Museum of Modern Art presents wide-ranging program on ‘Black Intimacy’
Motion pictures came hurtling towards the collective human psyche like a steam engine, impacting an audience that might include anyone, regardless of nationality, race, class, gender or spoken language. Moviegoing could universally be a moving experience, the images onscreen explicitly acknowledging whoever was watching in a darkened theatre where disparate viewers merged into one body.
As cinema matured, films figuratively shut the door on the audience, casting viewers as voyeurs, vicarious participants in the lives pictured onscreen. Audiences had to look harder, and listen more closely to see themselves, to identify with film characters’ experiences not merely as fodder for escape or aspiration, but for personal reflection.
In America, black film audiences have had to look particularly hard to see authentic, dignified film portrayals that register more as three-dimensional humanity than as stereotype. Of course, firsthand experience is no prerequisite for finding empathy for characters onscreen, but the portrayal itself must be empathetic in order to achieve anything like true intimacy.
“Black Intimacy,” a film series at New York’s Museum of Modern Art running through Oct. 16, directly engages empathy for African-American lives with a program of feature films, documentaries and shorts that allows black audiences, and asks non-black audiences, to take the visceral and psychological leap of imagining themselves in the shoes of the ordinary African-American characters onscreen.
The program’s curator, Adeze Wilford, a joint fellow between the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Department of Film at MoMA, says, “I wanted to explore all the levels and layers of black intimacy that exist, and how filmmakers across generations have been trying to eke out their own understanding of their relationships that they’re portraying onscreen.”
While including a few of what Wilford calls “the heavy hitters,” films already widely considered within the collective cultural memory, like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (Oct. 4 & 15) and Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (Oct. 7), Wilford also sought to highlight less famous voices.
“Obviously, a two-week series isn’t going to cover everything,” she offers. “But I definitely wanted to [include] seminal films from a non-heteronormative context. Also, there is a mix of black filmmakers and non-black filmmakers in the series. What was important was the mindfulness in the way that people were being portrayed.” Pointing out filmmaker Zeinabu Irene Davis’s 1999 drama Compensation (Oct. 12 & 14), Wilford explains, “I thought Compensation would be a really interesting way to explore a black romance in a completely non-traditional, non-linear way.”
Several of the selected films, from director Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (Oct. 7 & 15) to visual artist Shikeith’s video short #blackmendream (Oct. 16), skew towards non-traditional or experimental expression. “I wanted there to be a mix of experimental cinema and also the more studio, straightforward blockbuster type of film,” Wilford says. A stark contrast to Shikeith’s contemporary visual art piece, Sidney Poitier’s 1973 romance A Warm December (Oct. 8 & 14) is the epitome of a studio-style drama, featuring the debonair star as the very ideal of black American success. “I think there’s space for multiple types of black masculinity onscreen, and so I was excited to be able to have those two works in conversation.”
That specific conversation, about black masculinity, is raised again and again by the included films, whether in Michael Roemer’s Civil Rights-era character study Nothing But a Man (Oct. 4 & 15), or in Matty Rich’s 1991 mean-streets drama Straight Out of Brooklyn (Oct. 6, with a Q&A with the director). Rich’s indie breakout hit contains multitudes of portrayals of black masculinity within the intimate space of its Red Hook community: boys being boys, weathering run-ins with a local hood, or just hanging on the front steps of a project block jamming to the beats of a boom box; or a working family man, relishing a private moment by putting on a record and dancing with abandon around his living room.
That moment in itself speaks volumes. Untethered from any plot, he’s at liberty to revel in his own mood, not just observe or pontificate on that of a white protagonist. He dances with the exuberance of Gene Kelly singing in the rain, if not the skill, but it’s not his jubilance that feels revolutionary. Rather, it’s his freedom to just be. Counter to the most common images of black men onscreen in the 20th century, he’s no one’s butler, field hand or magically sage companion. He’s a father and husband. He’s also a drinker and an abuser, yet still an integral member of the film’s central family, and a human being worthy of a luxury seldom granted black men onscreen: a few peaceful minutes alone.
Renegade photographer, filmmaker and author Gordon Parks devotes the entire sweepingly beautiful opening sequence of his 1969 drama The Learning Tree (Oct. 9) to young hero Newton “Newt” Winger (Kyle Johnson), all alone and at his leisure, innocently traversing the countryside. A 1920s adolescent, Newt is bright and golden, until a summer gale swells on the horizon, then blows across the Kansas plain. Filmdom and Americana gather in the frightening twister that bears down on Newt’s family, and in the Midwestern tradition of Dorothy or Huck Finn, he’s anointed a new all-American youth hero.
Powerfully intimate, and light years away from any image of black life that Mark Twain or D.W. Griffith might have conceived, Newt’s happy-go-lucky stroll is soon spoiled, and not just by the storm. Violence and systemic racial injustice rip asunder his and more black homes than any tornado. It seems Parks might have created, in brilliant Technicolor,film history’s only feature devoted to the sexual and sociocultural awakening of a sensitive young black male—had director Barry Jenkins and screenwriter Terrence Alvin McRaney’s stunning Moonlight not come along in 2016 as The Learning Tree’s same-sex quasi-bookend.
Filmmakers Jenkins, Aaron Cooder and Ava DuVernay stand at the current vanguard of black cinema, but none of their films is included here. The series spans nearly 60 years of film releases, from 1961 through 2017, but few of the selections represent the output of a post-O.J. American film industry.
Writer-director Tanya Hamilton’s 2010 Black Panther thriller Night Catches Us (Oct. 8 & 12) stands out for its use of current A-list black talent—Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington—stepping out of the mainstream milieu, where often they appear in racially coded roles within multi-racial casts. And Davis’ singular period-hopping drama Compensation, a product of the L.A. Rebellion film movement, issues dual love stories between a hearing-impaired woman and an uneducated man that straddle the early 1910s and the mid-20th century. Only one selection in the program deals explicitly with black lives now, and it comes courtesy of the Netflix TV comedy series “Master of None.”
It’s fitting that the program should acknowledge the work being done on television in cinema’s second century by authors telling nuanced stories about contemporary, everyday black characters who aren’t necessarily pop stars, sports stars, superheroes or the First Black whomever. Television series “Insecure” on HBO and “Atlanta” on FX, for example, effectively deconstruct black intimacy in present-day relationships, while advancing fresh approaches to cinematography and story structure.
In that vein, “Master of None”’s award-winning “Thanksgiving” episode (Oct. 10), written by show co-creator Aziz Ansari and actress-screenwriter Lena Waithe, invites audiences to sit down for several years’ worth of Thanksgiving dinners with an African-American family. Focusing on Waithe’s lesbian character growing up a tomboy alongside her Indian-American best friend, under the watchful eyes of her single mom, aunt and grandmother, the episode builds organically to the character coming out and seeking her mother’s acceptance. Every aspect of the filmmaking identifies with this modern lesbian’s point of view, laying bare an inner turmoil that plays out in authentic moments of pain and conciliation, amid hilarious scenes of holiday dinners gone wrong.
As Wilford puts it, “The series, at its core, is about human interest. How we relate to one another is what I’m interested in discussing. We have films across class lines, films that deal with a very traditional, heteronormative nuclear family dynamic, but then we also have films that deal with people who are not operating in that space. And giving them room to have their experiences onscreen is so critical, because I think that it’s important for everyone who enters into museum spaces to feel represented.”
Encouraged that the “Black Intimacy” series will allow people to have conversations that will continue once they leave the theatre, Wilford adds, “And I’m hopeful that [people] will be more open to understanding perspectives that they might not have encountered on their own.”
Looking beyond this series, she says, “I’m really interested to see what this conversation will be like in ten or fifteen years, because I think that we’re seeing a lot more space for people to create, but we are still in a place where there are still firsts. Lena Waithe was the first African-American woman to be nominated and then win [an Emmy for comedy series writing]. It’s 2017 and there are still firsts. It’s wonderful that she’s been given a platform, but in ten or fifteen years from now I’m hopeful that the conversation will be very different, and a much more inclusive one.”