive.
But if you are white, then the chances are significantly increased that you will thrive, or at least be more comfortable than if you were not white; and if you are non-white, then you will have significantly greater barriers before you to both comfort and, better yet, thriving.
And so if you benefit from such a system or thrive within such a society because of your whiteness, and if you do not do anything to change the advantages that you have, by, for example, refusing to share that advantegeous position, then, simply put, you are a white supremacist out of complicity, if not out of explicit action.
(That said, how we might separate explicit action from ‘mere’ complicity when we are considering the entire fabric of a life seems quite difficult to me; ‘doing nothing,’ or allowing disadvantages to continue for others simply because this gives you greater advantages, is an explicit action, just as not helping your neighbour is an explicit action… whether or not you run the risk of seeming like a chump to other advantaged people, who will think that you are betraying them because you see, understand and try to do something about the disadvantages presented to some – with the same advantaged people perhaps also thinking you stupid for not taking the same advantages as they do, even though you have those advantages before you. In short, the easy option – allowing things to stand as they are – negates the difference between complicity and explicit action; taking the harder option is always harder, and part of why it is harder is because others will make your life harder for taking that option – calling you names, making you feel bad about yourself and so on.)
Anyway, one of the next defence mechanisms that a typical white supremacist would throw out in order to deny racism, be that their own racism or that of the system from which they benefit, would be an appeal to history.
That is, and as per the notion described above of complicity/allowing things to stand as they are, a white supremacist (be they explicitly racist or simply happy quietly to benefit from white supremacy), would say that the UK is historically ‘white’ and that blacks and other non-whites of course are welcome here, but that they have to come and work their way ‘up the ladder’ and that of course this cannot happen overnight and so on and so forth.
However, while the appeal of such a view is perhaps inevitable to an unthinking white supremacist and to an overt racist alike, it is also false and an act of white supremacist thinking in and of itself.
Its falseness would probably take too long to deal with here in full. But put bluntly, the view is false because the idea that the UK is ‘historically’ white elides in this case race with nationalism – using race to define what is ‘British’ as that which is ‘white.’
But if ‘British’ and ‘white’ are now supposed to be synonymous, then we quickly get into hot water, as many comedians have pointed out – including perhaps most memorably Stewart Lee – since what ‘British’ is has no clear or exact meaning. We are a nation historically made of up Angles, French, Vikings, Norsemen, Celts, the Welsh, the Cornish, Germans, Greeks and more. (Many more!)
To suggest that Britishness and whiteness are historically synonymous is false, then, not because these other nations (Angles, French, Vikings, etc) are non-white (although more on this detail in a short moment), but because if ‘British’ is a single identity that in fact springs from a wide range of different identities, then there is no reason to suggest that ‘British’ is a single identity that has to have a specific skin colour.
What is more, the idea that the UK is historically white is also false and in and of itself white supremacist because if those non-white people who supposedly are ‘now’ British were indeed ‘British,’ then they would simply be British – and there would be no need to tell them that they were somehow ‘not British enough’ because of their skin colour.
That is, when history is used as an appeal to justify ongoing imbalances along racial lines within the UK, it places those non-white people in the category of ‘not quite British’ or ‘not British enough’ – as if having British nationality and/or permission to live and work in the UK were not the end of it.
To be treated as ‘not quite British’ means that history is being used as an excuse to preserve white Britishness in its supreme position, with that supremacy now based upon whiteness (i.e. it is white supremacy), since it is the non-whiteness of the other that renders them ‘not quite British.’
(Nationality can also be used instead of race to classify someone as ‘not quite British.’ For example, one might be Irish or Polish in origin, and this non-British origin is now used as a reason to define the other as ‘not quite British.’ In other words, white supremacy can also work alongside a sense of nationalist supremacy. It is not for no reason, though, that the Irish and the Polish have historically sometimes been referred to as the ‘blacks of Europe.’ That is, nationalist supremacy and white supremacy often go hand in hand, and even though the skin of many Irish people is ‘white,’ and indistinguishable from the skin of many British people, the Irish have not always been considered ‘fully white,’ just as they have not always been considered ‘fully British’ – whatever that means. As a result, ‘whiteness’ is a set of values not always wholly linked to skin colour alone.)
(Furthermore, the appeal to history also is inherently conservative in that it assumes that the past is more correct than the present and the future – a perspective that contradicts the notion of ‘progress,’ which can be equally problematic, and which claims that the present is more correct than the past – and that the future will be more correct yet than the present. In other words, such a view suggests that historical whiteness overrules present diversity and future non-whiteness. Given that history has favoured whites, such a conservative view of the world is thus to my mind itself a culturally ‘white supremacist’ view.)
‘But,’ our white supremacist might contend in their next line of defence, ‘if we don’t look out, then we’ll be overrun by foreigners’ – which is the ‘yellow peril’ line of argument at work in its clearest fashion (although the peril need not always be yellow; it can also be black and/or Polish and so on).
What this line of defence suggests again is that the now-British person is again not quite British enough, and that rather than Britain changing in its complexion in order to match its citizens, it is citizens who must change in their complexion in order to match the nationality.
Again, if we are all only really ‘now-British,’ in that everyone is non-British if you go back far enough, then it is both senseless and racist to say that the newer ‘now-British’ are ‘not quite British’ or ‘not really British’ because of their skin colour (or former nationality). That is, none of us is ‘really British’ when we look hard enough at it, with Britishness – as well as whiteness – simply being imaginary constructs.
The contention comes in again: how can you say race is an imaginary construct when I can see that a black person has a different colour of skin to a white person? I am not ‘imagining’ that difference at all…
In some senses, this white supremacist defence is not wrong; many people defined as black do indeed have darker skin pigmentation than many people defined as white.
However, it is how these differences are meaningful that is an act of the imagination.
For, if I am six foot tall, I am definitely taller than someone who is five foot six. And while some tall people do think that they are superior to shorter people, we nonetheless do not at present exclude people from a group (except perhaps for ‘those who can enjoy certain theme park rides’) as a result of their height. No, theme park rides aside, that would be completely arbitrary and meaningless.
And yet, while we do not (in principle) offer different opportunities to people who are taller than to people who are shorter, white supremacist societies, including the UK, do offer different opportunities to people because of their skin colour.
If we lived in a world where, say, people with size 8 shoes and below were discriminated against, while people with size 9 shoes and above enjoyed the majority of the opportunities and spoils, then we’d not look at skin colour but at shoe size in order to differentiate between people. In such a world, someone with darker skin would still have darker skin, and we would still be able to recognise as much, just as in our current world we can still tell if someone is short and/or has a smaller shoe size. But as we are cool with grouping up with people of different heights and/or shoe sizes in our world, so would we be cool in that other world of grouping up with people of different skin colours – just as long as they had the right shoe size or were the right height!
Since on the whole we are cool with grouping up with people of different shoe sizes, it seems weird that some people are not cool with grouping up with people of different skin colours.
With this example, then, I hope to have suggested that while there are indeed different skin colours (indeed, there are so many different skin colours that there are perhaps no two people with exactly the same skin colour, just as there are perhaps no two people with exactly the same shape and size of feet), what is an act of the imagination is how skin colour determines so much meaning and value in our world.
In the world where we discriminate by height and shoe size, skin colour would still be real, but it would determine so much less. In our world, height and shoe size are still real, but for some reason they determine relatively little (but definitely not nothing) in how much we esteem and value people, while skin colour determines a lot. That it is one and not the other is because of how we imagine people to be and how we imagine people to have or to accrue value.
That is, for some reason the contemporary world sets a lot of importance by skin colour, while it doesn’t supposedly set that much importance by height or shoe size – even though these differences are all real. Why it is skin colour that is so important a marker of difference is an act of imagination; we imagine that this one marker of difference is somehow so much more important than any other (although skin colour is by no means the only important marker of difference, with even height and shoe size sometimes being important enough a marker of difference to make that difference meaningful).
This is a long and roundabout diatribe that has not yet dealt much with The Gentlemen, but which I write at the outset of what is potentially a new series of occasional blogs about how white supremacism creeps into and is at work in contemporary cinema because it is important to demonstrate how the films in question engage with and suggest how whiteness is indeed attributed greater value in the western world, if not globally, and especially in the UK as per Guy Ritchie’s film.
With this in mind, we can turn to various moments in the film that demonstrate its white supremacist values, before then suggesting why it is important to point out the film’s white supremacy, even as it risks spoiling the ‘fun’ of this piece of what would like otherwise to be ‘harmless entertainment.’
Relatively early on in the film a mixed group of youths enter into the otherwise all-white and traditional space of a chippy. The group, which is marked by having non-white members among their number, approach the counter and start putting in orders without paying attention to the other clients – and while speaking in the vernacular of British urban youths.
However, what the youths do not know is that at the counter also awaiting his chips is Coach (Colin Farrell), an Irish boxing/fight coach who just wants peacefully to get his chips without being insulted by these ‘obnoxious’ youths.
What follows is a scene in which Coach beats up a couple of the youths before they recognise who he is and defer to him. As he does this, he also delivers a basic lesson in manners, all the while meeting the nodding approval of the chippy staff, who thus suggest that they have had enough of these young people, too.
The scene plays out as a fantasy of violence enacted against young, mixed groups – whose threat to the otherwise white clientele and workers at the chippy is signalled by the mixed, that is, partially non-white, nature of this particular group.
In other words, The Gentlemen here encourages us as viewers to enjoy seeing violence enacted against these young, urban kids – especially because they are lower class and non-white/mixed.
That this takes place in a chippy is significant: what more of a ‘British’ location could you get then a chippy, given that we are internationally famous for our fish’n’chips? Furthermore, given that a chippy is a ‘working class’ establishment, we can now understand that the youths are not unwelcome there because of their class – because, the chippy owners and the other chippy clients are all ‘working class.’ No – the reason that they are not welcome is because some of them are not white.
That the youths defer to Coach as they get beaten up suggests not only the imposition of a white supremacy over the course of the scene (re-establishing that whites are in charge after their supremacy has been threatened), but also that the youths themselves endorse and support this white supremacy.
That is, The Gentlemen does not just stage whites beating non-whites; it also has the non-whites basically tell the whites that they were correct to do so, since their white ways are better than the non-white ways of the youths – an important lesson that the non-whites learn over the course of this otherwise innocuous-seeming scene.
Having established Coach in his position of white supremacy – a position so supreme that even non-whites recognise his authority – the film then involves a scene in which two boxers at Coach’s gym have an argument. Indeed, one boxer calls Ernie (Bugzy Malone) a ‘black cunt,’ to which Ernie objects by suggesting that this is racist.
Coach interrupts Ernie and explains that it is not racist because Ernie is both black and a cunt, and therefore calling Ernie a black cunt is by definition not racist. Ernie agrees with Coach and goes about his business.
In other words, in this scene we have Coach delegitimise Ernie’s feeling that the other boxer has been racist (which is not to mention misogynist in his use of the term ‘cunt’). But more than simply telling Ernie he is wrong, Coach also gets to give Ernie a lesson in how to call someone a ‘black cunt’ is not racist – with the implication being to call someone a ‘black cunt’ is right. Furthermore, not only does Coach tell Ernie he’s wrong, before ‘proving’ to him why he’s wrong, but the script to The Gentlemen also has Ernie accepting Coach’s argument and basically agreeing with him.
It is important that this ‘lesson’ follows Coach having schooled the youths in the chippy. For now that his authority has been established in the former scene, it is in this second scene simply reaffirmed and not questioned. And this allows for the filmmakers to achieve a deeply problematic triple whammy: to sneak overt racism into this scene, to have that racism explained as non-racism, and for that racism then to be accepted as non-racism by the person to whom this racist slur was directed.
For those unwilling to accept this triple whammy, and who might rather posit that Ernie is indeed black, so it is not wrong to call him black, I should reply: Ernie is not called black, but specifically a black cunt. That is, blackness is here elided with cuntness in such a way that it is made to apply to an entire race, thereby making the discourse racist.
Furthermore, while the c-word does get bandied about in The Gentlemen with some frequency, it is never used in association with, say, white or whiteness. While Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and Ray (Charlie Hunnam) might call each other cunts, neither calls the other a ‘white cunt,’ for example.
Perhaps they don’t have to call each other a ‘white cunt’ because each of them is white; for Ray to call Fletcher a ‘white cunt’ (or vice versa) would be redundant and so it is simpler for them just to call each other a cunt.
However, Ernie must be specified as a black cunt. According to the logic of The Gentlemen, then, race apparently has nothing to do with cuntitude except when you are black, at which point in time it is always worth reminding the cunt in question that they are specifically a black cunt.
The upshot of this is that whiteness becomes invisible (whiteness is not even worth mentioning or specifying), while blackness must always be marked – because blackness is a mark – whether or not cuntness, deeply misogynistic as it is, is also a mark.
That blackness is a mark suggests that all deviations from whiteness are abnormal and need to be defined, most often negatively (Ernie is not a cunt, but a black cunt). The need to mark deviations from whiteness is part and parcel of white supremacy – with the filmmakers here going so far as to mark this marking also as correct, and not just by the white characters, but by the affected black character himself.
That Coach is Irish could conceivably mean that we have a ‘metaphorical black’ talking to a ‘genuine’ Black (the Irish as the ‘blacks of Europe’) about race; that is, these are ‘brothers’ talking. But really The Gentlemen seems here as in the chippy scene to want to use Coach’s Irishness to cover over what is otherwise overt white supremacy.
As is typical of much white supremacist cinema, The Gentlemen does not give much screen time to non-white characters. If you look at the poster for the film, you will see that the main cast is white with the exception of Henry Golding (who plays Dry Eye); while there are non-white characters, then, these generally are cast in subservient and secondary roles.
Furthermore, the only non-white character who does have a leading part and who appears on the poster, namely Dry Eye, is of course the film’s antagonist, or villain – an uppity young Asian man who threatens to take over the business of the whites who otherwise monopolise the marijuana business within the UK.
Now, Dry Eye is not just uppity towards the white overlords. No, The Gentlemen takes care to make sure that Dry Eye is also irreverent towards his Asian boss, Lord George (Tom Wu).
However, while this might with some gerrymandering mean that Dry Eye is just a ‘bad egg,’ and that actually there are some ‘good’ Asians, like Lord George, in the film… in fact the film also makes sure to show that Lord George is also a bad egg.
This in particular takes place through a scene in which weed kingpin Mickey Pierson (Matthew McConnaughey) goes to Lord George’s base and poisons him. Not only does he poison Lord George’s tea such that the latter vomits and soils himself – a humiliation in which Mickey seems to take some pleasure – but he also offers Lord George a lecture on vices.
For, at the start of the scene, Lord George explains that gambling on horses is his only vice. Cue Mickey explaining that Lord George, as someone who deals in cocaine and heroin, has many vices, even if he does not take those drugs himself (and this is not to mention the other rackets with which he is involved). This vileness Mickey compares to his own weed dealing, which in his own eyes is simply an innocent and not life-destroying drug, even as Mickey has knowingly slaughtered his rivals (notably black!) in order to be the biggest weed dealer in the UK and perhaps further afield.
This attribution to the Asian other of evil – which applies to Dry Eye, but especially here to Lord George – is not only another scene of the white telling the non-white about their place within the white world order, but it also involves a curious erasure of history. For, as has regularly been noted, it is the UK who supplied and got countless Asians, specifically Chinese people, addicted to opium during the so-called Opium Wars – and all in the name of Empire. And yet, here it is the ‘evil’ Chinaman (with his pompous faux British name!) who is guilty of doing the same…
Again, then, whiteness reigns supreme in the world of The Gentlemen.
The Gentlemen involves a sequence in which Ray goes with his colleagues, including Bunny (Chidi Ajufo), on to a housing estate in order to extract the daughter of a lord, Laura (Eliot Pauline Sumner). This they do, but not without mistakenly throwing a Russian heir out of a window and to his death.
The body is then filmed by a further group of youths, from whom Ray and his colleagues must take their phones in order to ensure that the mission is not recorded and placed on social media.
This then prompts a sequence just like the one in the chippy: white Ray confronts the mixed/non-white youths and then out-toughs them with a machine gun. While Bunny is indeed on Ray’s ‘side’ during this confrontation, as per the sequence in the chippy, the council estate sequence situates the viewer in such a way as to take pleasure in seeing these youths as humiliated, first by marking them as a threat (especially by keeping Ray’s machine gun hidden not just from the youths, but also from us as viewers), then by marking them as defeated.
Again, then, white supremacy creeps in.
And yet, just as Bunny works for Ray, so does urban youth culture work for the film, since the inclusion of celebrity performers like Bugzy Malone is surely done in a bid to boost the appeal of The Gentlemen beyond a white audience.
And what this means is that black/urban music features on the soundtrack to the film also in a bid to sell it – and in order to increase its coolness.
Toni Morrison has written about how white media regularly use encounters with blacks, especially black music, in order to signal a transition (a character suddenly is galvanised to do something tough by listening to hip hop, for example) – and it is clear in the history of cinema more generally that black music is regularly used to signify ‘action’ and ‘excitement’ in films that otherwise have unmarked white characters taking up the vast majority of the screen time.
This exploitation is also at work here in The Gentlemen, then, where all that is non-white is derided and yet used profitably by whiteness, including the humiliation of non-whites for the pleasure of white audiences. (There is even a series of jokes at the expense of a character called Phuc, played by Jason Wong.)
And yet, for all of its use of blackness to increase its caché and chances of making a profit, The Gentlemen also has the temerity to deride black culture.
This it does relatively subtly towards the beginning of the film. For, Fletcher explains to Ray that he has written a film script about the whole plot in which he finds himself involved – for Fletcher is an investigative journalist who has been following the exploits of Mickey Pierson now for some time… and he is with Ray, as Mickey’s sidekick, to extort some money from him so as not to have Mickey’s business exposed in the tabloid press (represented here by Eddie Marsan playing newspaper editor Big Dave).
As Fletcher explains to Ray, his script is cinematic, and he outlines what ‘cinematic’ is and means by comparing it to television or even something that one might watch on a small screen on the internet. As if to confirm Fletcher’s argument that cinema is ‘superior’ to these other media, the makers of The Gentlemen consciously change the dimensions of the screen in order to convey how the bigger/more ‘cinematic’ an image is, the more powerful it is.
That is, cinema is upheld in The Gentlemen as the supreme audiovisual format.
But more than this, cinema is also upheld as white when it transpires that Coach’s non-white protégés, including Ernie and others, have not only stolen some of Mickey’s weed from one of his plantations (a problematic term that I use provocatively by choice), but that they have also recorded their exploits and uploaded them to social media.
In other words, non-whiteness is here implicitly associated with the small screen, which in turn is defined as an inferior medium not just by Fletcher, but also by the film itself, since the film consciously changes the dimensions of the screen in order to demonstrate Fletcher’s point, i.e. to demonstrate that Fletcher is correct.
It is for this reason, then, that the makers of The Gentlemen elide whiteness with cinema as a whole, with whiteness being supreme, especially in this ‘supreme’ medium. Non-whites are associated with inferior media, which in turn confirms their ‘inferior’ societal status.
And yet, for all of their supposed aesthetic ‘inferiority,’ The Gentlemen is very happy to replicate the aesthetics of social media for the purposes of telling its story, including by showing in full one of the music videos created by Ernie/Bugzy Malone in the closing credits.
White supremacy, then, relies on the non-white for its own power, and yet denies this reliance even as it overtly uses non-whiteness to its own advantage.
Of course, a white supremacist might just finally contend two things. Firstly, that someone has to be the bad guy, and so why not the Asian other/Dry Eye? To which one might respond that no one has to be the bad guy at all, especially if we understand that anyone who does ‘bad’ things generally does them for reasons beyond simply being ‘evil’ – even if The Gentlemen cannot be bothered to take the time to show the reasons behind, say, Dry Eye’s greed (meaning that he is simply allowed to be or to become a ‘bad’ Asian).
(I might suggest that cinema as a whole does not generally bother to spend time investigating or exploring complexities of character, a wider issue that is related both to conventions of storytelling, and to the kinds of films we watch, how long they run, where they play and so on. That is, films generally cannot be bothered to explore complexity because it would require slower, less ‘interesting’ and more thoughtful films. This would in turn mean that cinema would run the risk of not making as much money; and so, capitalism as a whole is in part responsible for the lack of thoughtful movies, meaning that cinema is a race to the bottom in terms of indulging unthoughtfulness. How and why thought and thinking are so unappealing in our attention-driven and capitalist society is an issue that will have to await another discussion.)
Secondly, a white supremacist might contend that The Gentlemen need not be bothered to show such complexities because it is, after all, ‘just a movie,’ just ‘a bit of fun,’ or just entertainment – as the film consciously suggests by choosing The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’ as the song that plays over the start of the final credits.
But, as Richard Dyer has also suggested, that which is put forward as ‘only entertainment’ is often far from being such.
Or, put differently, we don’t have many pro-KKK films (although we should worry about their existence and the popularity that any such films enjoy). And yet, we do have issues of white supremacy and racism in our society. And white supremacy persists in our societies not only because of overt racism, but also because of white supremacy is fed to us in ‘mere entertainments’ such as The Gentlemen.
I might push further and suggest that not only is there white supremacy in our society, but that we live in a white supremacist society as a whole; that is, our society is built upon white supremacy, among other things (including classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other issues – and all of which are present in The Gentlemen, too). Since our society is built upon white supremacy, we cannot change white supremacy without changing society.
I might also suggest that cinema as a whole is white supremacist and that we cannot change white supremacy in cinema without fundamentally changing cinema.
The reason to write a blog (series) such as this, then, is to suggest that we should indeed be looking to change cinema – by encouraging producers, editors, writers, directors, cinematographers, actors, all crew and cast, and even all cinema goers, as well as critics and so on – to be attuned to how white supremacy is at work in the medium, and especially in films like this one.
If we don’t put in such work – if we don’t kill some of the ‘joy’ that people take in white supremacy – then white supremacy will continue. And it is time to put an end to such white supremacy – not necessarily by making only films about paraplegic black lesbians or whatever other sarcastic response a white supremacist might put defensively in place (although why not have many more such films?), but by being and/or becoming more responsible for how we think, how we express our thoughts, and how we live with each other today.
That is, if we can spread a wider understanding of how white supremacy works, then perhaps the fabric of films like The Gentlemen might change. Producers, actors, writers, editors and so on would not want to make such films, and so such films would change. This in turn might change cinema. And by changing cinema we might in turn change society.
Such changes need to be made…
* Another white supremacist contention might be aimed at the writer of this blog as a white (cisgendered) male, etc: am I not also implicated in white supremacy, the recipient of many of its benefits and so on? That is, am I not just a virtue-signalling hypocrite in writing anti-white supremacy blogs? I am indeed complicit in white supremacy, and this has emerged in different ways at different points in my life – and it likely will never not be the case. However, as I grow increasingly to understand the workings of white supremacy myself, I feel it important not only to seek to change my own behaviours and complicity with that system, but also to share what it is that I am learning in a bid to bring about wider change. The process of learning has not ended and likely never will end. To bring it to an end, though, is what we might call a project: a part of one’s life work, something that goes on until death, but which may well give meaning to such a life, rather than persisting in meaningless complicity.
I came to Blue Story with a pre-formed mix of admiration and expectation.
The admiration arises from Rapman’s meteoric rise as a rapper from ends being signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation – much on the back of Rapman’s music videos/online series, Shiro’s Story (UK, 2018).
Shiro’s Story involves some solid storytelling – with Rapman himself functioning as a kind of chorus over events as they unfold, involving love, betrayal, struggle and so on. I shall return to Shiro’s Story as a point of comparison to Blue Story later on.
The expectation that I had for Blue Story arises not only from the existence of Shiro’s Story as a decent piece of online media, but also from recent news stories that, for better or for worse, have helped to give the film a great amount of exposure in recent days, in particular a reported gang brawl involving c100 people at a Birmingham multiplex on 24 November 2019.
Not that the brawling has anything per se to do with Blue Story, but it nonetheless increases expectations about the timeliness and importance of the film. Indeed, the screen at which I saw the film (at the Odeon Covent Garden in London) was near-full (c160 tickets sold).
Furthermore, the vast majority of the audience were young and non-white – on a scale that I have rarely if ever seen at a central London theatre, suggesting that the film is connecting with an audience that otherwise does not often make the trip into such spaces. Clearly, London and the UK in general need more films like Blue Story in order to bring people together – especially to see demographics represented onscreen that all too often are overlooked, tokenised and so on.
Indeed, as has been reported, the decision by VUE to pull Blue Story from its screens (with Showcase having reinstated it shortly after removing it following the Birmingham brawl) is considered to have an element of structural racism associated with it: cinemas are white spaces where black and other non-white British (and other) people appear neither in person nor on screen.
And yet, if we are to have the wherewithal to recognise the importance of structures in the exhibition policies of British cinema chains, as well as perhaps in British cinema as an institution, then it is the absence of structures in Blue Story that constitute its most serious failings.
The film is not without many things to commend it: the performances are across the board intense, with leads Stephen Odubola and Micheal Ward clearly standing out; there are some moments that beautifully capture the awkwardness of youth (with audience members responding audibly about the familiarity of party and clinch situations during the screening I saw); and Rapman’s own appearances, rapping as if a Greek chorus in between acts. These latter in particular take the film into the territory of the musical that is fresh and engaging.
What is more, Blue Story clearly fits into a genealogy of black British and other filmmaking, with Noel Clarke looming as a key influence, even if Rapman himself first made a version of Blue Story for YouTube in 2014 – i.e. before Clarke had even finished his -hood trilogy, which culminated in Brotherhood (UK, 2016).
What is more, Rapman’s music clearly bears traces of what might seem an unlikely point of reference, namely Bruce Hornsby – he of ‘The Way It Is’ fame.
Except that Hornsby’s influence is not as unlikely as all that when we consider that ‘The Way It Is’ is a song about the American Civil Rights movement, with the song making reference to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as racial segregation in the form of the ‘color bar’ (‘When all it sees at the hiring time / Is the line on the color bar, no / That’s just the way it is / Some things will never change’).
What is more, Hornsby has been a regular collaborator with Spike Lee, writing music for nine of Lee’s films, including Clockers (USA, 1995), Bamboozled (USA, 2001), Chi-Raq (USA, 2015) and BlackKklansman (USA, 2018), as well as his Netflix production of She’s Gotta Have It (USA, 2017-2019).
In other words, Lee’s legacy is felt at least indirectly in Blue Story, suggesting that the latter wishes on some level to situate itself within a history of politicised and political filmmaking – and music.
But as Blue Story struggles to recognise structures, so does it struggle to render its story political.
Here I encounter some ambivalence. As a white male film scholar, I am wary that I should be moved to write a blog about a black British film, especially when I am going to be critical of it.
For, why should I critique a black British film when I let so many white British films go for being mediocre, troublesome or problematic (I simply don’t have time to write about all of the films I see)?
It is not that I consider Rapman to be under pressure to represent the totality of the black British experience. But while I want to be supportive of Blue Story (and I hope that in writing this blog at all, I am demonstrating that in many ways I am), I also cannot let the film go for deficiencies that would for me be problematic in any film (all the while acknowledging that I am perhaps ‘no one’ to be able to comment on a film at all).
A read of bell hooks’ wonderful Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992) would quickly highlight various of the film’s problems. As hooks takes none other than Spike Lee to task for the phallocentric nature of his cinematic universe, so, too, is Rapman’s cinematic universe one dominated by men, especially as mothers and girlfriends disappear over the course of the first half of the film.
Conceivably Rapman is commenting on precisely the issue of sexism and the toxic nature of masculinity. Nonetheless, his female characters become background over the course of the film (while also being referred to repeatedly – and with intended humour – as ‘tings’ by the male characters who basically stare at them at parties). As a result, women function here as excuses for the men to puff their chests at each other – with barely a nod to the queerness of such behaviour being allowed in such a film.
However, I remain unconvinced that Rapman is commenting and inviting us critically to reflect upon black British masculinity, since the writer-director does so little to engage with where it comes from, how it is constructed and so on. That is, Rapman does not engage with the structures that bring about the aggressive black masculinities on display here – and in this sense his film plays more for entertainment than it does for politics.
This is a pity. Because in Shiro’s Story, for example, we get to see Shiro (Joivan Wade) working in a warehouse before he is then offered a break as a drug dealer. While there is some mention in Blue Story about how Timmy (Odubola) is sold out by a bribe from a rival gang, the world of film is not situated in any economic reality at all.
Furthermore, while there is the odd mention that the threatened and real violence that we see in the film is pointless given that the gang members do not ‘own’ their postcode, there is no sense of history here: how is it that London has come to have ‘ghettos’ and how is it that many young black men (in particular) come to feel hopeless and/or disaffected in such a way that they join gangs.
Rapman is clearly astute to how violence can breed violence, but he barely does more than namedrop the bigger issues that bring about the violence that seems endemic in black British urban society.
Indeed, from Shiro’s Story we know that Rapman can contextualise his stories; and so that he does not here is not because he is a first-time writer-director and thus inexperienced. That is, I shan’t let him hide behind that excuse, especially as he is not as young as all that (in his 30s, apparently), and even if his film does have some dodgy plotting (would a van door really be so hot that one could not touch it even for a quarter of a second in order to open it, especially using, say, a sleeve over one’s hand?).
Rather, the lack of explanation as to why these men are engaging in this behaviour is a choice made by or imposed upon Rapman. That is, he chooses not to show us, for example, the mother of Marco (Ward) and Switcher (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) working two jobs, preferring instead to show us her two sons, who seemingly come only to care to seek ‘beef’ with the paigons (pagans) from another postcode.
I say ‘imposed upon,’ because Rapman possibly delivered a film that pleases not so much the audience of his film as a ‘white’ financing institution like the BBC. That is, a kind of structural racism might have been at play in bringing about the end result that is Blue Story in its current form – and one that Rapman has either not been able to criticise, or with which he is happily complicit.
However, the result is the same: without going into the underlying issues that bring about violence, Blue Story becomes little more than a showcase of black men arguing and trying to out-macho each other.
In making little to no attempt to tell us why what we are seeing is taking place, these black men become simply spectacles of violence – and the film reaffirms (I assume without wanting to) the (racist) message that ‘black men are simply like this.’ Or: that’s just the way it is.
However, when Hornsby sings how ‘that’s just the way it is,’ he is of course employing irony because history has shown us that segregation could not continue in the USA, even as racial inequality continues via what Angela Y. Davis has repeatedly identified as the prison industrial complex (including most recently here).
Rapman, meanwhile, provides no history (with the lack of history wrapped up here in the trope/cliché of the absent father, which is repeated across both Timmy and Marco’s families) and in some senses no irony – even if there is ‘dramatic irony’ in that good friends become worst enemies.
To be clear, I am not saying that Rapman needs to offer us a happy ending in which people overcome rivalries and enmity. Indeed, there is a strong tradition of pessimism in movies about race, including in now-classics like John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (USA, 1991).
This in turns means that it is not quite fair to ask us to think about how Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet (USA, 2019) is playing on UK screens with very little fanfare when compared with Blue Story – since in its hopeful tale of historical female heroism it perhaps does not grasp a sense of despair that black and other non-white British audiences potentially connect with, rather than the white bourgeois sense of hope that a film like Harriet perhaps evokes.
But at least in Singleton’s film, the audience is constantly being reminded of a world beyond its Crenshaw setting, as well as the possibility of another world; there is always a choice, and there are economic, social and other structural pressures at work that make the personal lives depicted also political (even as Boyz n the Hood is formally quite conservative).
Notably, when Rapman’s film refers to anything beyond SE13 and SE15, it is generally to Rapman’s own music and/or the LinkUp TV channel that published his early work.
That is, Rapman foregoes political engagement for self-promotion. Again, this is Rapman’s choice; but as he prefers to promote himself over any genuine attempt to engage politically with the structural aspects of race and gang crime in the UK, so does he – in the language of the Dead Prez – choose a Lexus over justice.
Furthermore, as the film becomes repetitive in its succession of scenes in which black men argue, it conceivably ties into a history of what James A. Snead describes in his glorious essay as ‘repetition in black culture.’
But again, there is no motivation for this – meaning that gangs simply exist, without being concerned with territorial business interests connected to the grey or black markets, alternative economies, or social conditions. Apparently simply being born in Peckham will induce in black men a hatred for black men from Deptford – and vice versa, and that’s just the way it is.
Given the coverage that it has enjoyed, it seems a shame that Blue Story wastes a rare opportunity to offer up a scathing critique of structural racism in the UK.
In this sense, the coverage of the Birmingham brawl in fact becomes emblematic of the film as a whole: rather than making a film that incites audience members to take militantly to the streets in demand of social change, Blue Story instead becomes an excuse for young ethnic British people to fight each other.
Sure, this spectacle of self-destruction takes place in an otherwise white, consumerist enclave, and thus it does in some senses unsettle readers of national newspapers. But it also simply reaffirms and reinforces a white fear of a black Britain – reducing minority youths to hoodlums in hoodies who simply are violent, with no need for the rest of society to reflect on their own implication in this mess.
That is, blackness becomes a spectacle for white consumption.
The nihilism involved both in the brawl and in Blue Story is troubling – and in this sense there really is something to get behind here. What is more, there clearly is a British sensibility of nihilism, as we have seen in countless movies related to class (and now race): there is no way out of the British class system (meaning that the UK is truly corrupt since it sees change as impossible; history ended in the UK first, with numerous black and other non-white bodies being excluded from mainstream society).
Maybe it is my white sensibility that is at play when I say that I would hope for more, and maybe it is unfair to ask Rapman to be anything other than human, i.e. flawed and imperfect. But if we believe there is something wrong – as Blue Story would seemingly purport – then it is our duty (so say I) to understand why, so that we then might understand how to change it.
Without understanding why, and without any sense of history (because there is no history?), then it will simply perpetuate – as a spectacle as well as in the form of a reality that affects the lives of real people. The lack of critical engagement here is telling, but also self-defeating.
As Shiro’s Story demonstrates, Rapman can do better. Let us hope, therefore, that next time he will engage with a bigger picture and that he realises not just his commercial potential, but also the political and ethical potential of his considerable artistic talents.
We are delighted to announce that Beg Steal Borrow’s short film, Sculptures of London, will play at Cross Cuts Film Festival, an event that forms part of the 2019 Stockholm Environmental Humanities Festival for Film & Text.
The screening will take place on Friday 22 November 2019 at 13:00 at the Bio Rio in Hornstull in Stockholm, Sweden. What is more, director William Brown will also be taking part in a discussion on Filmmaking as a Research Practice, also at the Bio Rio, on Saturday 23 November at 10:00.
The screening of Sculptures of London will take place as part of a double bill with Karl Palmås and Kalle Sanner’s Too Late for History to End, with introductions and discussions from Annals of Cross Cuts editors Jakob Nilsson, Jan Olsson and Jacob von Heland.
Meanwhile, the Filmmaking as a Research Practice session will also feature contributions from Jan Olsson of Stockholm University, Swedish artist and filmmaker Hanna Ljungh, Klara Björk of Valand Academy, Gothenburg University and Forum för Visuell Praktik, and Daniel Oxenhandler, a filmmaker at ENACTLAB and CPH:DOX SCIENCE ACADEMY.
After the festival, Sculptures of London will be published as part of Annals of Cross Cuts, which is a peer-reviewed publication for film-based research, and which supports the use of film and cinema as integral practices in the environmental humanities.
Sculptures of London is a documentary that considers the story told to us by the sculptures of London. That is, the film places London’s sculptures side by side in order to show the ideas and values that these monuments embody, and how they give us a sense of London as a city.
Narrated by Lissa Schwerm and shot by Tom Maine, Sculptures of London offers an intelligent and wry insight into one of the greatest cities in the world through its public art.
I was recently invited to write an essay on “Don’t Look Now” for a catalog to accompany a recent exhibition of work by Martin Erik Andersen at Holstebro Art Museum in Denmark.
Always one to be persuaded by flattery, I naturally accepted, and subsequently spent a fair amount of time conducting research, watching and thinking about the film, and then writing this essay.
Alas, however, the below essay was not what they said that they were looking for – in that does not provide a ‘mathematical’ analysis of the film. Rather than waste the c30 hours of work that went into this, though, I figured I would post it here.
Don’t Look Now: A Film Beyond Measure
“Don’t Look Now” seems to have it in for wizened old dwarf women, since the one who features in Nicolas Roeg’s film turns out to be a murderer who ultimately slays John Baxter, played by Donald Sutherland, and who is the central protagonist of the movie.
We have to start with a spoiler, though, because it is only by getting to the end of the film that we can begin in certain respects to make sense of it. For, as we shall see, “Don’t Look Now” offers up a conception of space and time that suggests that in many respects we are always already dead – and that it is simply an anthropocentric conceit to organise, or indeed to contain, space and time into measurable units, or indeed to measure space and time at all.
I should refine my last sentence and say that it is not simply an anthropocentric conceit to measure space and time (to divide space and time into measurements). Rather, it is quite specifically a tendency or a trope of what we might term capitalist man to do this (with the gender implications of the term ‘man’ being allowed to remain, with whiteness and western-ness also being qualities that remain consistent with such hegemonic practices, or practices of domination). In short, capitalist white man (who could almost certainly be specified via further adjectives) seeks to dominate nature by subjugating nature to measurement. By making our world finite and ordered. To bring order to chaos.
Why does man seek to do this? Because he wishes to halt time, not to die, to live forever, and to escape from the perceived cruelty of nature, which cruelty amounts basically to taking it as an insult that he does not live forever in the first place. That is, man seeks to do this out of narcissism. To prove that he is above the animals and ‘better’ than nature.
But what does this have to do with “Don’t Look Now”?
It has everything to do with “Don’t Look Now”, because (capitalist western white) man’s wrangles with the chaotic universe become the very fabric of Roeg’s movie, both as a documentary and as a self-consciously composed (fiction) film
What on earth do I mean when I describe the film as a documentary?
Well, what in particular I mean is that humans don’t have to go very far with a camera in order to find signs of humanity’s attempts to dominate nature/the world/chaos via what I am terming measurement. As it turns out, Venice is an excellent venue for this because it is a space where the straight lines and measurements that humanity imposes on the world (including the delimitation and naming of space that is calling this particular place ‘Venice’) come in direct contact with—and are reflected in—the chaotic waters on top of which that city is built (and into which it is slowly sinking, about which, more imminently).
But even if Venice provides an excellent visualisation of how a certain kind of humanity (patriarchal white society, with the Christianity business at its core) tries specifically to build itself upon water in order to subjugate that water, you could basically point a camera anywhere these days and what you would film would include the straight lines and geometric patterns applied to and/or covering over nature by humans, as well as signs of that nature itself in the form of tendrils, vines, blades of grass, trees, rain, clouds, and anything else that is not manmade. In this sense, pretty much all films document the ways in which humans try to, but in many ways cannot, pave over nature and create a measured and measurable world of order, and of which we can make easy sense. We simplify nature, making order of chaos, and in so doing we mark our separation from chaos, giving to ourselves a sense of our own specialness within the universe.
Except, of course, that this endeavour is all vanity—and Venice will indeed sink into the quagmire as churches will fall into disrepair, humans will die, and so on. At least, this will happen until humans do discover the elixir of eternal life (and preferably eternal youth rather than ageing forever but not dying). That is, humans will do this until they do finally become gods—a pursuit that even today many believe possible thanks to the powers of ‘science,’ i.e. thanks to the powers of measurement itself. We seek the bottles or other containers that will bring about eternal life, be those augmented bodies, computer avatars, elixirs that we can drink, space ships to take us to the stars and many more ideas, as often faddish as foolish.
Cinema and photography, as technologies that can in some senses preserve human life, including beyond what we typically refer to as death, are part and parcel of this endeavour. And yet, cinema can also, like many humans, be at war with this embalming impulse and it can also open itself up to and find regeneration in chaos. Rather than being a tool for eternal life, cinema can also let chaos and death into its system.
And so if “Don’t Look Now” documents man’s vanity as he attempts to cheat death (just look at Venice; such vanity is the very architecture of the place), it also consciously explores this contradiction, and thus it emerges as a work of art that actively works with chaos rather than trying to pour concrete over it.
Indeed, the opening shots announce as much: rain and the shuddering water of a pond—accompanied by a zoom that creates a pattern of almost televisual static. We dissolve to patterns of light on a black background, as light filters through cracks in a blind. The blind may keep out the light, but as the film will tell us, the blind can also see, and in seeing, show us aspects of our world that we otherwise miss.
After these opening seconds, we will repeatedly have flowers, vines and tendrils creeping into the frame. Indeed, in cutaway after cutaway, Roeg deliberately speaks the iconographic language of the still life, where the straight lines of the human world are juxtaposed with the sinewy mess of nature. Furthermore, pigeons will repeatedly emerge into frame to disrupt the geometry of the city, while cats meow from behind metal grates (which is not to mention dogs barking and children crying offscreen throughout the film).
Even when we do find ourselves in relatively geometric spaces, the human itself emerges as a force of chaos rather than one of control. We can picture John and Laura, framed by drawing tubes and hotel room furniture, and yet they themselves both have curly, barely controlled hair, spiralling out of their heads (and out of John’s lip)—a sort of cinematic Kandinsky consisting of monochromatic straight lines coming up against inconsistent spheres.
John is at the centre of this tension between order and chaos. If the blind seer Heather can tell that John also has visions, John tries as best he can to deny them. Even as he knows that he is restoring a fake church, something that he admits to Laura over dinner, he still is invested in the project of halting time and bringing about the restoration and eternal youth of this floating city.
Indeed, the tension that John feels is clearly reflected in his consideration of space. For, John has written a book called Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space, which we see next to Laura on the sofa of their English home at the film’s start. We are not given access to the book’s contents, but from its title we might surmise that John can indeed see beyond space as geometric, that is, beyond space as being made of fixed and measured/measurable coordinates.
Let us dwell a while on this idea. For, the Greek term for measurement is metron, which for Reza Negarestani is
found etymologically encrypted in English words such as Dimension (from dimetiri: measure out), meter, etc. Keeping well in mind the famous doctrine of Pythagoras, ‘Man is the metron of everything’ (pantōn chrēmatōn metron anthrōpos), metron can be translated as scale, measure, standard, and value. According to Sextus Empiricus, metron expresses criterion (scale, measure) but Heraclitus and Sophocles saw it as certifying dominance, a domination over something. Therefore, metron indicates that both measures and dimensions inter-connect with power, judgement and reasoning. The critique of metron explains how dimensions (namely metron) bring power into effect, mobilizing and propagating it. (Negarestani 2008: 233)
In other words, metron is humanity’s attempt to control an otherwise dimension-defying reality and to become a god by measuring it out, by applying to it a fixed number of dimensions, and thus by dominating/subjugating/simplifying it. No wonder it is that we see a bust of Socrates’ note-taker, Plato, as John inspects a slide also at the film’s start. For, via his engagement with ancient Greek thought, John understands that measurement is nothing more than man’s attempt to control nature, and that it must therefore be fragile. What, however, lies ‘beyond’ this fragile geometry of space…?
Beyond the fragile dimensions that humans construct via walls, pavements and other straight, hard surfaces, which all eventually will crumble into the sea, man is lost—as John and Laura experience even within Venice as they wander its alleyways at night. Without illumination and thus without the visible markers or measures of space that man has created in order to navigate it, space is simply a labyrinth, and space simply swallows up man and demonstrates that his meaning and order, his straight lines and his religious myths, are mere consolations against the impermanence and complexity of the world. Even a frozen lake is not flat/straight, as Laura explains. And so the human world tries to be permanent and thus is carved in solid materials like stone, but even these become covered by moss and broken down, and even these give way to mud and water, which in turn drown humans and bring them back to the ever-shifting earth.
If “Don’t Look Now” pits an ordered solidity against chaotic liquid, then clearly humans contain within them the tension between these two states. For, humans are of course themselves mostly liquid, as is made most clear when blood flows forth from humans in injury and death—and monthly in the female human for as long as she might biologically generate new life. Humans thus create bottles for liquids in order to contain their chaotic power, much as humans bottle themselves up in order to keep the same chaos at bay (unsurprisingly, then, John is aghast when he vomits, which he claims not to have done in 10 years, since he prides himself on keeping everything inside).
And yet, if humans create and become bottles, glass nonetheless smashes on several occasions in the film: Laura and John’s son, Johnny, cycles over glass just before Christine drowns in the pond, while glass smashes as Laura faints in the restaurant, and John is covered in broken glass as he nearly falls from inspecting the mural in the Church of St Niccolò dei Mendicoli. Meanwhile, blood spills from John and Johnny at the moment of Christine’s death—and the water beneath Venice is always there to remind us that chaos can only be bottled briefly, if at all.
But still (western) humans persist in shutting themselves off from the outside and in seeking eternal, bottled and contained life. Indeed, “Don’t Look Now” anticipates, or at the very least positions itself as being part of a cultural logic of computation when little Johnny’s headmaster at Porton School is revealed as being called Babbage. Clearly an allusion to Charles Babbage, the progenitor of digital culture, his role as an educator clearly suggests that the logic of mankind as exempt from nature (with digital technology having since the film become the talismanic technology that will make this aspiration come true) is one that is inculcated in western humans from an early age, such that they go on to internalise this logic of separation-from-reality, and assume it to be real.
What is more, humans resist the outside world not just by building walls (even as doors fly open by themselves/at the power of the wind), but also by covering themselves with clothes—with “Don’t Look Now”being especially a treatise on gloves. It is as if humans want to avoid direct contact with as much of the world as possible, including with each other. In addition, humans cross their legs (John) in order not to let out the yonic energies that emanate from their genitals, and humans try to maintain sure and still postures. (Notably, Laura is told to uncross her legs when Heather tries to get in touch with Christine from beyond the grave.)
The awkwardness of Donald Sutherland running towards the pond where Christine drowns is one of the most important images in “Don’t Look Now”, since it conveys the imperfection of human movement—while at the same time working within the film to suggest that humans try otherwise to move as little as possible, to turn themselves into perfect statues and thus to live forever (in photographs?). This stillness involves a suppression of desire that is at odds with the openness to other dimensions that Heather experiences, shuddering and juddering as she communes orgasmically with the beyond… and which orgasmic shudder has clear echoes with the film’s ‘controversial’ (or at least for many people memorable) sex scene, in which John and Heather remain (alas, all too tastefully?) nude for what seems like a prolonged period.
To shudder and to quake is to be in touch with the infinite and to generate new life, much as the mud and the water generate new life and the continued evolution and change of life on earth. John Izod sees the brooch worn by Heather’s sister Wendy as a symbol of fertility (Izod 1992: 108), and in some senses he is not wrong; but when we get a close up view of it as Laura inspects the brooch while visiting the sisters in their hotel room, we see more clearly that it depicts a mermaid—as if these women were indeed from a chaotic water element, and thus also outside of the geometric world of masculinist stone.
In identifying the film as western, as well as by quoting an Islamic scholar in relation to measurement above, we perhaps have wandered far from the film’s intended/suitable critical framework. And yet, the film also contains seeds of such a ‘dewesternising’ critique. ‘The deeper we get, the more Byzantine it gets,’ says John to Laura just before he confesses to restoring not a real church but a fake. Not only is the western world in some senses fake as a whole because of its fundamental and wilfully illusory separation from nature/reality, but it also is one built upon a history of theft and a subsequent denial of that theft (with western man seeking no depth whatsoever, since to enter the murky depths, to enter murkiness as depth, is indeed the remit of the Byzantine/other; no wonder western man tries to surround himself with mirrors, which surfaces “Don’t Look Now” also consults repeatedly).
At one point, John comes face to face with a grotesque bust on the side of the church that he is restoring. Not only does this suggest that John himself is grotesque, but it also brings to mind the way in which the grotesque is itself a marginal form that is perhaps marginal precisely because it regularly blurs the boundary between the human and other species/the rest of the world, with grotesques (and its explicitly non-western cousin, the arabesque) regularly seeing the figure merge with the textual in the form of a flourishing vine. In other words, the grotesque reminds us not of the separation of man from world, but precisely of the interconnection between man, animal, plant and the rest of the material world (see also Marks 2010: 96-98). In the Islamic pictorial tradition, the grotesque and the arabesque both also bring to mind the autonomous life of the line; that is, as the line is freed from the burden of representation but instead becomes its own expressive force (flowing as it wishes and not because it must outline, say, a face), so does it move beyond the realm of the visual (this is a picture of a face) and into the realm of the haptic (you can feel the force of the line). It is not through vision that we can understand the world, but through touch, even as western humans put on gloves to avoid it.
But as the line comes alive in the grotesque and the arabesque, so might we also understand how colour, in particular through a Venetian history of art, also connotes hapticity. Laura U Marks can help to illuminate once again why Venice is such an apt venue for “Don’t Look Now”:
of course line and color are interdependent, as in the labile quality of the contour and the mercurial technique of chiaroscuro. It is notable that the Venetians, and their coloristic heir in the nineteenth century, Delacroix, were influenced by Oriental contact. Haptic space began to push to the surface of their paintings, while the linearists were still keeping the abstract line in check… Artisans began to emphasize flow over form. The tendril decoration inherited from Greek and Roman art quickly lost its naturalism and became what we call the arabesque. (Marks 2010: 54)
And so with its emphasis on red, “Don’t Look Now” similarly enacts an attempt to divorce colour from form, to give to colour a life of its own, as is made especially clear by the blood that floods the image during the climax of the opening death sequence. This haptic aspect of the film thus helps viewers to get beyond simply what is represented (here is a person in a red coat) and to access other dimensions hidden within these normal/normative ways of seeing (but of course the bearer of the red coat turns out to be a grotesque, old, murderous woman, since the grotesque, the old and the female are all antithetical to the myth of eternal youth that patriarchy seeks, promises, and narcissistically fools itself into believing it can realise; the woman does not bottle up life, keeping it for herself, but instead she bleeds and gives life).
If “Don’t Look Now” in some senses consciously places itself within artistic, pictorial and/or painterly traditions, then it is also knowingly a film. If for Mary Shelley the Promethean endeavour to establish eternal life led to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster, then Christine’s death clearly evokes the moment in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) when the monster throws a little girl, Maria, into a pond, causing her also to drown. Indeed, perhaps this allusion makes clear how John himself is a creating a monster in trying to resurrect a fake. Or rather, in trying to be Prometheus, John already is Frankenstein’s monster himself.
Meanwhile, “Don’t Look Now” of course follows hot on the heels of Luchino Visconti’s Thomas Mann adaptation, Death in Venice (1971), which itself tells the tale of how human desire cannot be kept straight, and how man will indeed only ever fail in his attempts to prolong his life. Finally, the moment when a dead body is fished from the water recalls a similar moment in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), in which a car is similarly fished out from the Tiber—as if that tale of human alienation were in some senses continued here. A poster of Charlie Chaplin further clarifies the film’s lineage: the tramp equally is alienated from the machinic world of capital.
But much as “Don’t Look Now” revels in its status as a film, it is and must also be in rebellion against that very same status. For if cinema is anything, it is perhaps, as mentioned, a technology for preserving human life beyond death. In this way, it is part of the Promethean project, while the very and inevitable existence of the frame means that cinema only ever ‘bottles’ or ‘boxes’ space, offering us the Euclidean coordinates of a framed reality. Cinema is like Venice in that if the latter is, as Heather suggests, a ‘city in aspic,’ then cinema likewise puts the human body in aspic, preserving us in polyester.
If this is so, then it is against the frame of cinema itself that Roeg will consistently reframe, zoom and blur the images that we see. As with the performances, in which lines are mumbled, and the sound recording, in which sometimes the dialogue is hard to follow, Roeg thus deliberately makes a technically ‘dirty’ film, reminding us regularly that we are watching a film, a fake, a story that is not necessarily to be believed. Indeed, the use of quotation marks in the very title of the film (“Don’t Look Now”) suggest a second-hand rather than an original story.* And it is a story that at times we literally cannot see very clearly; one that on occasion leaves us baffled as to what exactly is happening.
What is more, Roeg’s radical editing, in which we can jump from different times to different spaces and back again within what we would traditionally refer to as a ‘scene’ ties in with the film’s use of cinema not to affix time but to demonstrate its interconnected nature. That is, as the dimensions of space are attributes that we affix to ‘raw’ space so as to conquer it (and so as not to get lost), so do we do the same with time.
Clocks and watches abound within “Don’t Look Now”, with these technologies themselves being ways for humans to regulate and thus in some senses to control time. And yet time itself is not linear, as the love-making scene itself exemplifies; we jump back and forth between John and Laura engaging in coitus and the two of them getting dressed/covering themselves back up for dinner. What was formless and naked becomes formal once again—but the edit mixes the chronology up suggesting that the past, the present and the future all co-exist simultaneously. This is why John can see his own funeral, why Heather can foresee the future and why John is in some respects (always) already dead: as space is deeply, or fundamentally, dimensionless, so, too, is time.
(To “look now” is thus perhaps not to see; one cannot look now, or at least the film encourages not only to look at the now, but to see how the now/the present is intertwined with the past and the future. If we truly could see the “now” we would not see it isolated from other moments in time, but entangled with them.**)
If it is the destiny of all humans to fall, as John imagines at one point that he does in the church amidst a shower of broken glass, then gravity will bring all humans to the grave. And in that muddly hole, worms will devour us and vines will emerge from that mud in a new sprouting of life. In the mud, space is dimensionless, but, so, too, is time, with Roeg’s cinema travelling through edit ‘wormholes’ to connect up what would be different spaces and times as if they were all connected. Not extended geometrically into a manageable pattern—but all together all at once. The vanity of man is to live forever; the reality of the universe is that we do live forever, but we also die forever, too. The vain and Promethean endeavour of man is to separate life definitively from death; the destiny of the human is to realise that life is inseparable from death—even as this leads to life defying gravity and emerging from the grave. It is at La Fenice where the sisters are staying by the film’s end; they are thus like phoenixes, transcending the distinction between life and death via their embrace of immanence and rebirth, as John canters (awkwardly again) towards his own death in Venice (Fenice?) because he will not accept a world without measure.
When the corpse, which bears a remarkable similarity to Heather, is retrieved from the Venetian canal, we see the open-eyed actor playing that part suddenly blink. No doubt an ‘error,’ the moment nonetheless demonstrates that the world of life without death is a world of impossible unblinkingness, one of permanent light in which paradoxically we cannot see. It is only when we blink, or when, like Wendy, we have something in our eyes (including mud, which perhaps explains why John begins to drink—here’s mud in your eye!) that we actually do see. True reality is marked by invisible dimensions that perhaps we can feel through senses other than vision; to be limited only to unblinking vision is to close oneself off to those alternative dimensions, spaces and times that we might dismiss as fantasies, dreams or hallucinations, but which in fact are real.
But what is it that we actually are not seeing? Perhaps of particular note is that “Don’t Look Now” features a second book in addition to Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space, and that is Rolf Hochhuth’s stage play, Der Stellvertreter (1963), which regularly is translated as The Deputy. Der Stellvertreter explores the way in which Pope Pius XII failed to speak out or take action against the Holocaust. What remains invisible, then, is the way in which National Socialism and the Catholic church both—in their attempts to control the world—lead to genocide, both within Europe and further afield. This blood, more than the Venetian lagoon, is the true chaotic liquid that has been spilt for the purposes of creating the western and patriarchal world of walls. And it is a blood that cannot be shown, but only alluded to, much as a black hole cannot directly be seen, but which can only be felt as a result of its gravitational and grave effects (everything falls towards it).
It is quite typical of 1970s art house movies to offer up many different signs, and yet which on the whole remain hard to decipher. “Don’t Look Now” is no exception, and there remain numerous details that I have not been able to mention, including the role of the police (‘The skill of the police artist is to make the living appear dead’); the way in which the camera always lingers on Signor Alexander, the owner of the hotel at which the Baxters are staying, after the other characters have finished talking to him; the way in which Laura is referred to as Mrs Baster at the airport, as if the family might be bastards; a poster about Boris Godunov; the prominence of a pair of neon glasses and a sign for an ottica, or optician’s, as John and Laura emerge from the darkness and back into familiar and lit alleyways in the Venetian night.
But of course if “Don’t Look Now” made total, coherent sense, then it would too much have subjugated its details to meaning; it would too much have made order out of chaos. In part, “Don’t Look Now” must remain chaotic on purpose, full of details that elude interpretation, and thus coming alive like the line and colour of the arabesque and/or the grotesque. In this way, it suggests an infinity beyond the finite world of walls and stone. An invisible world of blood unleashed. But also a world of life beyond death, of life in death, of dimensions beyond the measure of western capitalist man. Maybe the measure of a man, and the measure of this film, is that it seeks to go beyond measure, and to put is in touch with that infinite. Such an infinite reality can never be spoiled—except by the greed of men who seek to live forever.
* I overheard British Film Institute librarian Sarah Currant making this point during an induction session for students in the BFI Library. My thanks to her and my apologies for purloining the observation.
** This point was suggested to me by Mila Zuo. My thanks also to her for her help with this.
Izod, John (1992) The Films of Nicolas Roeg: Myth and Mind, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Marks, Laura U. (2010) Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Negarestani, Reza (2008) Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Melbourne: re.press.
We are delighted to announce that William Brown’s short film, Clem, will be screened as part of Besides the Screen, a festival-cum-conference that will take place at the Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo in Vitória, Espírito Santo, Brazil between 9 and 12 September 2019.
The screening will take place at 20.00 on 12 September 2019 as part of the final session, which focuses on Consciência Corporal (‘corporal conscience’). Clem will screen alongside work from Belgium, Brazil, Iran, Norway and the USA.
The full program for the festival, which has an especial focus on essay-films, can be found here.
Clem is a short essay-film about William’s cat, Clem, while also being a self-portrait that considers the role of the self in relation to others in the contemporary world.
The film consists of original and ‘found/appropriated’ footage from filmmakers as diverse as Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Laura Mulvey, Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jordan Peele and more – while also featuring artworks by numerous painters and sculptors, especially Gustave Courbet.
The screening is the second screening of William’s work in Brazil, following a screening of En Attendant Godard at the Universidade Tuiuti do Paraná in 2016.
Besides the Screen follows promptly on from the World Premieres of Golden Gate at the San Francisco Frozen Film Festival in July and of La Belle Noise at the Fest Film Festival in Espinho, Portugal, in late June.
Guy Farber (sound) and Tom Maine (cinematography) relax in between scenes during the London leg of Mantis in July 2019.
Furthermore, William has been busy during the summer shooting his new fiction feature film Mantis, which took place in London and Collioure, France, while also helping out on the production of short film, Kin, which he co-wrote with director Mila Zuo, and which was shot in Oregon in August, with Frank Mosley playing one of the leads.
William is also working on the post-production of The New Hope 2, while also hoping for imminent screenings of his other films. Stay tuned for more news here…