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DVD Spotlight: Stanley Nelson’s “Freedom Summer”

“The documentary is not only inspiring and instructive, it holds surprises even for those who believe they know this epochal American story.” – 2014 Peabody Awards


Freedom Summer. Mississippi. 1964.

The Murder of Fred Hampton, Howard Alk’s 1971 portrait of the Black Panther leader’s last days, turned Stanley Nelson onto the power of documentary as a tool to reach audiences and change perceptions. Nelson has since become one of the premiere documentarians of American and civil rights history, producing and directing films including the Murder of Emmitt Till (2003), Jonestown: the Life and Death of the People’s Temple (2006) and the Emmy Winning Freedom Riders (2010). Nelson’s latest DVD release, Freedom Summer, employs archival footage and photographs, illustrations, and interviews to present a richly complex history of the of the violent summer of 1964, when over 700 university student volunteers came to Mississippi from across the country. The young activists moved in with local organizers and residents for the entirety of the summer to help register African American voters, set up freedom schools, and create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the state’s segregationist Democratic Party. Available for viewing at the Black Film Center/ Archive, the PBS “American Experience” documentary won the 2014 Peabody Award for excellence in media storytelling.


Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Summer

Nelson’s documentaries continually dispel the idea that because we’ve seen the images of the bus rides, sit-ins, marches, and murderous violence, that we know the history of the civil rights movement. Upon winning the 2013 National Humanities Medal, Nelson said, “What I’m trying to do is part detective. There’s a feeling that we all know about the civil rights movement. So part of it is finding new and exciting voices that we haven’t heard.” In just under 2 hours, Freedom Summer traces not only the major events—the successes and failures—of those long months in the deep-south, but also the intricacies of its organization and implementation. A very small group of predominantly black organizers associated with the Students for Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) enlisted student activists to bring sustained national media attention to the poor living conditions that black Mississippians endured, and especially to voter discrimination that kept registration among African Americans to under 7%. Because Mississippi rarely made the evening news, it seemed that no one in the country knew much or cared about these abominable injustices. Bringing a coalition of young, affluent university students, black and white, would help bring Mississippi into the spotlight.


Drawing by Tracy Sugarman, illustrator and activist who appears in Freedom Summer.

The documentary presents a variety of perspectives to reveal the multiple systems of oppression employed to keep both black and white southerners “in their place”: legal structures and police enforcement, violent threats and action, and everyday fear and intimidation. Speaking with surprising candor in his documentary interview, Citizen’s Councils member William Scarborough explains that the Ku Klux Klan was largely absent from Mississippi until Freedom Summer, because his organization, deeply entrenched in the state’s political machinery, effectively enforced white supremacy with full support of the law. The students selected for the program were warned of expected violent repercussions before their arrival and given the option to turn back, but few did. Several of those interviewed now acknowledge that the plan worked because they were “young and foolish” enough to go through with it. Shortly after their arrival in Mississippi, one black and two white members– James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner– would go missing, later to turn up dead (the “Mississippi Burning” murders). Some of the black visiting students interviewed said that they realized the extent of the danger that they were in after this event, knowing now that the whiteness of some of their colleagues would offer no protection.


Archival color footage of Mississippi parade, still from Freedom Summer.

Those from Mississippi already knew the extent to which the state coerced its residents—both black and white—into abiding by its dictum of “States rights, racial integrity” (the slogan of Citizen’s Council). Nelson’s film makes clear the essential role that black Mississippians played in the successes of Freedom Summer, both by opening their homes to students and by joining the movement, an especially dangerous, even life-threatening, decision for those with no protections and little prospect of leaving Mississippi if the violence continued to escalate.


Mississippians opening homes to student guests. Archival photographs from Freedom Summer.

Sharecropper Fanny Lou Hamer emerges as a central force of Nelson’s documentary. Hamer registered to vote with full knowledge that it would mean losing her job, and became one of the most powerful voices for change in Mississippi. Nelson’s documentary culminates at the national stage: Hamer’s famous televised appeal for a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party follows Rita Schwerner’s visit to Lyndon B. Johnson to demand justice for the murder of her husband and his two colleagues. The President’s response to both women, revealed through audiotapes to J. Edgar Hoover and firsthand accounts, is chilling. Johnson would sign the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that very same summer, but Nelson’s film (like Ava DuVernay’s Selma) shows that the path to voting rights was politically fraught and did not follow a straight or easy line toward forward progression. Significantly, Freedom Summer presents its history as a collective struggle, when a female sharecropper played as important a role as a president or the nationally recognized civil rights leaders.


Fanny Lou Hamer, testimony before credentials committee, Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, 1964.

Nelson works primarily in research-based, historical documentary, drawing comparisons to another PBS mainstay, Ken Burns. In a recent New York Times piece on Nelson and his Black Panthers documentary, Burns describes the difficulties of translating an enormously complex and unbounded history into compelling, even poetic, storytelling: “So as a filmmaker, when you bump into a Stanley, you go, wow, that was great. There’s a real frisson, an excitement and an energy his films always have.” Nelson returned to the subject that first drew him to filmmaking for his most recent documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which premiered to sold out audiences at Sundance and as the opening night screening at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight 2015. Today is the final day of Nelson’s fundraising campaign for a theatrical release to help his documentary reach a more diverse audience, including those who may not go to film festivals or watch PBS. Noting the timeliness of the documentary, the filmmaking team explains the impetus of a wider release on their crowdsourcing page: “For us this Kickstarter campaign is about more than just getting into theaters, it’s about sparking a national conversation on the conditions that created the Black Panther Party, conditions – like police violence, substandard education, joblessness – that continue to plague us today.” The fundraising goals have been met, but Nelson plans to use additional funds for screenings in cities including Ferguson, MO, joining forces with the #blacklivesmatter movement. Black Panthers screens this weekend at the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore, where Nelson is currently living as a visiting film instructor at Morgan State University, a historically black college. “Spending time in the city has given me insight into the troubling conditions so many young African American women and men face. It has also given me an opportunity to witness the amazing potential, work ethic and desire among my young students to tell their own story about their city,” says Nelson. He hopes that the Panthers’ example of community organizing will inspire young people in the area, and that his own work as a filmmaker will turn the next generation onto the power of film as a tool of social change.

~Noelle Griffis

Ava DuVernay’s SELMA Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed 2014 film Selma releases on DVD and Blu-ray today. The high-profile film garnered considerable attention for its complex account of the debates and strategies that led to the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, and for its humanizing portrait of its leaders, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) at the forefront. DuVernay’s film sparked debates about factual accuracy in historical fiction after some claimed Selma misrepresented LBJ’s role in the events, while others saw these criticisms as a conservative backlash against a civil rights account that foregrounded black leadership and collective achievement over myths of white saviors and individual heroes. To commemorate the DVD/ Blu-ray release of this remarkable film, two friends of the Black Film Center/ Archive at Indiana University, T. Michael Ford and Katrina Overby, have shared their responses to Selma.

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DuVernay’s Selma: “Getting it Done”

The movie Selma is not a documentary, as some have tried to make it that are critical of Ava DuVernay’s latest cinematic offering, but a story that needs to be told time and again as it speaks to the elevating of the human spirit in the face of evil. And with her film Selma brought to the big screen, DuVernay has triumphantly and emphatically put her imprimatur on a film that is deserving of all the accolades and awards that have been and will be bestowed up on it. Further, the ensemble cast that brings the Selma story to life are applauded for displaying and imbuing their “A” game on historical events that resonate and have relevance to present day.

Though the persona of Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK, portrayed admirably by David Oyelowo) is part of the primary focus of this film, for this author, so many of the other characters, male AND female, loom equally as large in their artistic and historical impact. From the opening scene where one of the producers of the film, Oprah Winfrey portraying Annie Lee Cooper, attempts to register to vote and is challenged by the city clerk to recite the names of the sixty-seven (67) country judges in the state of Alabama (which was just another version of the Poll Tax to dissuade and disenfranchise black voters), this film is meant to give the viewer the gritty, granular feel of what the reality was like for black citizens in Alabama (and throughout much of the rest of the country). The film displays in dramatic and emotional impact a key event in the civil rights history of the USA when MLK and his supporters ventured to Selma, Alabama to assist, participate and lead marches that were demanding voting rights for local black citizens who were being denied these rights as U.S. citizens. The series of marches (and televised beatings and brutalization by law enforcement and white citizen supporters), the meetings between MLK and U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, eventually lead to the culmination of this chapter of civil rights history with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

csm_Selma_49159b1013There are many others, film critics, industry experts who will write and wax-and-wane eloquently about this film…but for this author the resonance of the film was that I can recall seeing these events on the television when I was but a young child of around 7 years, and now to view this film with my 16-year old son, and to hear his questions and our discussion of events that seem so long ago and foreign to him (because so much of the story of U.S. Civil Rights still gets short shrift in our nation’s schools and too many adults have ‘selective amnesia’ on the violence and ugliness that is our nation’s history…) fully informs that films such as Selma are needed in a contemporary context with talented and visionary directors like DuVernay. She is a director, and a black female director is just icing on the cake (!), that illustrates there has been some progress in the film industry but much more is yet to be done. Further, beyond just directing this film, DuVernay was instrumental in rewriting the original screenplay, which is a formidable task and accomplishment that should not get short shrift.

There are many laudable scenes were you hold your breath (the marches on the Edmund Pettus bridge, hearing Governor Wallace rant while talking at President Johnson….) and others that warm you over and rivet you to the screen (MLK having his necktie tied by his loving wife Coretta, portrayed by Carmen Ejogo, before the Nobel Prize ceremony, when she visits MLK in jail…) which makes the movie real and palpable. You are there. You can feel the heat of the day, smell the sweat of the people, and have that knot of apprehension in the pit of your stomach that the participants surely had as well. Selma manages to evoke all of these emotions and more which goes to the skill and talent of DuVernay, the assembled actors and crew. Also, the portrayal of other characters who played key roles in the events (James Bevel, Ralph Abernathy, Diane Nash, John Lewis and many others) is pivotal in telling the story to the audience that the events surrounding Selma weren’t just about MLK but were predicated on the common everyday men and women who said “Enough!” to second-class citizenship and discrimination which was at the time one of the many legal degradations manifested in whether one could register to vote or not.

selma_3199064a_3204264aIn the telling of the events of Selma, DuVernay presents a clear, focused lens on what people of that time and place were being subjected too and how they and their allies, who came in various hues from light to dark, were willing to sacrifice, fight, and die for their legal rights as U.S. citizens. How through non-violent protest and persistence, even the President of the country and a reluctant Congress, could do what was right and legal for ALL citizens. The fact that the some politicians of this country and so many citizens still harbor bigoted and biased attitudes towards anyone who is not like them, points to the need and power of films such as Selma and why it and many others are worthy of being made and seen. In that regard, DuVernay triumphs in “getting it done” and most definitely raises her profile as a director. She tells a story that needs to be told and skillfully presents a subject and events that many are not comfortable in being confronted with because it illustrates a time and people who willingly and joyfully indulged in a version of apartheid that is very home-grown. Viewing Selma brings saliency to that old adage: “If one does not remember their history, they are doomed to repeat it.”

~ T. Michael Ford (May 2015)

Copyright © 2015. T. Michael Ford. The text and any related information is the property of the author and may be used only with the expressed permission of the author. Any review, retransmission, copying, dissemination or other use of this material without the permission of the author by persons or entities other is prohibited.

Ford is the Special Assistant to the Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at Indiana University, and a lifelong cinephile.

Selma Released on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director Ava DuVernay’s highly acclaimed and widely celebrated film Selma has its Blu-Ray and DVD debut on May 5, 2015. Selma was nominated for numerous awards, including the Academy Award nomination for Best Motion Picture and Golden Globe nominations for Best Director for Motion Picture and Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, and won several awards including, both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Original Song for a motion picture for the song “Glory” featuring John Legend and Common. The film, which had a limited release date on December 25th, 2014 and was widely released on January 9, 2015, has had an overall Domestic Total Gross of$52, 076, 908 (Box Office Mojo). To say the least, Selma is an important film and there are several reasons to add this film to your personal home collection.

First, Selma had several well-known actors and actresses and some break-out stars that included but aren’t limited to: David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey, Stephan James, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Carmen Ejogo, Common, Trai Byers, Niecy Nash, and Tom Wilkinson. Each of these characters, and others in the film, fully embraced their roles and made the film that much more enjoyable because they made it real. I use the term enjoyable loosely however, as DuVernay was very unapologetic in the narrative she used to retell the devastating yet triumphant history of what took place in Selma, Alabama and the actors and actresses that she casted helped make the story come to life.

Second, DuVernay showed us things that we did not think we would, or maybe that we didn’t want to see relived in this film and some of the scenes were very heartbreaking, emotional, and unsettling. The retelling of major and minor historical events and facts throughout this film was significant to the storyline. One of the first scenes of the film retold the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church explosion, which killed four little girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair. AR-AI077_SELMA_P_20141210181614You would have to know the story and history of the four little girls to know that scene was about them, as it was not stated explicitly where they were nor who they were, as you witnessed the church exploding from the inside and images of school books and little white dress shoes soaring in the air with the rest of the debris, capturing the current racial climate and foretelling the struggle that would take place during the rest of the film. Another series of touching scenes was seeing the systematic techniques, fear and intimidation used to keep Oprah Winfrey’s character Annie Lee Cooper from being able to vote. While trying to register to vote, they asked Cooper to recite the preamble and a host of other unnecessary questions, showcasing the ridiculous illegal systematic tactics used to keep African Americans from voting. Scenes like these help audience members, especially those who may not be familiar, to understand the many pieces of the puzzle that led to planning a march for voting rights.

Finally, the film Selma highlighted the grassroots efforts of all involved and shed light on some of the tension and disagreement and compromise in strategizing to fight the illegal voting system. The film highlights the significant roles that youth and the members of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) played, which included John Lewis (Stephan James), and how they were getting the community involved in demonstrations and informing them on the ground level in Selma before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived. DuVernay also included some of the tension that was inside of Dr. King’s home amongst him and his wife Coretta, played by Carmen Ejogo, concerning accusations of Dr. King having affairs with other women. The film also included a short scene with Malcom X, played by Nigel Thatch, where he is trying to show support for Dr. King, right before he is murdered, and speaks with Coretta to get her to understand that he wants to assist with the march to Montgomery.


DuVernay with Overby at BFC/A

Again, this is one movie to have certainly have in your collection. Ava DuVernay has already guaranteed one free copy to every high school in the United States and I think every school needs to have a copy. It is no secret that we support Ava DuVernay and her accomplishments, as she visited the Black Film Center/Archive in 2013 and truly left a great impression on us as several of her films and documentaries were screened. However, it is not just us who support DuVernay, it seems as if the world is acknowledging her work and she is an inspiration for many, which may be why just last month Barbie made an Ava DuVernay Doll. I leave with three words that resonated with me at the end of the film that were stated during one of the meetings for the march: Negotiate. Demonstrate. Resist.

~Katrina Overby

Overby is a PhD Candidate in the School of Journalism at Indiana University, the community service chair of the Black Graduate Student Association, and a graduate assistant at the Black Film Center/ Archive.

Black Film Center/Archive awarded 2015 NEH grant

From the IU Newsroom:

The Black Film Center/Archive at IU Bloomington received a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund the project “Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking: Reprocessing and Digitization.”

The NEH has awarded $572,000 in grants to Indiana University in this current cycle, including more than $450,000 at the Bloomington campus.  Other projects receiving NEH funding at IU Bloomington include the Archives of Traditional Music, which was awarded $275,000 to digitally preserve one of the largest collections of unique ethnographic wax cylinders outside of the Library of Congress.

Poster for Richard E. Norman's lost final feature, BLACK GOLD.

Poster for Richard E. Norman’s lost final feature, BLACK GOLD.

Richard E. Norman project

The Black Film Center/Archive will produce a new finding aid for the collection of Richard E. Norman, a pioneer in development of films for African-American audiences. Project staff, working in partnership with IU Libraries Digital Collections Services, will enhance this online resource with over 20,000 digitized items from the archive.

“The Norman Collection constitutes a unique resource for the study of the formation of American cinema in general and the history of race films in particular,” said Michael T. Martin, director of the Black Film Center/Archive and a professor of American studies and of communication and culture in The Media School. “Arguably, of no less importance to both histories as the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. and Micheaux Picture Corp. are, this grant ensures the preservation and access of our Norman holdings for current and future generations of researchers, film historians and the public, as it will be to the teaching mission of Indiana University.”

In the early 1900s, Norman, a southern-born white filmmaker, was among a small group of so-called race filmmakers who set out to produce black-oriented pictures to counteract the racist caricatures that had dominated cinema from its inception.

Norman began his filmmaking career in the Midwest before relocating his Norman Film Studios to Jacksonville, Fla., where from 1919 to 1928 he produced silent feature films featuring leading black actors and actresses. He cast his actors in positive roles such as a banker, businessman and cowboy, and not in demeaning roles often given to African Americans by Hollywood. In his 1926 feature, “The Flying Ace,” he notably depicted an African-American pilot in the U.S. Armed Forces — an impossible career in reality for a black man until 1940.

Apart from short fragments, all but one of Norman’s films are now lost, making the collection at IU even more important. His lone surviving film, “The Flying Ace,” was restored by the Library of Congress in 2010 and screened at IU in 2013 as part of the “Regeneration in Digital Contexts: Early Black Film” conference. (Note: Full proceedings of that conference are available online here.)

Norman’s archive at IU — an extensive collection of his personal and professional correspondence, detailed theatrical distribution records, original shooting scripts and other records — is among the most important resources for the study of early African-American film and movie-going culture from 1912 to 1954. Norman ceased film production with the advent of the sound era, but he remained active in the motion picture industry as a distributor and owner of theaters.

“Since the 2013 publication of Barbara Tepa Lupack’s scholarly biography on Norman, we’ve seen a surge of research interest in Norman’s collection from scholars internationally,” said Brian Graney, archivist of the Black Film Center/Archive and principal investigator on the Norman project. “This support from NEH will greatly increase the discoverability of Norman’s records and make them readily available as digital resources for remote research and new forms of scholarship on African-American movie-going.”

The collection was donated by Norman’s son, Capt. Richard E. Norman Jr., to the Black Film Center/Archive under its founding director Phyllis Klotman, emeritus professor of African American and African diaspora studies, who died late last month.

Afrosurrealist Film Society: Conversation with IU Professor Terri Francis, Part 1

“Afrosurrealist films can look as though they’ve been buried in earth and have come up through the ocean. Afrosurrealism might be a sous-realism, a realism beneath.” – Terri Francis


Me Broni Ba/ My White Baby (Akosua Adoma Owusu, 2009)

The Afrosurrealist Film Society screening series launched at Indiana University this past November with the films of Akosua Adoma Owusu. IU film professor Terri Francis, founder of the Afrosurrealist Film Society, invited the Ghanaian-American experimental filmmaker to screen a selection of her short films for a small community of faculty members, graduate students, and undergraduates from the Departments of Communication and Culture, Gender Studies, African American and African Diaspora Studies, and American Studies, among others.

The films screened, including Me Broni Ba/ My White Baby (2009), Drexciya (2010), and Split Ends/ I Feel Wonderful (2012), explore issues of diasporic identity, experiences of location and dislocation, post-colonialist space, and hair politics. As Nzingha Kendall wrote in Black Camera, “Owusu takes full advantage of the filmic form to grapple with the paradox of representing the unrepresentable—blackness, memory, and displacement—in her films. This haunting, in a cinematic sense, can be detected in the way she deconstructs the relationship between sound and image through her creative editing and assemblage technique.”


Split Ends/ I Feel Wonderful (Owusu, 2012)

In the conversation below, BFC/A Graduate Assistant Noelle Griffis discusses the films and the politics of the Afrosurrealist Film Society with Francis. Part 2 of the interview, coming next week, will focus on the “Just Another Notion: Short Films by Mike Henderson,” an upcoming screening at the IU Cinema, co-presented by the Afrosurrealist Film Society with the Underground Film Series and the Black Film Center/Archive, Friday April 3rd at 6:30 PM.

Noelle Griffis (NG): What is the Afrosurrealist Film Society?

 Terri Francis (TF):The Society represents the applied aspect of my research on experimental film. It’s a way to meet new filmmakers, find material to write about, form community and curate. It’s also a dream space — my place of idealism and creativity. A vision of what matters to me and what I would spend all my time doing if I could. Having space where I could think about movies by making them, by scratching it out frame by frame.

From a pragmatic standpoint, I want it to be a flexible platform for the screening and discussion of black experimental film; to provide a home base for filmmakers who want to screen and discuss their work; and to encourage small-scale inexpensive filmmaking.

We do have a mission statement: The Afrosurrealist Film Society is an imaginary collective of artist-intellectuals engaged with film in its varied forms and transnational histories. Animated by Amiri Baraka’s rubric Afro-Surreal Expressionism, we seek, through our art and scholarship an entirely different world, full of the fantastic, that is organically tied to this one. We draw upon an electric mash-up of black folklore, history, consciousness and location in order to engage representations and refractions of reality through film. And we rely on the natural world for surreal venues that sustain contemplation, conversation and creativity. Black Liberation. And Beauty.

Baraka modeled his idea of Afrosurreal Expressionism on poet and storyteller Henry Dumas, of whom he wrote, “Dumas’s power lay in his skill at creating an entirely different world organically connected to this one. The stories are fables; a mythological presence pervades. They are morality tales, magical, resonating dream emotions and images; shifting ambiguous terror, mystery, implied revelation. But they are also stories of real life, now or whenever, constructed in weirdness and poetry in which the contemporaneity of essential themes is clear.”

 NG: Can you talk about the way that you became involved with Afrosurrealist Film. 

 TF: Experimental nonnarrative film is actually how I got interested in films and film study. That background informs how I look at any film. I studied in Paris off and on in the late 1990s and that’s where I discovered film and interesting things you could do with films and inspiring discussions that were happening with them. I saw Chris Harris’s thesis film at the University of Chicago when I got back from France and still/here became the first thing I wrote about beyond my dissertation. I liked that experimental film had a community and a live in-person conversation around it that was accessible to me – the filmmakers are usually there and experimental films look like something I could make and that I want to make. I’m interested in the visceral affective aspects of movies. I see them as sculptural and painterly as something that I can share space with, look at, think about and revisit. The film is actually a space of contemplation.

still/here (Christopher Harris, 2000)


NG: How did the Black Camera “Close Up” on Afrosurrealist film come about? How did this lead to the film series?

The Black Camera issue was a natural scholarly evolution of my fascination with experimental film. I just really needed to see my ideas in print and put Afrosurrealism into the scholarly marketplace. In the 10 years since seeing still/here I developed an approach to writing about film that is grounded in close formal analysis. I started teaching Kevin Everson’s work along with Akosua Adoma Owusu and of course Isaac Julien, Cauleen Smith, Bill Greaves and more—in dialogue with Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and others.

In the Black Camera issue I drew on Robin Kelly’s work on surrealism where he argues that surrealism was always black. The Afro in Afrosurrealism is a reminder and a restoration. Scott MacDonald has an important essay “Desegregating Film History” about addressing the blind spots in avant-garde film history and how it’s organized around unacknowledged whiteness.

The poet Cathy Park Hong wrote a very strong piece on whiteness in avant-garde poetry. She writes that “American avant-garde poetry has been an overwhelmingly white enterprise, ignoring major swaths of innovators—namely poets from past African American literary movements—whose prodigious writings have vitalized the margins, challenged institutions, and introduced radical languages and forms that avant-gardists have usurped without proper acknowledgment.” She is really critical of what she calls the “snake oil” of being “against expression” and “post-identity.” Her critique points out that “marginalized voices need a concept of voice, expression, identity and specificity to intervene and “alter conditions forged in history.” Asserting marginalized subjectivity and interrogating conventional history is the work of black experimental film. And that pretty much sums up my scholarly imperative.


Handsworth Songs (John Akomfrah, 1987)


NG: In addition to Everson and Owusu, who are some filmmakers that embody the Afrosurrealist spirit to you? Are there connections between these films and filmmakers in terms of aesthetics, politics, or vision?

TF: Neither surrealism nor Afrosurrealism is a style, a set of criteria, an ideology, a genre, or even a coherent exploration. It is not a movement. It is an imaginary, magnetizing loosely related sensibilities, and it certainly is a modernism connected to other forms of modernism such as the Harlem Renaissance, negritude, magical realism, and what Haitian novelist Jacques Stephen Alexis called marvelous realism. All are advance guard approaches to life and society from which intellectuals and artists drew inspiration as they sought to challenge convention. We have to be open to what’s next and the “what else” and not get stuck in a pre-determined diagnostic.

I’m drawn to films like Handsworth Songs (John Akomfrah, 1987) that are grounded in a clearly defined reality but approach it diagonally. Like those early surrealist films, formal strategies in Afrosurrealism include non-narrative structures with the objective of finding unexpected associations. A film like Handsworth experiments with the film essay form to get at invisible structures in society. They can make us see what’s been right in front of our eyes all along, which is really powerful.

Also, Ja’Tovia Gary started making direct animation a couple of years ago – that’s frame-by-frame painting and scratching directly on the film. She is re-working some family home movies in that fashion for a feature film. It’s an incredible dialogue because it’s both enchanting and destructive. Christopher Harris uses an optical printer and hand processing which gives his films a bluesy and tactile look. Reckless Eyeballing (16mm, 2004) moves way beyond the usual criticisms of Birth of a Nation and gets into the structures of looking, desire and beauty that govern it.


Reckless Eyeballing (Christopher Harris, 2004)


I’m currently immersing myself in Richard Fung’s work on videotape for an essay in the “Caribbean Queer Visualities” collection with Small Axe and I’m thinking Afrosurrealism might be an interesting way to stretch his work or the other way around. He is a video artist from Trinidad and based in Toronto who does experimental work on identity. Dirty Laundry (1996) and Dal Puri Diaspora (2012) both examine migration, labor and affective bonds through identity and sexuality. His appropriation film Islands tells the story of his Uncle Clive’s role in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. He asks a great question there about whether islands are so obvious that they can never be really seen—and by whom, for whom? Fung uses home movies juxtaposed with fictional performances, historical footage and talking head excerpts to queer and query conventional ways of defining Caribbean, Chinese, or Canadian histories. His film Out of the Blue tells a very familiar story about a young black Canadian man who is falsely accused of a crime because he “fit the description.” It’s a film with a lot of talking – just talking actually but it somehow demands that you look at it for subtleties of framing and performance. Fung might not seem to fit into Afrosurrealism but the way he examines cultural identity and cinematic representation and Caribbeanness, as unsettled and produced speaks to the project.

Afrosurrealism is a no-theory. More of a poem than a syllabus.

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Next week: Part 2 of the conversation will discuss more on the Afrosurrealist Film Society Screenings at IU, Mike Henderson’s visit, Blues Cinema, and More!

See Also:

Fall 2013

Francis, Terri. “Close-Up Gallery: The Afrosurrealist Film Society.” Black Camera 5 no. 1 (Fall 2013): 209-219.

Kendall, Nzingha.  “Close-Up Commentary:  Haunting in Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Short Experimental Films,” Black Camera 5 no. 1, (Fall 2013): 232-236.


In Light Film Festival 2015 Begins Today at IU Cinema

In Light Film Festival will start this Thursday, March 5th, and run through Saturday, March 7th. Two filmmaker roundtables will be held on Friday, March 6th and Saturday, March 7th.  Featured among the films is 2012’s Call Me Kuchu, an essential complement to Roger Ross Williams’ documentary, God Loves Uganda, which screened at IU Cinema in September 2014.

David Kato in CALL ME KUCHU

David Kato in CALL ME KUCHU


“The In Light Film Festival is aimed at promoting and supporting the intersections of human rights and documentary film. Documentary films have long been used as effective teaching aids and as tools for public debate on contemporary socio-political issues. ILFF aims to facilitate dialogue between professionals in the field of human- rights documentaries and the general public.” ~IU Cinema Program


3 PM The Special Needdir. Carlo Zoratti/ 84 min./ 2013

5:30 PM Call Me Kuchudir. Katherine Fairfax Wright & Malika Zouhali-Worrall/ 87 min./ 2012

8:00 PM Sepideh – Reaching for the Starsdir. Berit Madsen/90 min./ 2015


2:30 PM Watchers of the Sky/ dir. Edet Belzberg/ 120 min./ 2014

5:30 PM The Return to Homsdir. Talal Derki/ 94 min./ 2013

8:00 PM Mala Mala/ dir. Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini/ 87 min./ 2014


2:30 PM The Case Against 8/ dir. Ben Cotner and Ryan White/ 109 min./ 2014

5:30 PM Slums: Cities of Tomorrow/ dir. Jean Nicolas Orhon/ 81 min./ 2015

8:00 PM Reporterodir. Bernardo Ruiz/ 71 min./ 2012

The March 6th and 7th roundtables will run from 12:00-2:00 PM, and will expand upon the films. Please encourage your students and classmates to attend the screenings and participate in the roundtables.


All events are free and will be held at the IU Cinema. Space at the roundtables and film screenings are limited; please direct any group ticketing requests to

If you have any questions about the festival please feel free to visit the In Light Film Festival website or contact


Archival Spotlight: Rediscovered Maya Angelou Series “Blacks, Blues,Black!”

In 2009, Alex Cherian of the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive found an unidentified 16mm  reel in a can simply labeled “Dr. Angelou.” His inspection of the film revealed stunning color footage of Maya Angelou touring the neighborhood of Watts and speaking with another woman, an activist and scholar, about the history of race riots. Though it was discovered in the KQED collection, nothing on the can or in the footage offered any information about the material’s source.

188781 MaryJaneHewitt

In a recent interview, Cherian said that he was curious about the identity of the other woman in the clip and eager to find out where the footage came from. After asking around about Angelou’s television appearances, some colleagues mentioned that they had memories of a public television series called “Blacks, Blues, Black!” that she had hosted in the late 1960s. Yet there was nothing with this title in the KQED collection, and he came up short in his many calls to universities and libraries in his search for the program. Calls to Dr. Angelou’s office revealed that they were also eager to recover the series, but  had no idea if it still existed. “At this point,” Cherian said, “I was wondering if it had been destroyed.”

Alex Cherian at work

In 2013, Alex placed a call to the Library of Congress and sure enough, a search located the title “Blacks, Blues, Black!” in the database, but there was a hitch. “The Library of Congress couldn’t tell me anything about it,” said Cherian. The collection was a deposit by WNET, meaning that it was not for public use. Contacts at WNET confirmed that they had deposited the 10-part 1968 series on two-inch videotapes, but as far as they knew, nothing had been done with them since. To complicate matters, they weren’t really sure who held the copyright. Cherian offered to have the television archive re-master the tapes, and perhaps the show’s credits would then give insight into the copyright holder. From there, the archive raised the funds needed for the transfer in under a year through licensing fees from local commercial work. Upon completion, NET agreed that KQED was most likely the holder of the copyright, and the digitization initiative moved forward.

Two weeks before Dr. Angelou’s death, Cherian once again contacted her office assistant Mrs. Patricia Casey, who relayed the message that Angelou was “over the moon” about the rediscovery of her series.

Cherian discovered that the woman speaking with Dr. Angelou in the first fragment (which turned out to be from episode 9) was Mary Jane Hewitt of UCLA. He hopes that Dr. Hewitt will have a chance to revisit her conversation with Dr. Angelou.

Blacks, Blues, Black! is a fascinating document of a brief period of time, following the assassination of Dr. King, when a politicized black perspective found a place on the public airways. Its rediscovery places it in conversation with other shows from the same period like Soul! And Black Journal; programs that Devorah Heitner noted in her recent book Black Power TV, “created both local and national ‘black public squares’ on the air” (15).

In the series introduction, Dr. Angelou explains that much of American culture and society—ranging from music and literature to gesture and affectation—is rooted in, or has been taken from, African Culture. The program’s focus is uplift and education through Afrocentrism and a “Black is Beautiful” outlook, cultural movements associated with this late-1960s moment. At the same time, Angelou and Hewitt’s historically-situated discussion of the complexities of racial oppression and rioting continues to resonate (#fergusonsyllabus).

The full series is available through the Bay Area TV Archive’s digital collections.

For more on the rediscovery of the series, see the SF State News coverage: “Classic African American culture series rediscovered”

If you have any information regarding “Blacks, Blues, Black!” contact Alex Cherian at All information will be added to the series record within the Bay Area TV Archive.

~Noelle Griffis

Visiting Filmmaker Zeinabu irene Davis Kicks Off The “Black Silence” Film Series on Friday 2/20

Zeinabu irene Davis, a filmmaker and professor at UCSD, will be in Bloomington to present her 1999 feature film, Compensation, at the IU Cinema on Friday, February 20, at 6:30 PM.  This screening is free but ticketed.

Spirits-of-RebellionEarlier on Friday at 1:00 PM, Davis will be at the BFC/A in Wells Library 044 to present and discuss clips from her documentary work-in-progress, Spirits of Rebellion: Black Film at UCLA, and her 2010 documentary short, Momentum: A Conversation with Black Women on Achieving Advanced Degrees. If interested in attending the 1PM event, please RSVP to as seating is limited.

 Also during her visit, Davis will meet with students in CMCL instructor Russell Sheaffer’s class, C335: Production as Criticism: DIY Filmmaking, and with student leaders of campus diversity organizations.

compensation_front Compensation, Davis’s first feature, presents two unique African American love stories between a deaf woman and a hearing man, both set in Chicago a century apart.  Inventive use of sign language and intertitles makes the film accessible for deaf and hearing audiences.

Davis’ visit will commence the two-part series “Black Silence: Films by Zeinabu irene Davis and Charles Lane” at the IU Cinema. Decades before The Artist sparked an international silent revival, two independent features—Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories and Zeinabu irene Davis’ Compensation—bookended the heyday of the Black New Wave with bold formal experiments incorporating markers of silent cinema into contemporary explorations of friendship, social inequality, and Black experience. Davis and Lane’s films, which both evoke the silent era by choice, will each be paired with a short film that is silent by technological necessity.

Davis began her filmmaking career as a member of the L.A. Rebellion—the first group of African American filmmakers to graduate from UCLA’s film school. The first films made by artists in the group, known as their “Project One” films, were silent 8mm or 16mm shorts. These films made use of the limitations and possibilities of silent, small-gauge filmmaking to explore issues and everyday realities relevant to African American audiences.  Compensation will follow Daydream Therapy (1977), the “Project One” film directed by fellow L.A. Rebellion filmmaker Bernard Nicolas. Filmed in Burton Chace Park in Marina del Rey, this short film poetically envisions the fantasy life of a hotel worker whose daydreams provide an escape from workplace indignities, set to Nina Simone’s “Pirate Jenny.”


Sidewalk Stories tells the story of a modern day “tramp” and his unlikely friendship with a lost child. Lane pairs the playful, comedic charm of Chaplin with the often harrowing social realism of Lionel Rogosin to explore class relations and homelessness in late 1980s New York City. Lane remains faithful to silent cinema style, while exploring themes of race and social inequalities that were largely absent throughout the American film cannon. 220px-Natural_Born_Gambler

Lane’s film will follow early comic star Bert Williams’ A Natural Born Gambler (1916). The rare silent era film to be produced and directed by an African American will provide a point of comparison, as well as a striking point of departure to Lane’s feature. Williams’ performance reflects his vaudeville persona, which made use of stereotypes that appealed to mostly white audiences (cheating, trickery, buffoonery, and heavy minstrel dialect); at the same time, Williams’ comic gifts and leading role (both on screen and behind the camera as writer and director) made him a beloved and impressive figure during a time when African Americans were denied such recognition.

The print for A Natural Born Gambler is preserved by The Museum of Modern Art with support from The Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation. Thank you to the Museum of Modern Art Film Preservation Center for the generous loan of their 35mm print. Live piano accompaniment will be provided by IU Jacobs School of Music student Shawn McGowan.

postcard_backThanks to Zenabu irene Davis for the use of her personal 16mm print of Compensation as held in trust by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The Digibeta of Daydream Therapy is also being provided by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Additional Details on the IU Cinema website and the BFC/A website.



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