War and the Black Experience: Dissonance, Documentary, Fiction and Home

The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH) announced that the 2018 theme of Black History Month is “African Americans in Times of War.

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ASALH stated that the theme “give[s] us cause for critical pause in our studies…to consider the specific and unique issues faced by African Americans in times of war.” While “pausing,” the paradoxical nature of this experience becomes apparent, and brings with it questions of dissonance as it relates to identity and a sense of home.

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The black military experience is one frayed with dissonance, both on the battlefield and upon returning home to the United States. The idea of home is brought into question after being abroad. Toni Morrison’s astonishing 2012 novel, Home, screams of this idea in the form of protagonist Frank Money – black bodies experience newfound autonomy overseas, only to be denied such when returning home. We see this idea displayed across space and time – domestic and CET. Through the use of film, both documentary and (fictionalized) feature, we see the entrance of African-Americans into the canon of military history bestowed a dignity that perhaps only film could allow.

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Filmmaker and documentarian William Miles creates such a space in his Men of Bronze (1977). The film depicts the 369th Infantry Regiment, and their journey fighting alongside French troops during WWI. The documentary style highlights the dissonance felt by black soldiers, after being in Europe then returning home to the United States. In her book Struggles for Representation, Black Film Center/Archives founder Phyllis Klotman emphasizes this idea when referencing an interview that Miles conducted in the film, stating that “Williams, who was wounded… grimly recalls the injuries of racism [at home].”

Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II (1992)

A similar sentiment is captured in Miles’s 1992 film, Liberators. In an interview with the New York Times about Miles’s life and the film, Buchenwald survivor Benjamin Bender is quoted praising the black regiment who came to his rescue: “black soldiers of the Third Army, tall and strong… carrying the emaciated bodies of the liberated prisoners.” The documentary form allows for the commemoration of the black soldier as a heroic figure, while also allowing the brutalities of racism upon return to the United States to be described candidly by its survivors.

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Inspired by some of the works of Miles, filmmaker Jacqueline Shearer went on to make The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry (1991), a documentary that depicted black soldiers fighting on behalf of the Union, in hopes of carving out a space that they could begin to truly call home. For these individuals, failure was not an option – “any Negro taken in [Union] uniform will be summarily put to death.” The politicized nature of the film shows how vital these black soldiers were to the surrender of the Confederacy.

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The noteworthy narrative film Glory valorizes the 54th Infantry, though it is criticized for failing to focus on the personal and political experience of soldiers as well as romanticizing the battle at Fort Wagner for the sake of driving the narrative. It is through this that the idea of dissonance reappears, not only in the lived experience of the soldiers, but also in the methods through which their stories are told. Documentary and fiction are both useful, but lend themselves to different affective ends.

The nature of war creates dissonance in many cases – young people are sent with nebulous objectives that they may not agree with and asked to fight for their countries. The historicity of the black experience in America would create additional layers to this dissonance. Experiencing autonomy abroad and returning to a racist society has proven to be a situation that makes one question the nature of home. In the case of the earliest black soldiers, freedom had yet to be determined; home was but a construct heavily masked behind the lack of physical autonomy over the body.  Though the concept of home can be nebulous, the use of film allows for us to contemporarily ruminate on the dissonance experienced by these brave individuals.

All the films mentioned can be obtained for screening, teaching and research via collections in the Black Film Center/Archive. Notably open for research is the William Miles Collection, obtained in August 1997. This collection includes long-form interviews that would later be used in Liberators, as well as miscellaneous photographs and a military insignia medal.

~Elijah Pouges

 


Curator Greg de Cuir Jr.: Research notes pt. 5

Visiting Curator Greg de Cuir Jr. is in Bloomington for a week-long research residency at the Black Film Center/Archive and a series of programs concluding with his Show & Tell Workshop at the Auxiliary Library Facility on Friday, Jan. 26. Throughout the week, de Cuir will share notes and photos from his residency with our readers on the BFC/A blog. [Post #1 | Post #2 | Post #3 | Post #4]


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Worked on the flatbed again yesterday. No time to watch full-length features. Just sampled the first reels of three films. Larry Clark’s “Passing Through”, which appears to be among the more visually experimental of the LA School films. Michael Campus’ “The Mack”, which I have never seen on film before. Change the name of the game! Ossie Davis’ “Gordon’s War”, an interesting take on the vigilante subgenre.

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Began digging deep into document files yesterday. It turned into a treasure trove of information on early film festival histories in the United States. Black Film Center/Archive was organizing black film festivals in Indiana at the beginning of the 80s. So was the Blacklight Film Festival in Chicago. There was even a black American film festival in Paris at the beginning of the 80s. But the most tantalizing find was mention of a festival of new Cuban cinema in San Francisco in the 70s. It was the first time a delegation of Cuban filmmakers were granted visas to travel to the United States. Will file all this knowledge away in my brain for further inquiry.

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Must admit that Indiana University is pretty impressive in terms of public research institutions. The Auxiliary Library Facility, a huge archival complex that is soon adding another multi-million dollar building, is the third largest archive space in the United States, after Harvard University and Princeton University/New York Public Library. There are 50,000 undergraduate students here at IU Bloomington. That’s a mind-boggling number. The campus is incredibly beautiful. Very spacious, impressive buildings, creeks and streams, a bumper crop of restaurants from all over the world in downtown B-Town, and a palpable belief in research, researchers, and the material and ideological support they need. Plus many, many talented and passionate academics. I think something special is going on here, and just in advance of their bicentennial. Go Hoosiers!

~Greg de Cuir Jr., Friday, January 26, 2018


Greg de Cuir Jr. is the selector for Alternative Film/Video and Beldocs (both in Belgrade, Serbia). As an independent moving image curator, he has organized programs for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw; Los Angeles Filmforum; goEast Wiesbaden; Experiments in Cinema in Albuquerque; and other institutions. He is the managing editor of NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies and has published writing in Cineaste, Jump Cut, Festivalists, Art Margins, La Furia Umana, Politika, and other journals and volumes. De Cuir received his DPhil from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts at University of Arts Belgrade.


Spring 2018 Grad Assistant opportunity at BFC/A

POSITION ANNOUNCEMENT: SPRING 2018 GRADUATE ASSISTANT, BLACK FILM CENTER/ARCHIVE

The Black Film Center/Archive (BFC/A) seeks candidates for a Spring 2018 Graduate Assistant position beginning January 2018.  This is a student hourly position for ~20-25 hours/week paid at $15/hour.  There is potential to extend the position beyond the Spring 2018 term.

The BFC/A Graduate Assistant will report to the Associate Director and Senior Archivist, and work closely with the Director, archives staff, student hourly staff, and campus partners.  Duties include but are not limited to:

  • Researching and writing content and providing design services for the BFC/A’s blog, newsletter, websites, and print publications;
  • Supporting the planning, promotion, and conduct of the BFC/A’s public events, exhibits, and programs;
  • Assisting with processing of new acquisitions and with management of existing collections;
  • Providing reference assistance and collection access to faculty, students, visiting researchers, and others.

Candidates must be enrolled in a graduate degree program at Indiana University – Bloomington.

Qualifications: Excellent written and verbal communication skills; knowledge of Adobe Creative Cloud design suite and Microsoft Office; ability to work directly and interact courteously with the public and with students, faculty, and staff; ability to maintain collegial working relationships with supervisors and peers in an archive/research center and teaching environment.

Please send a note with CV and writing/design samples to: Brian Graney, BFC/A Associate Director, at bpgraney@indiana.edu.

Applications will be accepted until the position is filled.

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About the Black Film Center/Archive

The BFC/A was established at Indiana University  Bloomington in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people.   The BFC/A’s mission today encompasses within its scope films of Africa and the Diaspora.

The BFC/A’s primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to curate and exhibit black film, ephemera, and memorabilia; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions.

 


Curator Greg de Cuir Jr.: Research notes pt. 4

Visiting Curator Greg de Cuir Jr. is in Bloomington for a week-long research residency at the Black Film Center/Archive and a series of programs concluding with his Show & Tell Workshop at the Auxiliary Library Facility on Friday, Jan. 26. Throughout the week, de Cuir will share notes and photos from his residency with our readers on the BFC/A blog. [Post #1 | Post #2 | Post #3]


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Today was a full day of screening film prints on a brand spanking new flatbed that was easy enough even for me to learn to use. Began with two shorts by Julie Dash. “Four Women” is a breathtaking melange of dance, color, and the haunting melodies of Nina Simone. “Illusions” was a revelation. A story of a mixed race woman with an executive level job in wartime Hollywood. The film shows off a superb level of craft and makes one even more angry that Dash has not had the studio career that she deserves. One of the final lines spoken in the film by the determined woman exec is that “History is what people see on the silver screen.” Rhymes nicely with the quote that ends Cheryl Dunye’s “Watermelon Woman”: “Sometimes you have to make your own history.”

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Finally watched “Killer of Sheep”, but the way I always wanted to — the proper way, on film. Quite simply some of the best combinations of sound and image by a black film artist in the history of American cinema. Who is making work like this today? Does Burnett have no peers or anyone who would lay claim to his legacy? Maybe that question will be answered as I continue my research.

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~Greg de Cuir, Tuesday, January 23, 2018


Greg de Cuir Jr. is the selector for Alternative Film/Video and Beldocs (both in Belgrade, Serbia). As an independent moving image curator, he has organized programs for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw; Los Angeles Filmforum; goEast Wiesbaden; Experiments in Cinema in Albuquerque; and other institutions. He is the managing editor of NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies and has published writing in Cineaste, Jump Cut, Festivalists, Art Margins, La Furia Umana, Politika, and other journals and volumes. De Cuir received his DPhil from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts at University of Arts Belgrade.

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Curator Greg de Cuir Jr.: Research notes pt. 3

Visiting Curator Greg de Cuir Jr. is in Bloomington for a week-long research residency at the Black Film Center/Archive and a series of programs concluding with his Show & Tell Workshop at the Auxiliary Library Facility on Friday, Jan. 26. Throughout the week, de Cuir will share notes and photos from his residency with our readers on the BFC/A blog. [Post #1 | Post #2]


Spent the past two days immersing myself in the cinema of Cheryl Dunye, who I did not previously know anything of. Sort of a revelation for me. Love her use of Brechtian devices, love her affinity for low-fi video, love her fluidity with documentary tactics and techniques. Seems to be a real American pioneer. Hers is an intimate cinema, a very open and inviting cinema. We’re staying in the same hotel. Ran into her outside having a smoke. Got the chance to compliment her and discuss mutual interests. Perfect ending to the evening.

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Gave a talk today. A career talk. Sort of lapsed into narrating my life story. Is that even interesting?  Is my crazy collage of an existence even a worthwhile model? Hope I didn’t steer people the wrong way. Funny. No one asked me the one question everyone asks me, all day, every day, year after year: “Why do you live in … ??”

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Starting my research proper today. Surveying the history of the journal Black Camera. So many great topics, so much interesting writing. I think someone needs to edit an anthology. In some ways the entire lineage of black cinema studies is present in these pages. But, as is the case far too often, and unfortunately, no time for extensive reading. Tomorrow I continue with film-viewing. Ready to fill more gaps in my knowledge. Ready to be amazed by more brilliance hiding in plain sight.

~Greg de Cuir, Tuesday, January 23, 2018


Greg de Cuir Jr. is the selector for Alternative Film/Video and Beldocs (both in Belgrade, Serbia). As an independent moving image curator, he has organized programs for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw; Los Angeles Filmforum; goEast Wiesbaden; Experiments in Cinema in Albuquerque; and other institutions. He is the managing editor of NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies and has published writing in Cineaste, Jump Cut, Festivalists, Art Margins, La Furia Umana, Politika, and other journals and volumes. De Cuir received his DPhil from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts at University of Arts Belgrade.

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Curator Greg de Cuir Jr.: Research notes pt. 2

Visiting Curator Greg de Cuir Jr. is in Bloomington for a week-long research residency at the Black Film Center/Archive and a series of programs including today’s Q&A on Curating Film. Throughout the week, de Cuir will share notes and photos from his residency with our readers on the BFC/A blog. [Post #1 here]


 

Presented Avant-Noir, Volume 2 at IU Cinema. My second time traveling this series after Zagreb last year. Good audience. As good as any I’ve had recently for programs of alternative forms of cinema. Professor Michael Gillespie served as discussant. We had a nice rapport. Covered lots of ground in a short amount of time. Plenty of great questions from the public. Felt sad when the conversation had to stop, but happy it spilled out into the cinema foyer and continued.

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School of Fine Arts. Wells Library. Both have rows and rows of lockers that give me flashbacks to my high school days. Saw a Rally’s burger stand today when a colleague drove me around the city. More flashbacks, this time to my college days. Bloomington is growing on me. Will see how Indianapolis does this weekend.

~Greg de Cuir, Saturday, January 20, 2018


Greg de Cuir Jr. is the selector for Alternative Film/Video and Beldocs (both in Belgrade, Serbia). As an independent moving image curator, he has organized programs for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw; Los Angeles Filmforum; goEast Wiesbaden; Experiments in Cinema in Albuquerque; and other institutions. He is the managing editor of NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies and has published writing in Cineaste, Jump Cut, Festivalists, Art Margins, La Furia Umana, Politika, and other journals and volumes. De Cuir received his DPhil from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts at University of Arts Belgrade.

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Curator Greg de Cuir Jr.: Research notes from the BFC/A

Visiting Curator Greg de Cuir Jr. arrived in Bloomington yesterday for a week-long research residency at the Black Film Center/Archive and a series of programs beginning with the Avant-Noir screening tonight at the IU Cinema. Throughout the week, de Cuir will share notes and photos from his residency with our readers on the BFC/A blog. 


 

Research residency begins right away at the Black Film Center/Archive, on arrival. Watched the animated short “Glucose” by Jeron Braxton, a former Indiana University student. Premiered at SXSW, playing next at Sundance. Shows talent, plus a sensibility for the political. Will mark him as one for further research.

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Looks like I am assigned a conference room to carry out my research. Very comfortable. Love the big flatscreen. Love even more an oil portrait of a supporting actress from Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” hanging next to it. Arrived as part of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Collection. Provenance unknown, artist unknown. The label on the frame reads “Madame Sul-Te-Wan“. She reminds me of my Grandmother.

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Saw Anthony Mann’s “Man of the West” in glorious 35mm at the even more glorious IU Cinema. Love Mann, mostly for his masterful classic noirs. What an odd, dark Western. Very honest in its brazen excuse to be an extended set-up for a violent confrontation.

~Greg de Cuir, Friday, January 19, 2018


 

Greg de Cuir Jr. is the selector for Alternative Film/Video and Beldocs (both in Belgrade, Serbia). As an independent moving image curator, he has organized programs for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw; Los Angeles Filmforum; goEast Wiesbaden; Experiments in Cinema in Albuquerque; and other institutions. He is the managing editor of NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies and has published writing in Cineaste, Jump Cut, Festivalists, Art Margins, La Furia Umana, Politika, and other journals and volumes. De Cuir received his DPhil from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts at University of Arts Belgrade.

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