by Jheanelle Brown and Darol Olu Kae

“Black Radical Imagination” is a film showcase programmed by Jheanelle Brown and Darol Olu Kae and is originally co-founded by Erin Christovale and Amir George. This year’s program, “Fugitive Trajectories,” highlights the ways that people of African descent are using the cinematic form to grapple with traumatic histories, confront a troubling present, and imagine radical futures. These films collectively explore various themes such as death and grief, history and memory, and the archive and the immaterial. Additionally, they compel us to approach the complexity of Black life as a fugitive force with the potential to escape the structuring modalities of resistance and violence through their use of poetic narration and movement (figured as both migration and an expressive act grounded in the corporeal). “Fugitive Trajectories” asks us to consider the following questions: What are the realities that Black people globally must negotiate in our journey towards freedom and self-actualization? And how do we use cultural expressions, specifically language and movement, to process the active universe of experiences that structures our lives? As part of the inaugural Smithsonian African American Film Festival, organized by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, “Black Radical Imagination: Fugitive Trajectories” is in conversation, primarily, with the cultural expressions of language and movement. Additionally, this year’s program exists within another framework—between the immaterial and the corporeal.

Language is one of the primary ways in which cultural expression is manifested in several of the films in our program. For instance, Rwandan-German filmmaker Amelia Umuhire’s Mugabo places us with a young Rwandan woman who returns home to Kigali after living abroad for 20 years and contemplates life in the wake of colonial-induced death and loss. The film begins with silence and moves from text to speech. The fractured internal dialogue (which appears as intertitles throughout the first half of the film) that narrates her return is at once inquisitive and at once resigned. “Do you remember anything?” “No not much...more like weird dreams.” Here, the presence of language via intertitles exists in a space devoid of interpersonal, spoken communication to demonstrate how the violence of genocide is collectively remembered but rarely spoken out loud. In Liberated Zones, dana washington creates a bricolage from textured archival audio sources. Still, her own voice forms the foundation of a film that at once narrates Black trauma and the real potential for true Black liberation:

You are now entering a liberated zone about that space between desperation and liberation. This is an intervention for reaching another plateau of I don’t give a ****. For processing urgency to mapping other lands for the expanse of Blackness and remembrance. For self-preservation, transformation, and representation...and for the possibilities of transport. Ask yourself, what does it mean to exist, when you are in crisis?

washington’s Under Bone poetically states, “there are stories beneath our rib cages.” Those stories, those fragments of life, love, death, and faith are imbued into the film with poetic facility. “Baby, this is how I got these wings, being in your daughter’s cocoon. Well I can feel your spirit, it’s nothing but power inside my bones.”  washington transliterates the boundlessness of the Black body into a powerful paean. Nuotama Frances Bodomo’s Everybody Dies! demonstrates the unique role of comedy as a Black vernacular mode of coping. Ripa the Reaper (played by Tonya Pickens) contends with Black death, staged as a comedienne hosting a public access television show. Ripa works for the Department of Black Death, ushering in young Black children on their way, early and unjustly, to the afterlife. “Everybody dies, it’s true, him, and her, and you and you. Kids beware when they attack, especially if you are Black,” she sings. Much like the trickster figure in Black culture, Ripa uses humor, albeit dark humor, to highlight how Black life in America is lived inside a white fiction constituted by gratuitous violence where the notion of a premature or untimely death is an absurdity. Young children also appear in Cecile Emeke’s The Ancestors Came. They walk through a forest, ask fanciful questions, and introduce the indomitable artist and activist Faith Ringgold. “She’s from Harlem,” one child states. “What are they made from there?” another asks. This transatlantic filament is made of words, questions, memories—a pulsing archive. At one point in the film, Ringgold exclaims, “you do have a lot of power as an artist. You can actually do what you want.” Further adding, “now will you… that’s the problem.” Considering her artistic and political histories, it is unsurprising that Ringgold would imbue artists with boundless potential, on the one hand, and challenge them to do something useful with their gifts, on the other.

In addition to language, movement is another way in which cultural expression is manifested in several of the films in our program. summer mason’s Copper uses the movement of Black bodies, whether through dance or the act of moving from one place to another, to bear witness to the violence of gender or what literary critic and black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers calls “ungendering.” Made in collaboration with ONX—a Black arts collective and printed publication for which mason serves as the creative director, Copper is preoccupied with death, and ultimately offers us an impressionistic portrayal of the filmmaker’s own grief associated with the death of their Black feminine identity. The film invites us into this conversation through its subtle, yet powerful reimagining of death. There are no images of Black suffering in Copper. Instead of acquiescing to voyeuristic demands to show Black bodies in pain, mason foregrounds a visual language concerning loss and grief that is committed to an ethics of care and intimacy.

Here, movement an embodied liberation is one way Copper not only addresses the violence of gender but also reimagines a different response to its inherent brutality. In an early scene that takes place in what appears to be an old, decaying warehouse, Black women have their movements constrained by nylon stockings. These nylon stockings signify the feminine and potentially represent a terrain of repression and struggle. During another scene, dancer Minkah Taharkah, who is shown getting a haircut from an older Black man, gets up, moves through the space, and fluidly dances outside at different points in the film. Much like the procession line of femmes of color who walk along the beach, Minkah’s movements constitute an act of mourning that leads to new beginnings. Death produces the Black boi. Out of necessity, they reinvent themselves and set their sights on reinventing the world next—a Black queer vision of the future.

Similarly, Alima Lee’s Garden uses movement to meditate on a story of loss, grief, and struggle. It follows a Black woman (performed by dancer Autumn Randolf) who uses mundane daily rituals to overcome her anxiety and depression. Here, dancing represents a specific moment of triumph. Prior to this moment, she is shown doing a number of things from watering plants and taking a shower to smoking a joint in bed and cleansing her space with sage. It is only after all of these rituals have been completed that she goes outside and dances underneath the sunlight. Her movements are fluid and strike an emancipatory tone. A split screen image consisting of Randolf’s movements and a close-up of her face staring back into the camera, powerfully communicates the weight of her existence and her emotional journey from struggle to survival.

Like Copper and Garden before it, Jenn Nkiru’s Rebirth is Necessary uses movement as embodied liberation to think beyond the structuring modalities of survival. The film is comprised of four-parts: “Death,” “The Flying African,” “Community,” and “Awakening.” For Nkiru, death is “a point of entry—like looking at what it means to survive and what our highest expression would feel like.” [1] Death allows Rebirth is Necessary to ruminate on futurity. One way that the film demonstrates this active “imagining [of] where we can go next” is through its representation of Black social life in the film’s final sequence—the Awakening.[2] The movement is joyous and free. We connect this feeling to the actions of the people in the frame, which seems to be reversed, implying some relationship between futurity and improvisation. Despite people moving in reverse, there is a feeling of forward progress and this might be the key that unlocks one of Nkiru’s guiding imperatives: To move forward by going backwards in order “to explore and find ourselves on a spiritual level…where we vibrate the strongest.”

Movement in Kamau Wainaina’s Clean Water is not a stable term. It's meaning and function shifts as he charts his transnational journey from Kenya, to the United Kingdom, to the United States. In the opening chapter “i. Dreams & Fears;” Wainaina makes use of personal archival footage and oral recordings to explore notions of selfhood and identity. By marrying home video recordings of Wainaina as a child with an audio conversation between the filmmaker and his parents where they detail the “major fears” of raising a young Black boy in two foreign countries—the United Kingdom and the Unites States, normative notions of time and space collapse. In this way, Clean Water situates itself in the past and present simultaneously. In the second section, “ii. 19 Years (black or Kenyan)” movement takes the form of dance. And in the film’s final section “African in New York,” movement once again becomes a spatial matter.  We’re introduced to a young Maasai man dressed in traditional Kenyan attire. As he walks down the street, he spontaneously transforms into a Black hooded figure, invoking the Black American experience. This oscillating interplay of identities continues until the Black American figure removes his hood to reveal traditional Kenyan attire, seemingly combining both cultures and experiences into one. On American streets, surveillance is shown to be a constituent element of the Black experience. It’s important to note that New York has a large African immigrant population, and Wainaina doesn’t conflate the experiences of Black migrants and Black Americans. Instead, he hints at the discreet experiences of both identities and subtly demonstrates how they blend together to create an identity fully capable of carrying a multitude of diasporic elements at once.

Even as contending with Black death is a very real, material, corporeal reality, many of the films in “Black Radical Imagination: Fugitive Trajectories,” hint beyond the realities of the visible. They operate on the level of the immaterial, metaphysical, and spiritual. washington’s Liberated Zones deals with the thematics of emancipation and healing. The film asks Black people what metaphysical parts of ourselves are being held hostage by our collective trauma. washington employs archival sound recordings from Black historical figures to walk us through a journey of healing. An unknown audio source opens the film, stating:

You know we have a good antenna, we can tell when something...we can sense do you think we survived for 400 years? 50 million black people were torn from Africa, and only a fraction survived, and the fraction that survived have the highest development of the survival instinct of any people on the face of the globe and we are their children, we shall survive.

washington intervenes: “close your eyes, inhale 3, 2, 1, exhale, 3, 2, 1, inhale, 3, 2, 1, exhale, 3, 2, 1, inhale, 3, 2, 1, exhale, 3, 2, 1. Open your eyes.” With “open your eyes,” washington cuts to a fractured moving image of herself opening her eyes, then to the open sea, moving, yet relatively still. Water symbolizes healing, but water also holds the memories of ships transporting Black bodies across its surface. washington, although charting a path to liberation, acknowledges the chasm between “desperation and liberation.”

washington shifts from the collective to the personal with Under Bone. With the latter, washington is working through familial history and memory. In the “Black Radical Imagination: Fugitive Trajectories” post-screening conversation at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles on March 1, 2018, washington shared the following:

Under Bone is a film that was inspired by my maternal grandfather. He was a pastor and he passed last summer. I was really thinking about how to encapsulate a certain period of time that I was going through, which was my faith being tested. My maternal grandmother making contact with me….I was really thinking about the heart, life, spirit, and the ability to love and be loved.

A few words must now be said about our embrace of the immaterial and corporeal as meaningful framing devices. Nkiru’s Rebirth is Necessary boldly declares the futurity under which Blackness operates. “We hereby declare ourselves to be of another order of beings, the astro nation of the united worlds of outer space…” states Sun Ra. This futurity is grounded in a wide temporal expanse, undergirded by Nkiru’s extensive use of the archive. Music, image, advertising, and sound sources include Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, Afro Sheen, Fred Moten, Blacknuss, James Baldwin, Wattstax, and much more. To ground us in the now, Nkiru includes scenes of the Muslim Girls in Training (the counterpart of the Fruit of Islam for women and girls). To transport us to the future, Nkiru gestures towards a queer utopia with young Black folk unapologetically breaking the fourth wall in genderless clothing.

Bodomo’s Everybody Dies! traffics in the blurry line between the material and the immaterial, providing a figuration of Black death, making physical our very real existence between life and death. Childhood can become death at any moment—all of Ripa’s victims are children and we are reminded (how could we ever forget?) that Black children are not allowed childhood. They compete in a game of limbo that determines their survival. The Ancestors Came does the opposite, providing a perspective that contends with the reality of Black life while acknowledging the discreet ways in which Black children and Black adults live. American Artist Faith Ringgold looks back upon her life, back upon formative events of her childhood, while young British children walk through a forest, playing and talking.

Copper, Garden, Rebirth is Necessary, and Clean Water are all films that are grounded, albeit differently, in questions regarding the movement of physical bodies in and through space/time. For Clean Water, bodies move in such a way that demonstrates the infinite possibilities of Black life. Garden and Copper both use physical bodies to convey not only feelings, but also ways of survival in a world that seems committed to mental and physical destruction of Black life. The former celebrates the triumph of survival and the latter processes grief and acknowledges new beginnings. Rebirth is Necessary enlists Black bodies to imagine how we can create the world anew. It envisions a world where Black people do more than merely survive; we thrive.

This year’s program, “Fugitive Trajectories” builds upon several years of curatorial work done with intellectual astuteness, vision, and most importantly, love. We are indebted to that work and that labor. Our vision for this year’s “Black Radical Imagination” is to elucidate the ways in which Black filmmakers and artists are creating texts that gesture toward a radical elsewhere. They are remapping and reanimating the expressive value of language and movement through an engagement with the material and immaterial. They are demonstrating the reparative nature of study and care.

Jheanelle Brown is a film producer, programmer, and arts educator who is committed to honoring, expanding, and empowering Blackness onscreen.

Darol Olu Kae is a filmmaker, archivist, and scholar based in Los Angeles focusing on the complexities and possibilities of a black film aesthetic.

[1] Clarke-Brown, Tamar. “In Her Visions: Jenn Nkiru.” Protein Journal. Dec 2017. Online.

[2] Ibid.