- Silent Film Exhibition and Performative Historiography:The Within Our Gates Project
Within Our Gates: Revisited and Remixed launched Black History Month in 2004 at Ithaca College in New York, with a newly commissioned score by jazz pianist Fe Nunn for Oscar [End Page 109] Micheaux's landmark silent film Within Our Gates. The performance featured live music from a jazz quartet, Baroque clarinet solo, African dancing, and djembe drumming. It also featured digital live mixes and spoken word performances by the Body and Soul Ensemble and the Ida B. Wells Spoken Word Ensemble. On a conceptual level, the project and the performance engaged four central ideas: critical historiography, the new film history, digital culture theory, and collaborative ethnography. The goal of this project was to rethink the exhibition of politically significant silent films and to encourage a contemporary audience to engage critically with one particularly important film, Within Our Gates (1920). In order to create a new reception context for a groundbreaking silent film, we used live music, digital technology, and spoken word performance; we hoped that this new presentation of the film would provoke audiences to see the cultural continuities and discontinuities between different technologies, and the political implications that these technologies have at different moments in social history.
Within Our Gates: Revisited and Remixed worked to establish a collaboration between the academic community and local musicians in Ithaca, a town recognized as a vibrant center for a wide range of music. The team comprised an interdisciplinary group of artists and scholars who brought different intellectual and aesthetic skills to the project. Patricia Zimmermann, a film, video, and new-media historian and theorist, conceived of the idea of rescoring a silent film for Black History Month at Ithaca College. One member of the collective, Anna Siomopoulos, had just completed a dissertation on Hollywood cinema and the politics of the 1930s for which she had done extensive research on Micheaux. Drawing on her research, she suggested Within Our Gates as a possible project because of its history of censorship, its importance in American film history, and its uncompromising view of black life in the 1920s. To rescore the film, Zimmermann commissioned the musical talents of Fe Nunn, a composer and songwriter who lives in Ithaca.
Other members of the collaborative included Grace An, who had just completed a dissertation using postcolonial theories of cross-cultural visual representation; John Hochheimer, a scholar of journalism and radio at Ithaca College who possessed a vast knowledge of the history of African American musical forms; and Zachary Williams, a new faculty member in African American studies, a spoken word artist, and a preacher. Finally, four academically trained artists joined our project: Baruch Whitehead, from the School of Music, not only played classical oboe but also had experience in leading black choirs; filmmaking professors Chang Chun and Meg Jamieson helped create the staging and lighting effects for the performance; while Simon Tarr, a filmmaker and digital artist, volunteered to be the project video jockey.
Siomopoulos prepared for the entire team a packet of film history readings from recently published books and journal articles on Micheaux and the history of black film exhibition. During rehearsals, Nunn suggested that everyone involved in the project make his or her own particular contribution to the conception of the event and the final performance. Consequently, the spoken word segments of the production evolved from the collaboration between jazz musicians and academics: the musicians composed musical interpretations of the film, while the academics wrote a spoken word script with the idea of providing historical and theoretical analysis of Micheaux's film, African American cultural history, and the role of technology in the changing contexts of mass media reception. In this way, the music and words had a dialectical relationship to each other; the music released the images from silence and the past, while the spoken word operated as a distancing device to pull the spectator out of the film and into larger historical, theoretical, and critical debates.
Through a collaborative process that was not without conflict, argument, and debate, we attempted to rethink the way that music accompanies silent film screenings. Our performance evoked...