Guest Post by Essence London, Indiana Review Editor-in-Chief.
September 20, 2018 the BFC/A held a Mystery Screening in partnership with #DirectedbyWomen and IU Libraries Moving Image Archive. The content of the screening was not announced beforehand. In the essay below guest contributor Essence London reflects on the event and her complex relationship to the histories of Black Bloomington.
The Mystery Guest was Crystal Z. Campbell, a US artist and writer of African-American, Filipino and Chinese descents hailing from Oklahoma. Campbell’s work in analog film, video, sound, performance, sculpture, drawing, painting, photography, and community projects are excavations of unsettled historical narratives. Campbell uses art as a tool for agency, social transformation, and time-travel. IULMIA screened her 2017 film Go-Rilla Means War. The film is a relic of gentrification, and highlights the complex intersections of development, cultural preservation, and erasure in the form of an intricately woven parable and celluloid frames weathered by decades of urban neglect.
September 20, 2018, I entered a screening room on the ground floor of Indiana University’s library, a couple minutes late because that’s somehow become a habit. I stepped in and made eye contact with a calm woman wearing glasses and big hair. To show that I, both a stranger and a writer among film buffs, come in peace, I waved. I’m new here but I’m nice. I found a seat upfront, to the far left because my hair is also kinda big, and settled in, really curious due to the Mystery Screening frame for the event. I wondered what kind of film we’d be watching, how long it was; I wondered if the visiting filmmaker was already in the room. From the information included on the marketing materials—the Black Film Center/Archive as a host and the film as part of the #DirectedbyWomen series—I could infer that the filmmaker identifies as a Black woman. Even with no knowledge of her name or her image, no context on the film at all, there was a certain intrigue and attention that I noticed in my body as Go-Rilla Means War came onto the screen.
The film opens with strong, deep piano chords and the title set in white font over a background that shifts on beat between various shades of red. Within the first minute, I was struck by the seeming incongruence between the voiceover and the images on screen. I saw two boys searching for guidance from men while I heard a woman recount details of the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius and a long history Nydia figures. As the film progresses, more political threads are woven into the audio. There are clips of a Tawana Brawley press conference, a description of gentrified Bed-Stuy. We hear about the life of judge, community activist, martial artist, and filmmaker John L. Phillips and the last years of the Slave Theatre. Meanwhile, the visuals get increasingly stranger: the two boys poison a man and leave his body at a dining table staring at a mural on the wall, a cop pushes over what viewers believe is a woman, a man in a park simply looks in one direction then the next, a few martial arts segments climax inside a largely empty building.
By the close of the film, the voiceover makes the connection between audio and visual explicit. She has told us the story of how she found the soundless film we’re watching as well as provided the historical, political, and artistic context. The Nydia she “may or may not have known,” is the narrative hinge, the woman who led her into the Slave Theatre, setting up the moment that a neglected film reel is kicked in the dark, rediscovered. Before this reveal, the features that merged the voiceover with the visual for me are the discoloration and the abstract scratches and patches moving atop the visual. I learned during the Q&A following the film that the blues and yellows, the overlaid textures weren’t edited in—that this film isn’t a new thing trying to look old. The damage is real, a result of years of chemical degradation and a result of the artist pulling frames apart to decipher what was on them. I also learned that the calm voice over the visuals belongs to the filmmaker Crystal Z Campbell, that the filmmaker was the calm woman I waved at when I first walked through the door.
Further into the discussion, Campbell pondered gentrification with us. Not only the effect of screening the film in various ironic settings like Woolworth’s Lunch Counter and galleries in gentrified neighborhoods, but also the fact that she’s an Oklahoman telling a Bed-Stuy story. She lived in Brooklyn for about a year and, while there, a friend told her she had to see the Slave Theatre. Clear, Go-Rilla Means War is an experimental documentary. Though a geographic outsider, Campbell nurtured 20,000 frames and has plans to continue this project, to revise it, and to play a part in the evolution and the survival of the Slave Theatre in human memory and record.
I’m in Bloomington for what may or may not be a final year. Go-Rilla Means War made me want to learn more about the city where I currently reside and the Black people who have contributed to it. I visited the Monroe County History Center after hearing about their exhibit Breaking the Color Barrier: Bloomington’s Firsts. Before my son and I passed the pay desk even, the hostess apologetically explained that they’d hoped to have a more elaborate display and that they plan on integrating more information like it into the permanent exhibits. I expected to see first Black principals, athletes, and government officials. This is what they had with a few uniforms and props to illustrate. I also expected to see details about the first Kappa Alpha Psi chapter, the first business opened by a Black person in the area, the first community center in a Black neighborhood, etc. That is what they did not have. So I went to the Banneker the following week.
Not long after moving here in 2016, I found information online about the Banneker, a community center that was a school only for Black students during segregation. I’d only visited once before because it’s out of the way from my apartment. This time around, I spoke with the director, a young white man who’s been there three years and Pauline Bridgwaters whose grandmother was one of the Banneker’s first students. They told me it’s been a struggle to serve the children and families the building has historically served due to surrounding gentrification. Their lack of parking, for example, didn’t pose a problem until Black families were pushed into neighborhoods out of walking distance. Luckily though, the Banneker has its own library and is preserving its own story. While there, I encountered a visual timeline mounted to the walls, interviews of locals associated with the Banneker collected by high school students, framed photos over a glass display case containing relics like workbooks and the loveliest pair of pink earrings. And there’s been no effort to demolish the center, though it needs some of the same maintenance and architectural attention that Boys and Girls Clubs in the city have received. I suspect that the same subtle guilt for neglecting Black communities that I noticed at the History Center may be part of the reason why, but that’s probably not it. As I left the Banneker, the director and a group of volunteers were discussing plans for a Halloween party—pumpkins and table activities and candy bags for kids who show without one. The people connected to the center are working hard to keep it fun and relevant to the families it does serve.
The Slave Theatre wasn’t so fortunate to outlive gentrification or efforts to destroy it. In 2017, it was sold for $18.5 million and torn down. It makes all the sense in the world for Campbell’s Go-Rilla Means War to end with Tawana Brawley saying, “I simply want justice then I want to be left alone.” When I heard that statement, I said, “Okay?” in my Black Women In Agreeance voice. This approach to our communities may be all we have left in order to heal and survive and take them back. I’ll remember Brawley’s words whenever I return home to Little Rock. I’ve got idealistic aspirations to help rebuild the clubs, the beauty shops and restaurants, the theatre that my city destroyed in the 1960s and 70s. Thank you Crystal Z Campbell for merging image, sound, color, time, and place in Go-Rilla Means War, for getting me to think about revitalization with a complex, non-linear frame. The work is only beginning. The work never ends.