The scholarly articles drawn together for this Close-Up ponder the extent to which American mainstream and independent cinemas engage or disavow black fugitivity as the imaginative condition for film. Several thinkers, not least among them Saidiya Hartman, Daphne Brooks, Farrah Jasmine Griffin, and Nathaniel Mackey, have taken up the im/possibilities of fugitive life. Drawing from their work, one can define fugitivity as a critical category for examining the artful escape of objectification, whether said objectification occurs through racialized aesthetic framing, commodification, or liberal juridico-political discipline.
Mackey once described this as the shift from “noun to verb.” While drawing on Amiri Baraka and Zora Neale Hurston (with her focus on “action words” in “Characteristics of Negro Expression”) to support his argument, Mackey crafts a brief genealogy of the “fugitive spirit.” He examines Hurston’s cataloguing and commenting upon folktales. Mackey then turns to “the bending and shaping of sound” that escape Western musical notation in the nineteenth-century collection Slave Songs in the United States. Next, he quotes the “compilers of the Hampton spirituals,” who say, “tones are frequently employed” in black song “which we have no musical characters to represent.”1 By quoting this material Mackey not only speaks to black music’s distinctness from Western principles of musicality. He is suggesting that music is only the most obvious example of a principle that impacts black literature. This leads Mackey to an exploration of how this fugitive spirit has consistently informed African American literature, from George Moses Horton to Frederick Douglass all the way to Toni Morrison and Eric Roberson. The point here is that these artistic traditions speak to the inability of any aesthetic mode to capture its astonishing complexity. Aesthetic experimentation in black culture is inspired by this beyond of representation. The question here is whether what is almost automatically assumed about musics like jazz and gospel, and what is largely accepted in regard to writings like Invisible Man or Beloved, can also apply to film. [End Page 110]
To expand this claim from writing to film, one would do well to think of writing as technology. As Baraka stated, “Machines … are an extension of their inventor-creators.”2 It is the hubris of the West to believe the limits of its technologies are also the limits of humanity itself. A different “ethos” would alter the function of current technologies and, under certain conditions, craft altogether different technologies. While a number of scholars have taken this fugitive spirit quite seriously in regard to the literary, recent debates in film suggest doubts over the relationship between fugitivity and the cinematic—another Western technology.
Debates over how successfully a film represents black life, over one director’s inability to represent black life properly, or over another director’s obligation to represent black life properly, indirectly imply that film can and should contain black culture effectively. In February 2013, at the “Alien Bodies” conference at Emory University, Rizvana Bradley and I began conversing about these issues in relation to the spate of films addressing chattel slavery, including Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2012), Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2012), Belle (dir. Amma Asante, 2013), Tula: The Revolt (dir. Jerone Leinders, 2013), 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen, 2013), and several others. Bradley and I thought a more productive conversation would go beyond judging a film’s historical veracity and would place the cinematic itself under question, as an apparatus comprised of multiple technologies, aesthetic techniques, and audiovisual codes with a range of narrative possibilities and limits. Instead of taking for granted that the cinematic can and should capture black life, we hoped to foster a conversation that plots the violence such capture entails, because it extends yet again the need for Western culture to use whatever means possible to pursue, seize, and consume the black. Instead of judging film’s failures for its more or less inexact representations of black culture, we hoped to ponder the failure of the cinematic to deal with the subtleties and sudden shifts of blackness shot through by negation and surplus. Black Camera supported this venture and this has led to a Close-Up that will hopefully extend...