Between Black artists and Black love
I’ve come to know these films as love letters. Statements of pure intention in their passion for Black life, in all of its colors.
By Donnie Moreland
It must’ve been 2015 when I first viewed Debbie Tucker Green’s Second Coming (2014). It’s a film which asks the question, what if the nativity story took place between two working class Black folks already raising a little boy in South London.
It’s a mesmerizing dreamscape of rage and longing, orbited by an almost religious—no pun intended—stillness in its illustrations of romantic love on the brink. Watching, you’re washed with an almost cosmic dread familiar to us all but no better verbalized than when Baldwin pronounced about the tragedy of Black romance, interrupted, in conversation with Nikki Giovanni: “If we love each other, we both know it; the tragedy is we both know it. And the greater tragedy is that it’s destroyed by things which have nothing to do with you, and nothing to do with me.”
By the end of it, I felt brutalized and beautiful. Seen, and fractured. I wouldn’t feel this again until Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight released in 2016. This was at the beginning of my graduate film studies program, at a time where I was being slingshot through an archive of World’s Cinema, absent of what Green and Jenkins dared to pronounce about Black existence, the beauty of Black existence.
Kurosawa, Fellini and Bergman were my access to humanity in its most exposed, most frightening and most transcendental. But then, catalyzed by dissatisfaction, I came across Ganja and Hess (1973) and Losing Ground (1982). And between Bill Gunn and Kathleen Collins, the goosebumps which raised on my neck at the rolling credits of Second Coming, resurfaced.
I’ve come to know these films as love letters. Statements of pure intention in their passion for Black life, in all of its colors. Those goosebumps, offered the same by a lover’s stare beneath the covers, or the thought of a mother’s longing, in light of your extended absence. A poetic offering, as an act of profound affection.
As bell hooks states in her book, All About Love, “Love in action is always about service, what we do to enhance spiritual growth….to truly serve, we must always empty the ego so that space can exist for us to recognize the needs of others and be capable of fulfilling them.” Black artists working in the subject of Black folks tirelessly chip away at the residue of grief, suffering and humiliation to ask the question most pertinent to liberation: “what can be?”
These films—Second Coming, Losing Ground, Killer of Sheep (1978), Residue (2020), Tongues Untied (1989), Personal Problems (1980), Bush Mama (1979), Bear (1996), Moonlight, The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)—make the extreme effort to reshape what was imagined of us, to what we imagine for us. Their artists labor to conjure meanings, in cultural making, to make up the fracture of the missing which Christina Sharpe, in her book In The Wake: On Blackness and Being, argues as the challenge of anyone who looks into slavery to find truth, uncorrupted.
As Sharpe purports, “Those of us who teach, write, and think about slavery and its afterlives encounter myriad silences and ruptures in time, space, history, ethics, research and method as we do our work. Again and again scholars of slavery face absences in the archive as we attemot to find ‘the agents buried beneath’ the accumulated erasures, projections and misnamings.”
This idea of silence where mouths are supposed to be, Black artists—performance artists, for example, such as Bill T. Jones, Zachari Fabri, Savion Glover, Papo Colo, Lorraine O. Grady, Senga Nengudi, crystal a.m. nelson, etc.—challenge with their bodies as a vocabulary for the missing/dead, and as a living archive of ancestral memory, for the living.
In their essay, Putting the Body on the line: Endurance in Black Performance, Valerie Cassel Oliver argues that the sites of Black performance exhibits are in lineage of a physical language of liberation, foregoing the traditional intentions of seen-Ness, with the craft, for a dialog between geography, the public, Black bodies and possibility.
According to Oliver,
“What cannot be denied is the notion that black performance art is rooted in black cultural expression and its historical lineage….Within that spectacle the body became the embodiment of endurance, strength, suffering, subjugation, humor, mimicry, joy, signification, and, in the end, self determination and liberation. The ability to control one’s body, if for no other purpose than survival, became the very essence of the black experience….From these beginnings the effort to define, if not reshape or reframe, an identity is palpable….Whether presented in a formal context or thrust upon an unsuspecting public as guerilla actions, such performances implicate and engage audiences as collaborators and, in doing so, often break down barriers not only between participant and spectator but also between art and life.”
Through extreme attrition and endurance, these artists exercise an almost religious devotion in pronouncing all that must be present in discovering, in healing and in embodying Black. It’s a love language, in how James Baldwin understood love, as “not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
It’s a language which operates as the methodology for intention for so many Black artists, regardless of discipline, who work in service of our pasts, our present and our futures. And this intention is one which does not capitulate to the comfort of convenience in making art for white consumers, when asking questions about our becoming, as Christina Sharpe alluded, reveals the challenge of the void.
As Carrie Mae Weems, while being interviewed by bell hooks for All About Love, suggests about the subject of art, “You know, we have to make art work for us within the context of our own individual belief systems….how do we do this with photography? How do you describe complex experiences in photograph? What are the sights of it? What should it have to look like? What does it have to challenge? To whom is it challenging? You know, who’s it for? All those questions are constantly shifting for me. The moment I think that I have it locked down is the moment in which it flips; you can’t talk about the pros without talking about the cons. You can’t talk about the ‘positives’ without talking about the ‘negatives.’ And you can’t talk about the truths without talking about the untruths.”
Recently, in speaking with a good friend about Michaela Coel’s series, I May Destroy You, I said of her absence in nomination for a Golden Globe, that it makes sense. I said that Coel is working in the tradition of Folklore, Gospel and other emancipation modalities. We recognize the brilliance of her technique because she’s speaking in a language of freedom, to us.
Coel is asking questions about, as Weems suggests, “truths and untruths”. She’s offering, beneath the contemporary posture of her work, an ethos of maroonage that is generations in design. She is offering, much like Debbie Tucker Green offered to me those years ago, a kind of sovereignty of contemplation that white folks won’t understand and should never, because it’s in what they cannot see, or comprehend, that we are in unfiltered communion with our ancestors.
When Reggie Yates said “thank you” to Coel, during their October 2020, British GQ conversation, it was with breath familiar only to us. And with her soft grin, and affirming nod, confirmed such a theory. That moment, made possible by what she managed on the page. What she managed on the screen. What she managed with her hands. If that’s not a language of love, I don’t know what is.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.