Monthly Archives: September 2012

BFC/A Receives Grant to Preserve Rainbow Black: Poet Sarah W. Fabio

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University has been awarded a Preservation Grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation to preserve the 1976 documentary film Rainbow Black: Poet Sarah W. Fabio.

Sarah Webster Fabio (1928-1979) established herself as a major figure in the black art and cultural consciousness movements of the 1960s and 1970s through her contributions as a poet, performer, literary critic, and educator. Strongly associated with the Black Arts Movement in which she was active, Fabio’s major poetic work includes the seven-volume series, Rainbow Signs (1973): Black Back: Back Black; Boss Soul; Jujus/Alchemy of the Blues; Soul Ain’t, Soul Is; and Together/To the Tune of Coltrane’s “Equinox.”

Sarah Webster Fabio’s album cover for Boss Soul.

As an educator, Fabio has been celebrated as the “Mother of Black Studies” for her pioneering work in the 1960s to establish programs at University of California at Berkeley and Oakland’s Merritt College, a focal point of the early Black Power movement in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She continued her academic career throughout the 1970s, pursuing a Ph.D. in American Studies and African American Studies at the University of Iowa, and teaching at Iowa, Oberlin College, and University of Wisconsin.  Today, her influence is perhaps recognized most widely through her four Folkways Records albums, including Boss Soul and Jujus/Alchemy of the Blues, which set her poetry to the music of the Don’t Fight the Feelin’ band, featuring her sons, Cyril Leslie Fabio III and Ronald Fabio, and son-in-law Wayne Wallace.

Sarah Webster Fabio’s album cover for Jujus/Alchemy of The Blues

Sarah’s daughter, Cheryl Fabio, produced Rainbow Black: Poet Sarah W. Fabio as her MA thesis film in communications at Stanford University.  Studying under Canadian Film Board member Ron Alexander, Cheryl began developing the film in 1972 and continued her work through 1976. The core of the film was shot by Cheryl and her classmate Angie Noel during a marathon weekend session in 1975, when Alexander permitted them to take university equipment to Iowa on the condition that she return it by Monday morning.  On completion of the film, Cheryl secured educational distribution through the now-defunct University of California Extension Media Center.  The film received an award from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, where Cheryl later served as Program Director.

BFC/A Director Michael T. Martin with Sarah Fabio in Seattle, Washington (date unknown).

Cheryl has worked closely with BFC/A through the development of this project and will continue to play an important role in Rainbow Black‘s preservation and exhibition.  On receiving the news from NFPF,  she wrote:

I am so very delighted that this work will be preserved and that ‘Rainbow Black: Poet Sarah W. Fabio’ will continue to contribute to the ongoing legacy of my mother and her work.

Now, as an older woman and after having witnessed both my mother’s personal life and her career life – I am astounded by the feats she accomplished. In addition to making a difficult career choice, she raised the five of us relentlessly fighting for us during a difficult transition in history. I am also in awe of the fact that she trusted this documentation to me. I was only 22 years old at the time. When I realized that this film might be among the few or, even only, visual moving documents of my mother I was touched again by the honor she bestowed on me.

BFC/A and Cheryl will work with the renowned film preservation lab Colorlab  to restore the film.

The Pulse: When White Writes Black & the Politics of Narrative Ownership

Sometimes, stepping outside of the world of film allows us to bring fresher perspectives back to it.  So, how about Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, the eighth novel from the Pullitzer Prize winner, about a black couple and a white couple who live in the Bay Area (here’s a digestable NPR synopsis/interview)?  Among generally positive reviews, there exists a realm of awkwardness/distrust/skepticism of a white author writing about black characters, which Slate’s Tanner Colby[i] takes head on in his piece “Can a White Author Write Black Characters?” with the tagline “Michael Chabon says yes.  And he’s right.  This shouldn’t be controversial.”

The piece (you should go and read the whole thing) is as interesting for its treatment of Chabon’s book as it’s rough outline of the historical moments in the conversation on narrative production and ownership (for example, William Styron’s –he’s white – 1967 Confessions of Nat Turner and the ensuing work William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond).

Here’s an interesting quote from Chabon in Colby’s article, speaking about his MFA program at UC-Irvine:

If a white member of the workshop wrote something from the point of view of an illegal Guatemalan immigrant—as I recall someone did—there were some people who said there were issues of cultural imperialism involved in doing that, that you shouldn’t do that. I understand it politically. I understand the historical context, completely. Artistically, I don’t understand it at all. Because if I can’t write from the point of view of a black woman nurse-midwife, then I can’t write from anybody’s point of view. That’s why I do this. I use my imagination to imagine myself living lives I don’t live and being people who I’m not.

Colby crafts an argument that runs along the same grain, but warns of that even politically (using the same art/politics distinction as Chabon), there is a destructive element to binding narrative production to experience:

If you convince white people that they’re not qualified to tackle race, if you scare them away from the issue, if you give them the slightest excuse to ignore it, they will be more than happy to ignore it. For as long as you’ll let them.

I’m reminded of recent chatter in the world of film, particularly about Beasts of the Southern Wild. Continue reading

The Migrant, the Immigration Narrative, and ‘La Puerta de No Retorno’

Santiago Zannou was born in Spain to a Spanish mother and a father from Benin.  In The Door of No Return (La Puerta De No Retorno)[1], he tells the story of his father, Alphonse:

Santiago A. Zannou takes his father Alphonse to Benin, his homeland, 40 years after he left, to confront him to his fears and his lies. During this travel of redemption, Alphonse will search for the reconciliation with his last sister alive, but also the forgiveness of his ancestors, with the hope to cure the wounds of the past.

(from Dokia Films)

It took me a while to realize – I hadn’t yet read the synopsis above – that Alphonse was a real person, let alone Zannou’s father.  The trailer doesn’t feel like some son-gets-to-know-father formats I’m familiar with; the film is rightly a docudrama:

The story is very much Alphonse-centric, and puts the immigrant in the center of the immigration narrative.  From Taskovski Films, who distributes the English language version of the film:

Alphonse will have to face the past and the present of his homeland. He will have to talk and explain 40 years of silence, shame and disillusion. To his sister who has been waiting for him, also to his mother, who died without seeing him back. He knows that time has come to face all the questions he could not or did not want to answer for more than three decades.

Perhaps that framing is fresh(er) stance.  Here’s an interesting observation from scholar Swagata Basu of Jawaharlal Nehru University, with my emphasis added (a summary of her MPhil thesisSpanish Responses to Immigration Mapped Through Cinema is available on her blog online, and is well worth a read):

In case of Spanish immigration cinema, I would argue that identity alone is neither the central theme nor the driving force. Here the process of identification is foregrounded. Thus Identity crisis or cross cultural identity conflicts, which are typically observed in second generation immigrants, are often not the most recurring themes in Spanish immigration cinema. This is perhaps because second generation immigrants do not yet form a considerable part of the Spanish society. Instead Spanish immigration cinema currently maps the various responses of the Spanish people towards the immigrants, thereby throwing light as much upon the notions that the Spanish people have about themselves as about the others.

Perhaps Santiago Zannou, the son of an immigrant and a rising force of Spanish cinema, is beginning to change that.

[1] I don’t know how to gauge this entirely, but it seems that the phrase ‘door of no return’ doesn’t have same currency in Spain as it does in Americas (or maybe just Anglophone America?), where it connotes the Atlantic slave trade and the facilities that housed slaves along the African Atlantic coast, or, specifically, the Maison des Esclaves on Gorée Island in Senegal.

Solomon Sir Jones Collection Digitized and Publicly Available

An extensive collection of 1920s era home film, made by Baptist minister Solomon Sir Jones, has been made available online thanks to the Beinecke Library at Yale University.  Jones was was a well-connected businessman and minister in the Baptist Church from Oklahoma who was born to former slaves in Tennessee in 1869.

Jones traveled around the South (as well as the rest of the U.S. and abroad) extensively and didn’t seem shy about pulling out his camera. We’re left with a rich visual documentation of life in the 20s (see stills below). You can access the films at the Yale University Beinecke Library Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.

Here is the press release from Yale.

In a New York Times piece on the collection in 2009 (before Yale acquired it), Currie Ballard, an Oklahoman and historian, comments that the collection represents ‘a very cheerful, uplifting side of African-American culture that you rarely see in films of the time.’

The collection houses 12,800 feet of 16mm film – almost 6 hours worth.  Below, some selected stills:

“People Exiting Church”

The Madame C.J. Walker Theater in Indianapolis

“Turkey Day Football Game – MTH Muskogee 9 vs BWH Tulsa 13”


“Mt. Carmel Where Elijah Called Down Fire,” from a trip to Palestine.

“A Funeral March”

Earlier, we wrote about the home movies of Ernest Beane, who also had a rich collection of films from the 30s and 40s, and the collection of educational films released by Indiana University, featuring some interesting footage of black churches, among other things.

‘Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum’ with Bridget R. Cooks at the IU Art Museum

On Friday, September 14th, 2012, at 5 pm (with a book signing and reception at 6pm) Professor Bridget Cooks will present at the IU Art Museum on her new book Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum.  The book “analyzes the curatorial strategies, challenges, and critical reception of the most significant museum exhibitions of African American art in the United States,” according to the IU Art Museum’s promotional materials. Bridget R. Cooks is an associate professor of Art History and African American Studies at UC-Irvine, where she is also involved with Visual Studies and Culture and Theory in the School of Humanities.

At the BFC/A, we try to keep challenging ourselves with the query ‘what is black film?’ and the variety of answers that different perspectives imply.  In a way, the question is useful as a launching point for further interrogation, including ‘how is(are) black film(s) presented?’ and ‘who is(are) black film(s) for?’

To consider that basic question in the context of a parallel discipline seems a worthwhile venture, and we look forward to Professor Cooks visit to the IUB campus.

‘The Killing Floor’ – the True Story of Frank Custer – at the IU Cinema

The Killing Floor Director Bill Duke


Tonight – the 6th of September 2012 – and tomorrow, The Killing Floor (1984), directed by Bill Duke,will be showing at the IU Cinema. The synopsis from the IU Cinema website:


The Killing Floor explores the conflicting loyalties of African-American stockyards workers in Chicago during the First World War. Starring Damon Leake and Moses Gunn, the story pits a black worker who joins an interracial union against his rival who believes that blacks must look after themselves. Based on impeccable historical research into the lives of actual stockyard workers, this powerful docudrama won the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award and was invited to Cannes.

The main character in the film is Frank Custer, a real person born into a sharecropping family in Mississippi who moved to Chicago to find work in the meat processing industry (the ‘killing floor’).  Though racial tension marks much of the industry’s dynamics (and is stoked by union busters), Custer befriends a German immigrant, and the two of them seek to build an interracial union.  A whole range of incendiary reactions follow, from almost all quarters.

The Labor Establishment in the United States has a conflicted history of exclusivity (based on race, gender, legal status, and so on) and internal contradictions that are often left out of the narratives put together about the labor movement, both by it supporters and detractors. The Killing Floor cuts through that; the Village Voice called the film a “clear-eyed account of union organizing on film,” while Newsday commented “A classic study in class hate, greed, and stubborn idealism.  You won’t forget it.”

The screening at the IU Cinema is sponsored by Bloomington Jobs with Justice, IU Labor Studies Program, Latino Studies, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Cultural Studies Program, Black Film Center/Archive, Department of History, and IU Cinema.

On a related  note – I’ve been looking for a good film on the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (beyond the scenes in The Great Debaters).  Does anyone know of a good film?  Get in touch with us.