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  • “I Just Wanted My Figures to Move”The Filmmaking Practice of Mike Henderson
  • Michael T. Martin

I am not making films for people to see. My films are for finding out who I am and addressing the great questions.

—Mike Henderson1

Consider film preservationist Mark Toscano’s profile of painter, blues musician, and filmmaker Mike Henderson: “He learned the bare minimum he needed to know to actually make films, and then proceeded to create a singular body of independent film work that intertwines complexly with his painting and music, having perhaps more in common with those two disciplines than with other films.”2 Here Toscano foregrounds the interface of and correspondence between the three artistic modes that distinguish Henderson from other artists of his generation—a cohort ever more attuned to all manner of cultural politics and tumult during the transformational 1960s and ’70s in America and worldwide.

More important, Henderson’s artisanal practice, while necessarily determined by social and material conditions of production, demonstrates a capacity to create works of enduring importance and ingenuity, aesthetically original and socially relevant for the times, as they are counter-historical and instinctive. Indeed, for his deeply held philosophical convictions, Henderson’s art by his own admission is felt and visceral—“I don’t work from the intellect—my approach is more organic and earthy,”3 he contends. “I believe that an artist must not follow culture but create it.”4

Working principles of Henderson’s practice, too, gesture toward a deep social concern and illuminate the artist’s role and responsibility on behalf of the racially dispossessed, women, the environment, and anticapitalist causes. Contributing by his art to such issues, Henderson unapologetically and irreverently also challenges the colonizing project that is Christianity, its opposition to modernity and resistance to change and the secular. By his humble—as well as stultifying upbringing—Henderson commands the right to such [End Page 60] claims. And it is with pain, but certainly not shame, that he dismisses what pathos evinced by his childhood, grateful to those—family, teachers, and friends—who enabled his maturation to painter, musician, filmmaker.

This extended conversation with Henderson occurred on April 3 and 4, 2015, on the occasion of his visit to Indiana University, Bloomington, where his short experimental films were shown at Indiana University Cinema. The interview is organized in two parts. The first part comprises biographical facts, conceptual and expressive improvisational aspects of his film work, along with a discussion of several of his films. In the second part, Henderson elaborates further on his films, their formal and signifying aspects, and the meaning and journey of his life and work.

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Figure 1.

Mike Henderson

[End Page 61]

Part One: April 3, 2015

Michael T. Martin:

I’m here at the Black Film Center/Archive with emeritus professor Mike Henderson, noted and accomplished painter, blues guitarist, and experimental filmmaker, on the occasion of a retrospective showing of his experimental short films.

What I hope to discuss is your film practice and its relationship to your other artistic endeavors, painting and music. Let’s start, Mike, with this question: is your film work in conversation with your painting and social concerns?

Mike Henderson:

First I would say that I’m a painter who makes films and plays blues guitar. Filmmaking came to me out of a need that was missing from my figurative painting. And it dates back to the moment and day when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.


I remember that day.


I remember the day. I was painting. There was a gloom all over San Francisco. I was studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. Whether or not people were involved with civil rights, they felt the tension and understood the importance of what happened to King. My first notion was to stay at the Art Institute and paint. Well, that’s what the civil rights movement was about—to find freedom and then your own personal freedom to be able to do what I wanted with my life.

As I walked from the Art Institute to the Civic Center to hear the speeches, I pondered what...


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