Author Archives: Ashley Clark

About Ashley Clark

Freelance writer, pop culture enthusiast and arts administrator. Founded Permanent Plastic Helmet in January 2010. Contact me on pplastichelmet@gmail.com

“Until you know your history, you cannot fight”—a conversation with Raoul Peck

Author’s note: a version of this interview first appeared under the title ‘O Say Can You See’ in the Jan/Feb 2017 print edition of Film Comment Magazine, which is available for purchase here. Below is the full transcript of the interview.

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Born in Port-au-Prince in 1953, Raoul Peck is one of Haiti’s few prominent film directors, and over the past three decades has been the primary exporter of Haitian cinema to the rest of the world. Operating in both fiction and documentary—though his work frequently muddies the boundaries between the two—Peck’s key areas of interest have been exploring the channelling of power from developed to developing societies, class struggle, and the impact of top-down political decision-making upon impoverished people. Some of his most powerful films include the esoteric, stylized Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (1990), which blends home movies, photographs, old newsreels, and contemporary interviews to create an absorbing portrait of Patrice Lumumba, the 36-year-old who became the first Prime Minister of independent Congo in 1960, but was assassinated months into his tenure; and Fatal Assistance (2013), a calmly presented yet palpably furious polemic which targets the purportedly well-meaning NGOs, aid organisations and celebrities who clamoured to help post-earthquake Haiti, but ultimately created a giant bureaucratic mess.

Peck’s latest film, the scorching I Am Not Your Negro, is the result of long-time immersion into the work of the late African-American author James Baldwin. It is inspired by a 1979 letter written by Baldwin to his literary agent describing a new undertaking: his final book, Remember This House, recounting the lives and successive assassinations of his activist friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr: the book was never written, and Baldwin died in 1987. Granted access to the full Baldwin estate, Peck weaves together a dizzying portrait of the author and his ideas (typically hyper-critical of white America’s racist instincts and capacity for self-delusion.) The disparate material is bound together by a narration from Samuel L. Jackson, who embodies Baldwin in hushed tones simultaneously solemn and propulsive.

Ashley Clark: Tell me about your introduction to Baldwin.

Raoul Peck: I started reading him when I was fifteen or sixteen. The Fire Next Time [a book of two essays first published in 1963] was a revelation for me. I did not fully understand everything, but it opened the door to a wide new world—in particular, things for which I didn’t have a name or an explanation, but suspected intuitively. Like, “who am I in the world, and why is there a difference between what I read everywhere and what I see everywhere?” I started traveling when I was eight—I moved from Haiti to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Having learned about Africa from John Ford or Tarzan films, it’s quite an awakening when you arrive in the real place. It was the same when I came to Europe and grew up with French literature, at school—that’s what we learned, and also sometimes American literature. There were not many authors [from a different perspective], besides Aime Cesaire, or Latin American authors like Alejo Carpentier, who wrote beautiful novels about Haiti. We were always reading our history through third and fifth characters in a book, we were never the main story. So, Baldwin is the first author to really break through that for me. I didn’t even feel it reading Richard Wright, he didn’t produce the same affect. I think the difference was between novel and essay. Baldwin’s essays were direct, with no filter. Baldwin stayed in my life—I would come back to his books when I felt like I had to reboot myself. Baldwin is always good to let you feel reality as it is again, in a time of confusion.

I know that this project has been in the works for a long time, so could you talk about the process of bringing it together with the blessing of the Baldwin estate?

Ten years ago, I thought, “Okay, what difficult project can I tackle?”, because most of my projects are very complicated. With Baldwin I said, “Well, maybe it’s the time now,” but without really knowing what film I would be able to make. His estate is known for not giving access; for being very, very strict. But when I contacted them, luckily for me, they responded pleasantly, right away. They invited me to come and see them, and I met Gloria Karefa-Smart, Baldwin’s youngest sister, who has been his assistant from the age of 21. She went with him to Africa as a young woman and later also married an African man who was working in the U.S. She had seen my two films about Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of the Congo (Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, 1990; Lumumba, 2000) — for her, this work of mine meant something very important. After I spent some time there, they offered me everything, and were open to whatever approach I wanted to take. They let me find the film—it’s not the kind of project where you just try on the first idea you have. I wanted it to be elegant: the perfect Baldwin film. I was always not satisfied about what I saw about him. Even the biographies about him I feel are not up to the man he is and he was. And for me, the strength, the importance of this man had to be center stage. The question in the beginning was probably: how do I bring that out in the foreground?  How do I make sure that Baldwin’s work, and his mind, are totally up front and center.  

One day Gloria handed me a letter about the book on Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers that Baldwin planned, but did not write. I felt, though, that [this book] was already written, but spread across his body of work. So, my job was to get the book together, stay close to his work, not use anything from me, and treat it as a huge puzzle that I had to assemble.

Can you speak about the challenges of threading together these reams of disparate material?

I had to start with the basics, which were the words. I spent much time indulging in all [Baldwin’s] books I had read throughout the years. When people say, “Oh, you took ten years to make the film,” I say, “no, it probably, it took 30 years to get all my old books and re-discover what I had underlined over the years!” It was to be a voyage, a tour of the past somehow, discovering along the way. After finishing what I called the “libretto” of this story I wanted to tell, using the letters, the story of the book that was not written, and other ingredients, I knew that I would use extensive segments of the film criticism that Baldwin wrote, which conjure a rich world of images and concepts. I put aside some images which came automatically to me, or that were dictated by the material itself, or cited by Baldwin. When he writes about John Wayne, or Gary Cooper, or Doris Day, I knew I would have to watch a number of these films again. A lot of them I already knew, but that was part of the search process.

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Presumably you were working on other projects at the same time?

Yes, I had to build the production around that. So, we would have time where my editor was working alone, because she had the blueprint.  She had the text from beginning to end. She had really fixed images that I had already chosen. Clips that I had already chosen. She had enough to work on, to be sequencing. And then, at one point, she would eventually stop, but the archivist would go on for two months looking for material. I would give them long lists. Sometimes I would re-read a Baldwin book and find three or two notes in the bottom of the page, and I would say, “could you please try to find what he’s talking about, because I don’t know that film.” It was really detective work — to find a name that he mentioned, and there’s no photo of that person and we have to try to find through other books, to call people. Because everything really had to be genuine. It could not just be theoretical. Although [the film] is a lot of different pieces, it just makes sense together. These links are historical, associative or emotional, but there is a reason why every part of the film is there. Whether it’s music, whether it’s the sound, or a photo, or a film. I gave myself the freedom to say, whatever would happen, I will use it. Whatever material I find, I will use it. My job is to make it fit. So, I was not saying was I going to do black and white only, or color or video only, or 35mm or photos only. It was literally everything I could find and use I would. I knew that it’s just a matter of time until you find the right approach, but you can’t define this style or define the film even before you’ve gone through all this. I think it’s rare to give yourself that kind of freedom.

It’s funny, it seems like it’s a luxury, but also you only get one shot at this archive, so it’s kind of a double-edged sword, isn’t it?

…and you can’t make a film that is not at the level of Baldwin That would be a shame of a film, to have those type of rights in your hands [and waste it]. You know, normally you get an option for a book or even a chapter of a book, but you never get the whole life – all the books, all the published, unpublished, private letters, et cetera.  When you are that privileged, you can’t just go and do a quick film. I knew that whatever it would take, I would take the time to make it. That’s why I produced it myself. I’ve come through this in one of my first films. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Lumumba film, the documentary?

I have.

So hat was also, at the time, a very, very original approach  I don’t think anybody had done that before. By the way, it’s used a lot in film school, in colleges, for many different subjects. For me, […Negro] was a way to come back to the freedom of creation and creativity that is very rare in what we do because there are so many constraints, including financial, including time. So, in this film, to be able to go all the way… and when I say all the way, I mean there’s not a single second in the film that was not worked and thought and re-tried multiple times until it was exactly what it should be. Sometimes you get tired and say: “the film is OK, it’s finished. You don’t need to work on this or that, people won’t notice it.” You give yourself ten thousand excuses. But this film?  I feel that this may be the only time I was able to go through to every step and moment of the film. There is nothing I would do differently today.

The film is structured around the killings of Malcolm, Martin, and Medgar. Now, you’ve made films about Lumumba, but I’m thinking about Thomas Sankara and Fred Hampton as well. To what extent is the story of the diaspora, at root, all about the killing of leaders, of resistance thwarted at key moments, moments when things are about to change…

For me, it’s an important layer. The film has several layers and several stories crossing. I’m sure what touched me the most is, first of all, that Baldwin made a connection between those three lives, and that he understood they were important, they were not just random killings. They were very precise killing, and also they were connected. I had throughout the years understood that what happened to most leaders, black leaders, and third world leaders in the 50s and then the 60s, is that they were killed. They were either killed or had to go into exile or some of them were bought. And I know that from the Congo, that’s exactly what happened. They killed Lumumba and they killed many leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement. During the Civil Rights movement, it was the same, or the radical times, with the Black Panther leadership mostly were either killed, in prison, or became crazy, or would commit suicide. And the same people that had done that were the same people talking about, you know, rogue states or about non-democratic countries, et cetera, where they never gave them a chance, they never gave those countries a chance. Congo never had a chance: the only real free election was the Lumumba election.  So, the expiration and the assassination of these leaders is key.

By the way, both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were killed when they really became dangerous. They understood that there shouldn’t be an only black agenda, which was a way to pin them down. They became dangerous when they understood that it was about class, that it wasn’t about race. Race was just hiding the more fundamental problems of class opposition and the next big campaign was not a campaign about race but about poverty, against poverty. And that’s when both leaders were intellectually, as Baldwin wrote, getting closer and closer. They really became dangerous for the system because they had surmounted, they had left the original positions that were assigned to them. Stay in the big “black” cause and be the angry black man and that’s what you are, and we assign you as such. These men understood that they were first and foremost men and they were universal, they were international. When King started talking against Vietnam, that’s where he became dangerous. And so, with regard to your question, what I am trying to tell a younger audience is: know your history. Because until you know your history, you cannot fight. You cannot understand what’s going on. You can’t really identify with the enemy, in particular in such a confusing time, where you have workers voting for a billionaire like Trump. It is totally insane, it doesn’t make sense.

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In the vein of much of your output, I Am Not Your Negro has a poetic, free-flowing quality. Can you talk about the importance of artistry in your work generally?

My luck somehow is that I came right after what we call “militant cinema”. I watched my elders making films where it was about the content, the message, but not so much of the art. The sound could be lousy, the images could be shaky or blurred, but it was about the message. I grew up learning from them, but at the same time, I knew you couldn’t go on like that and just make propaganda. I knew that I wanted to make films that had to be films first, create characters—then you can inject content, or political positions, or whatever, but that’s the ground rules. That’s why I never distinguish [categorically] between my documentary and narrative films because always believed they’re the same thing. It was about creating, creating a story, except that those stories are real. My narratives are always based off of true stories or true events or true acts. And my documentaries, I always try to find a way to tell them as if it were a narrative. Some of my other films will very often have a voice, even two. In Fatal Assistance there were two voices, for the dialogue, in order to create a text where someone tells the story or is witness to the story. This is how you can maybe get closer to people instead of doing some raw documentary or issue film about this and that. So, yes, that’s very important to me. I think Baldwin has also, within him, that element. Not only Baldwin, but people like Chris Marker. Those instruments I learned very early on.

Baldwin’s criticism of film and media is piercingly prescient [Author’s recommendation: Baldwin’s 1976 book of film criticism, “The Devil Finds Work]. He argues that the messages peddled by mass media are a central component of white America’s inability to confront many things about itself, its power structures and subjugation of minorities. There’s a breathtaking moment in your film, when you construct a montage of contemporary reality television, overlaid with the words of Baldwin talking about the frightening effects TV is having on the American public. And now a reality TV star is President.

Footage of reality TV is very difficult to get, quasi-impossible. The Apprentice would have been perfect in the film! Baldwin compared watching TV to taking narcotics, and he wrote that forty years ago when TV was not totally polluted. It speaks about the Trump generation. It’s what our media has become, it’s what the whole world has become. It’s the world of confusion, of superficiality, and people cannot make the difference between what is real, what is dream, what is illusion. And that’s a terrible, terrible, frightening thing. As long as we don’t confront those two levels of reality, again to quote Baldwin, “There won’t be any American dream.”

I have one final question for you. I have to ask about Samuel L. Jackson’s tremendous work. He brings an incredible dimension to the film. Can you elaborate on him coming in and the conversations you had about how he would deliver the voiceover?

I always refused the word “voiceover” or “narrator”.  If you do narrator or voiceover, you’re not making a film.  You’re making either press or formatted documentary, but you’re not making a creative documentary. When I came to the Baldwin film, I knew it was going to be key. Even the first person I recorded, I experimented with him until I had the right approach, and that’s what we used for the editing. For Samuel Jackson, I knew at the end, I would need somebody well-known to be at the level of Baldwin, that could help the film, and also a great actor. And I also knew I needed someone that has some sort of strict political credibility, which Samuel Jackson has in my eyes. People sometimes judge him by the films he does, but each time I have read an interview of him or his real-life attitude, I’ve always felt that he knows who he is, and I’ve always liked that. So, I had a very short list of people who could do that. I didn’t want to have somebody who might have been a great actor and well-known, but politically would be contrary to what the film means. The personal aspect was important for me. His people showed him a cut, and he said: yes.

The way I worked with him not to be a narrator, not to do a voiceover, but to work as you would for it theatrically: Take [Baldwin’s] words and make them yours. Don’t speak them if they don’t come from inside, from you. That means you have to create a character, you have to be Baldwin.  You cannot just see those texts from the outside. It cannot be your ad voice. It has to come really from the inside. You have to feel it. And once the actor understands that, that means that anything that he does is good, it’s great. The way he talks, the way he transmits the emotion of the moment, the beats of the silence – is it two beats, three beats? All this is part of the rhythm. You can’t invent that. That’s the same when I work with actors in a narrative. Every moment we do in rehearsal, we play with the text, we try stuff, we improvise, et cetera. Then, when the moment comes onset, you’re shooting, the actor is on his own. He’s the one giving it, and you just take. You can’t micromanage him. Your job is to bring him there and watch him there. You just take whatever he’s giving, and it was wonderful working with Samuel, because he got it very rapidly, he is very professional, and when we are recording, each time, he felt and I felt it if a particular sentence was not there. He knew it automatically, before even I could even say it, because we just felt it was not the right. It’s like music. When it’s just not the right note, you know it. You just feel it.

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Ashes and Embers: Black film in the final year of Obama

Author’s note: a version of this article first appeared in the January 2017 issue of Sight & Sound Magazine.

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The intoxicating – for some – feeling of national progress engendered by the presence of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, seemed to embolden liberal-minded filmmakers to engage with traumatic material from a safe remove, particularly in the latter stages of his presidency. Consider the subjects of these backward-looking epics: reconstruction’s failure in The Hateful Eight (2015); slavery in Lincoln (2012), Django Unchained (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013); the civil rights movement in Selma (2014); the whole shebang in Lee Daniels’ expansive The Butler (2013), a fictionalised biopic of Eugene Allen, the White House butler who retired after 34 years in 1986, and was present at Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

At Sundance 2016, in the early stages of Obama’s last full year, this trend reached its apotheosis, but felt different. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation was a spirited if clodhopping reimagining of Nat Turner’s slave uprising of 1831, its title cribbed from the racist D.W. Griffith epic which screened at the White House in 1915. Parker’s film, emerging at a time of Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and economic inequality, sparked a feeding frenzy among distributors, secured a huge deal, and won the Grand Jury prize.

Its juggernaut slowed amid lurid revelations about its director’s history of alleged sexual assault, and a second wave of lukewarm reviews upon release. And yet, though Parker originated the concept in 2009, it’s difficult to imagine The Birth of a Nation being realised without, in part, the confidence and national conversations inspired by two terms of a black president, not to mention the ugly backlash against him. (Though cut from a different cloth, the same might be said for the runaway Broadway smash hit Hamilton, which features a cast of black and Latino performers playing white American historical figures.)
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The closing stretch of Obama’s tenure appears to have infused black-authored and -focused work with a reflective streak that manifests narratively and aesthetically. With its story of a driven young black man remaking himself in a new city, Ryan Coogler’s stirring, Philadelphia-set Creed, released late in 2015, felt like an elegiac riff on Obama’s political birth in Chicago. Another clear example is Barry Jenkins’ second feature Moonlight, a Miami-set triptych about a young, gay black man searching to get a grip on his own identity. (Ironically, Jenkins’ debut, the gorgeous romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy, was released on January 30 2009, just ten days after Obama’s inauguration.) Speaking at the London Film Festival in October, Jenkins conveyed his feeling that, consciously or not, living through the Obama age had emboldened him to make a film with an uncompromisingly subjective look at a black experience, with no hand-holding or code-switching in order to court the eyes (and wallets) of white audiences – promisingly for aspiring black filmmakers, it paid off: the film was a critical smash, and drew the biggest per-screen opening average of 2016. Moonlight also inspired a fount of beautiful, insightful writing, particularly from black critics. “Did I ever imagine, during my anxious, closeted childhood, that I’d live long enough to see a movie like Moonlight[?]”, asked The New Yorker’s Hilton Als. Per Jenkins’ observation, Obama must share credit for the presence of such life-affirming art.

In 2016, explicit Obama nostalgia characterised two fictionalised biopics by independent filmmakers: rare if not unprecedented treatment for a serving president. Richard Tanne’s Southside With You whimsically reimagined Barack’s first date with Michelle Robinson, the future first lady, while Vikram Gandhi’s low-key Barry tracked Obama as he was defining himself intellectually, and forging his identity as a student at New York’s Columbia University in the early 1980s. The films contrast tonally but, especially when watched back-to-back, impart a powerfully rueful charge.

Obama’s impact was felt away from conventional cinema in 2016. “Before I met [Obama], I ain’t really see myself going nowhere, you know, I ain’t really care if I lived or died,” says a young black man in a scene during Beyoncé’s innovative visual album Lemonade, which was shock-released to great fanfare on April 23. “Now I feel like I gotta live, man, for my kids and stuff.” Lemonade was one of myriad examples of final-year-of-Obama art to look at black experience with subjectivity and creative flair, from Donald Glover’s brilliantly strange FX show Atlanta, to timely re-releases of classic, under-appreciated films from the LA Rebellion (including Haile Gerima’s blistering Ashes and Embers and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, an acknowledged influence on Lemonade), and the black stars of micro-blogging site Vine which, per The New York Times’ Jazmine Hughes, “became its own ecosystem of black culture, both by relying on familiar figures, experiences and jokes, and by creating the next batch of them.”

Well, in October, Twitter announced that it was closing Vine. A month later, a racist, sexist reality TV star was announced as Obama’s successor. As Trumpageddon hoves into view, it’s hard to know which direction black film will take: a further push into subjective, psychologically interior territory; a more explicit drive toward political bluntness? Late 2016 documentaries like Ava Duvernay’s 13th and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, while hugely divergent in tone and formal ambition, highlight the molten racism bubbling at America’s core, share a searing urgency and, just in time for a terrifying new administration, make an implicit mockery of Obama’s oft-stated belief that the arc of history bends toward justice.

Whatever happens next, black visual culture in the final year of Obama will be poignantly picked over for decades to come.

Follow Ashley Clark on Twitter @_Ash_Clark.

“I based my Transformers character on Michael Bay!”—John Turturro interview

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Editor’s note: In April 2015 I interviewed the actor John Turturro a few blocks away from where he was shooting HBO crime drama The Night Of (which was then titled, simply, Crime.) The interview never saw the light of day, so, given that The Night Of is currently out in the world, I’m posting it now.

Actor, writer, director, jazz aficionado: John Turturro has many strings to his bow. The native New Yorker and Coen Brothers favourite cuts a trim, sprightly figure at 58, and that angular face is refreshingly expressive beneath his trademark short curls. Hes a busy man these days, stealing the show in Nanni Morettis Cannes hit Mia Madre; appearing in forthcoming Steven Zaillian/Richard Price HBO thriller The Night Of; and plotting his next directorial move a reboot of Bertrand Bliers 70s sex shocker Les Valseuses. I recently met up with Turturro at a comfy Italian restaurant near his Park Slope pad and mere blocks away from the HBO shoot to chat breakthroughs, Barton Fink and balancing budgets.

AC: So, tell me about getting involved with The Night Of. In a long career, this is your first miniseries

JT: They shot the pilot a long time ago, and I came in at the end of it. James Gandolfini did one or two days, but he passed away, and they asked me if Id do it. I was a little torn about it, but I went for it. I play Jack Stone, an attorney who becomes involved in a case defending a manplayed by Riz Ahmed whos accused of murdering a girl on New York’s Upper West Side.

Where do you stand on the whole TV versus filmdebate thats been bubbling away the past few years.

I guess television is becoming the thing people are talking about. A lot of movies when they adapt books are disappointing because you feel like they have to rush it in two hours. But everything is so different now. Movies were a communal experience originally and there werent that many other options. I still love going to the movies to see things, but I end up watching a lot of screeners at home. I think TV is a good forum for a lot of stories, but sometimes they stretch it out; it runs out of steam. Ive never wanted to do a TV series. Ive done many guest spots in series, but this is good because you can sink your teeth into it, and Im working from home.

You live just up the road from the shoot? Thats convenient! Have you lived here most of your life?

I was born in Brooklyn but I was raised in Queens. I spent the first five, six years of my life in Hollis, which is a black neighbourhood well it became a black neighbourhood. We moved to Rosedale, an Italian-Irish-Jewish neighbourhood. Then I got bussed out to one of the black schools. Ive lived in Manhattan, and Ive stayed in Connecticut. I went to Yale, and Ive lived all over the world. Ive worked in Europe almost as much as Ive worked in the States.

Do you ever get tired of traveling?

No, I like Europe a lot. Im very comfortable there. I did three movies in Italy last year Nanni Morettis Mia Madre; a film with a friend of mine, Marco Pontecorvo, who was my cinematographer on Fading Gigolo; and Ridley Scotts Exodus: Gods and Kings.

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Do The Right Thing

Did the performing arts run in your family?

My father was a builder. My mother was a singer. She wanted to be a dress designer, but she quit school. She worked at sewing a lot, but she used to design wedding dresses on her own. She could draw. She was very talented in our family she was maybe the most talented.

Your early movie roles were typically intense, antagonistic characters

I got my start in William Friedkins To Live And Die In L.A., I did The Sicilian with Michael Cimino, and The Color of Money for Scorsese. Even though the movie Five Corners [a 1987 film in which Turturro plays a psycho returning to his old neighbourhood after release from prison] wasnt that successful, a lot of people took note. It was a great part.

And then you played the memorably horrible racist Pino in Spike Lees Do The Right Thing

Well, Spike saw me in Five Corners and cast me. Hes a good friend of mine. Were the same age. He grew up in an Italian neighbourhood, I grew up in a black neighbourhood.

I read that the locals on the Do The Right Thing hated youthey thought you really were a racist!

People used to watch the rushes, and people see the same thing every day. If youve never worked on a movie, people think thats who you are. Its part of the gig.

Did you ever worry about being typecast, as a twitchy, intense guy?

Well, thankfully over the years directors like the Coen brothers, Spike Lee, Francesco Rosi and Tom DiCillo have given me lots of opportunities to play all kinds of roles. I didnt want to play one thing, and Im not good at playing one thing, thats not what I do. I like to try thingsI was always more interested in actors who could transform, like Marlon Brando. He could have just been the same all the time, and he wasntCharles Laughton is another one.

Another of your classic roles is the eponymous playwright in the CoensBarton Fink, for which you won the best actor award at Cannes 91. It such an intense role, but what was it like to play?

I spent a lot of time preparing. It was a really great collaboration between me, Joel, Ethan and Roger Deakins, the cinematographer. My wife was pregnant my son, Amedeo, was born in the middle of that shoot. It was like doing a play, it was so quiet. I got to work with lots of wonderful actors. If I could work with Joel and Ethan every couple of years I would, but they dont always have roles for me. Ive done a play with Ethan, and they exec produced my film Romance & Cigarettes (2005).

I have to ask you about your role as Jesus the bowling pederast in the CoensThe Big Lebowski. Is this the part that people ask you about the most?

Its one of them. It was kind of inspired by something I had done on stage a play called La Puta Vida at The Public, NY, many years before that. I would like to revisit it. When the movie came out, I think it did better in the UK than it did in the US. I dont know what happened. Basically it came out here and it did nothing, then over time became a classic. How does that happen? I knew Jeff was great in it but I didnt get all the humour initially. Young people love the film. The Dude just wants to be free, and be a fuck-up. He doesnt want to hurt anybody, he just wants to exist in a perpetual state of adolescence. Its like a Cheech and Chong moviebut better written!

Film viewers might not know that youre also a big theatre guy.

I studied in New York with [legendary acting coach] Robert Modica, then I got a scholarship and went back to school, to Yale. And then I worked with the playwright John Patrick Shanley, thats where people first saw me. I like doing theatre, its just hard to do everything. And since Ive directed, I need to work out what I want to concentrate on. I have the opportunity to do that. I did The Cherry Orchard with Dianne Wiest; and The Master Builder in Brooklyn. Ive done Samuel Beckett twice. Without sounding narcissistic, I think our production of Endgame was very successful. I get Beckett. I love doing Greek plays. I did a lot of new plays when I was younger, but recently Ive done classics. Ive always loved Othello, but they always want me to play Iago. I did a reading with Alan Cumming where I played Othello. Now its not politically correct, even though I look more Moorish Im from Southern Italy. I was more attracted to that role.

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The Big Lebowski

Speaking of Othello, there was a lot of heat on Ridley Scott recently for whitewashingcasting in Exodus: Gods and Kings, in which you played the Pharaoh Seti

I dont think critics picked me out so much, but the other guys are much whiter than I am. Honestly, I dont consider myselfwhite. I dont. As a matter of fact, Italians werent considered white until after the war. We were always other, andthe census changes. You do those kinds of big budget movies, and the people who criticise movies in generalwell, theyre not trying to get the money to do it. Even people like Ridley Scott have to be given money to do it. It is what it is it was an old-fashioned type of thing. Its always been the case. Charlton Heston played two of the biggest Jews of all-time he was Moses, Judah Ben-Hur, and he played Michaelangelo and he had nothing to do with those backgrounds! People accepted it in those days. Audiences didnt go for Exodus as much, but when I was told people were booing it I was like, really? Ridley has asked me to do a bunch of things over the years and it never worked out. Id like to work with him again actually.

Youve also appeared in the Transformers movies [as the eccentric Agent Seymour Simmons]. How do you feel about being in bigger budget stuff? Its not something youve been associated with throughout your career

For years I never did any big budget stuff. I used to make a very good not opulent living doing medium-sized films, but now that doesnt really exist so much. I didnt want to do a TV show; there was nothing I loved enough that I wanted to be on for five years. Then a few years back Adam Sandler asked me to do Mr. Deeds Id done SNL; they wanted me to do a big role, but I ended up with a small part. Then when they asked me to do Transformers, well, Id turned down so many of these movies over the years that my eldest son said to me: Just do it.I did it, and its like doing something very physical, energeticits like a sketch versus a really detailed thing. Im not interested in those movies. I dont watch those movies. But when I do it, I still have to do it.

Whats Michael Bay like?

I basically based my character on Michael Bay! [laughs] I was watching him and I got a kick out of it.

You recently directed Woody Allen in Fading Gigolo. He very rarely acts for other directors what was he like to work with?

Once I got past his merciless criticism of the different drafts of my script, I loved working with him. You dont have to agree with him, but if you want him to be in it, you have to consider what hes saying! Id done a play with him. Woody held the screen in a humorous way, a romantic way. He has weight. Until youve worked with him, you dont realise how good an actor he is. A lot of actors who are comedians on television, I dont think they could do what Woody does when he acts in films. He doesnt change externally, but hes good physically; hes a good athlete. Hes a very underrated actor.

Youre quite a double act [Allen, bizarrely, plays Turturros pimp]

I thought we would play well together. Sometimes you watch movies and you see these pairings and theres never any chemistry! When Joe Pesci was with De Niro it was brutal and it was funny. They were really good together. Al Pacino and John Cazale, they had done these plays together. Gandolfini was always good when he acted with a woman. He wasnt narcissistic at all, he put all of his attention on the woman, and he was surprisingly very sexy. But when you put a pair together, most times its like theyre edited, cut together, you can just tell that they dont have that rare chemistry.

Is there anyone you really want to work with?

Its a hard business. Theres lots of directors Id love to work with that I havent worked with. But I cant sit around hoping, waiting for that to happen. Sometimes people think, These directors use this guy, so I cant use him, which is kinda stupid. People have camps. I dont know why. I think Boyhood and Birdman have good interesting directors. I really like the Dardennes brothers. I think Two Days, One Night is an important movie.

And what about actors?

I liked A Most Violent Year. And Im a big fan of Oscar Isaac, I like him a lot. Hes my kinda actor. I loved Inside Llewyn Davis I thought he gave the performance of the year: he played the guitar, he sang, he was completely convincing and I loved him. Im so glad they gave him the opportunity. When they auditioned him, they were worried because theyd written it as a Welsh guy, a whiter guy. I said to them, Listen, the guy is good, youre the writers, all you gotta do is give him a line where he says One of my parents is Italian or Jewish or whatever’”. When someones that good, I was excited to see it.

Do you watch your own movies?

Rarely. If I see it on TVI did this movie called The Truce (2007), thats a movie Ive seen a lot of times. Ive taken it to a lot of places because I worked a long time on it, and I supported it a lot. But beyond that film, no. I saw Do The Right Thing at a recent 25th anniversary thing, and I think it holds up really well.

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Barton Fink

What do you do to relax?

I love sports. Basketball, Im a Knicks sufferer. When Im Europe I get into football. calcio! I like dance, too. Im a big flamenco fan. Theres a woman, Soledad Barrio, her company is Noche Flamenca, I always go. Dance was part of my training as an actor. I was always interested in it but at a certain age you have to go one way or another. I like it when people can express themselves without words, and flamenco stuff, when its done really well, I like a lot.

Ive heard youre a musical guy.

I played drums for a while. I played the piano, and I wish Id have stayed with it.

What music do you listen to to relax?

Depends on what project Im working on. I dont listen to rap music, even though the neighbourhood I came from, Hollis, was one of the places where rap was invented. I never really got into it. I like Andre 3000 from OutKast! When Public Enemy came out I listened to that, too. I grew up with a lot of black music, but Im not listening to 50 Cent or Eminem. I think theres a lot of filmmakers who try to use rap, and you can tell its not in their bones. I grew up with James Brown. He was a rapper before rap. I saw him perform. I love jazz music, and I used a lot in Fading Gigolo. I love Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Gene Krupa, Gene Adams. I always wanted to make a jazz film. I want to make it with real musicians, guys who never made it. I wrote a sketch out, but I want to talk to Woody about it. A singer, Woody, and Clint Eastwood guys who are sidemen. They lose their singer. They always think theyre on the verge of making it, but theyre 80 years old. If Morgan Freeman played an instrument, I could put him in there. But I dont think he plays. Clint is 84, but he just did American Sniper. His mother lived until she was 100. He stays in good shape. So does Woody.

Whats coming up for next for you?

Ive optioned an old French movie from the 1970s, Bertrand Bliers Les Valseuses. It wouldnt really be a remake, because it was inspired by a relationship with somebody that I really like. Im putting together a budget now. The book that its based on is still edgy its fucking shocking. Someone read it and they said This is misogynist!I said Not really, though it pushes to the edge of that. The movie Blier won the Academy Award for, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, is a little subtler than that. Blier has been really great with me. Ive taken some stuff from the Les Valseuses book [which Blier also wrote]. Its fuckinwild. I saw it when I was 19. It affected my whole life! Im not a hoodlum, but the sexual freedom of the movie was at a time when nobody was worrying about AIDS everybody was naked all the time. Its really a filthy book. The film was banned in some countries. But in the US, Pauline Kael was a big champion for The New Yorker, and it did well I think.

[Editor’s note: off the record Turturro also told me about his plans to resurrect his Jesus character; that’s now public knowledge.]

You mention Pauline Kael. How do you feel about critics?

I used to like to read Kael because I liked the way she wrote, even if I vehemently disagreed with her. It was like a friend who was very smart telling you what they thought, and it was a very emotional thing. Maybe theres more films that critics have to review now, but sometimes they just engage from here [points to eyes] up and I dont think they watch with a regular audience a lot of times, they watch it with a critical audience. Some people say they never read critics. Woody says he never reads critics. Ben Kingsley said he hasnt read a review in years, and youre probably better off not doing so, because you dont want to let it inhibit you. Ive never let it inhibit me. I like the sensibility of criticism, though, because its not sentimental. Sentimentality leads to brutality and stupidity. Sentimentality is the other side of brutality. I remember watching these TV shows as a kid and everyone was happy, and I said to my father Why cant we be like those people on TV?and he said “‘Cause thats not the world.

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Ordinarily I wouldn’t do one of these pics but it’s John Turturro innit

“There are stories out there to be told, and the talent is out there” — an interview with Debbie Tucker Green

Author’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2015 print edition of Sight & Sound Magazine.

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Kai Francis Lewis and Kai and Nadine Marshall as Jax

After fifteen years of international success on the stage with powerful dramatic plays including random and generations, London-based Debbie Tucker Green makes her screenwriting and directing debut with Second Coming. Elegantly and effortlessly blending elements of social and magical realism, it’s a hushed, disturbing parable starring Nadine Marshall as Jax, a married woman who mysteriously falls pregnant. It doesn’t seem that her partner Mark (Idris Elba) is the father, so who is? Perhaps the clue is in the title.

Green is famously publicity-shy, and rarely talks to the press, so I was pleased to be granted a rare interview at her agent’s offices in leafy West London. She’s far from retiring in person, though, speaking in a rapid-fire London patter, with her hands making a flurry of arcs and gestures in tandem with her words.

Ashley Clark: After working in the theatre for so many years, how did you come around to the idea of making a film?

Debbie Tucker Green: It’s a mountain to climb from thinking you’ve got a film — or even a script — to getting it made. Random started off as a stage play, and ran for years. I had no intention of it going onto screen because I don’t think things always translate very well [Tucker Green adapted it for Channel 4 in 2011]. It was just apparent when I was writing that Second Coming was a feature. I think in pictures, so I saw lots of air around this story. Visually, it had a different tone.

With regard to industrial practice, how did you find the process differed between stage and cinema?

When Film4 looked at an early draft, they were very into it. For me, it’s story and script first, and the other industry drama comes after. There’s more people involved in film, even when it’s low budget — more fingers in the pie. So that was a little newer. That was probably the biggest difference, people putting in their two-pence worth. If you “get it”, then it’s fine, we can work on the script; but if I don’t think you’re “getting it”, then we’re in a bit of trouble… With Random, at Channel 4, we had some rough and tumble. But we turned it around quite quickly. It was a case of “I haven’t got time for politeness, let’s just get on it.” I’m not saying it’s a horrible thing. There are a few more zeroes involved in film, and people are a bit more jumpy, so I understand it. You have to push back though, because, trust me, I recognise my film! [laughs]

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Debbie Tucker Green

Second Coming is, in places, purposefully ambiguous, or at least it absolutely refuses to spoon-feed information, and is happy to unfold at a measured pace. Was there any pressure on you from executives to explain more to the audience?

I thought the film was quite definitive! But it’s been interesting watching it with audiences, because it’s more open-ended than I’d thought, which is fine. It’s sparked debate, with people having little rows about what they thought happened. But there wasn’t much pressure on me about the ending. For me it was interesting to watch this woman over [the course of] her pregnancy and not be sure. It’s all played out in a day-to-day way; a lot of it for Jax is behind the eyes; her trying to keep up.

And Nadine Marshall is especially good in a tricky role…

She’s alright [laughs]. No, I’m joking. The part wasn’t written for her, or anything like that. I don’t write for actors. The script was there, I’d worked with her before. There was a thought process: she was right, age-wise, for one. And whoever played Jax, Mark and the kid… you had to feel it before you could see it. Sometimes I don’t always believe family units onscreen. I was still thinking about combinations. I can’t remember at what stage we cast Kai [Francis-Lewis, as Jax’s son JJ], but things started falling into place. I hadn’t worked with Idris before, and Kai had only done one job. The brief to the casting director was that I just wanted a regular kid who goes to drama club once a week or whatever— nothing against signed-up stage school kids.

Your dialogue is rhythmical and intricate; it loops and repeats and interlocks. Is your writing more influenced by music than than other playwrights?

I definitely love music, and what it can do. There’s something for me about the playfulness of dialogue; music reflects on language definitely, whether it’s kids or grown-ups. It’s something that we have that’s very flexible. Yet the film gets quieter and quieter as we go through. You’ve got a character [Jax] who becomes more internal. There’s something quite powerful [cinematically] about having the time, and space, to watch her do that.

I wrote for this magazine in 2013 about Horace Ové’s 1976 film Pressure, and how it’s still so depressingly rare to see everyday black British life — in this case a family of West Indian heritage — represented on film. Too often I feel we see still black British representation pegged around certain limited issues: youth crime, absent fatherhood etc. Your film was so moving for me because it was just like going around to my Jamaican grandmother’s house — I was watching it at the Toronto Film Festival, having not long moved to live in the States from London, and I honestly welled up at the sight of a bottle of Encona Hot Pepper Sauce on the dinner table! How can it be so rare to see ourselves represented? Was that issue a consideration for you?

For me it’s about this particular family, they’re just regular folks. I’m not looking to represent the whole, because everybody lives differently. It wasn’t a huge “I must do this, that and the other”, but rather I just wanted to stay true to these characters; it so happens they are of specific heritage. To me it’s important these characters have their foundation. People have told me things like you’ve just done, which is great. But you need to go and talk to the commissioners, innit! People who’ve got the money to fund stuff. There are stories out there to be told, and the talent is out there.

Liberated Territories: Haile Gerima in Profile

 

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Author’s note: Around Easter time 2015, I dropped in on Sankofa Video Books and Cafe in Washington, D.C., with the intention of drinking some fine Ethiopian coffee, and the vague hope of catching up with its co-proprietor, the great director Haile Gerima. As it happened, he strolled in moments after I did, and we got talking. I bought a bunch of his films on DVD (support the artist!), an act which may have persuaded him to accept when I enquired whether I could return the following day for a more formal interview. Gerima was insightful, thoughtful, and extremely generous with his time. The following feature first appeared in the January 2016 print edition of Sight & Sound Magazine, but I’ve added in a couple of links and details here, plus a not-fit-for-the-newsstands picture of me grinning alongside him. Enjoy.

The career of Ethiopian-born, American-based writer-director Haile Gerima is a fascinating case study of the challenges faced by left-leaning, formally experimental black filmmakers who wish for their work to be widely seen. Consider, for example, the fate of his 1993 film Sankofa, a visceral, tonally poetic, and visually seductive study of an American fashion model who is magically transported back in time from Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle to the antebellum American south, and transformed into a house slave. Here, she falls in love with a rebellious field slave who implores her to poison her white owners.

Like a more esoteric forebear of 12 Years a Slave (2013), but with no golden-locked Brad Pitt figure to salvage the day, Sankofa is a stark immersion into the plantation experience for both central character and viewer. While functioning as a resounding endorsement of the liberating power of self-knowledge, Sankofa, through its complex, detailed portrait of intra-slave relations, also offers a sharp comment on the continued sublimation of slave mentality and practice within contemporary American society. As Gerima told journalist Assata Wright, “If you view America as a plantation, then you can codify the different classes and interest groups within the society. You find overseers, head slaves, you find plantation owners in a very advanced, sophisticated way.”

Despite Gerima’s serious pedigree — he came to prominence in the 1970s alongside the likes of Charles Burnett and (not that) Larry Clark as a leading light of UCLA’s feted “LA Rebellion” movement — the fundraising process for Sankofa took nine gruelling years. Despite the film’s evident artistic qualities and positive critical reception at international festivals, major American distributors, skeptical of its earning potential and cowed by its revolutionary thrust, wouldn’t touch it.

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Sankofa

Unbowed, Gerima opted for the exhausting self-distribution route. (He wasn’t starting from scratch, though: In 1982, Gerima made Ashes and Embers, an elliptical psychodrama about the spiritual awakening of a troubled black Vietnam vet-turned-actor: its bleak tone is conspicuously antithetical to Hollywood’s Rambo-fication of the war. To enable its release, the director, alongside his filmmaker wife Shirikiana Aina, and sister Selome, set up the company Mypheduh Films in the basement of his home in Washington, DC. Ashes and Embers has recently been restored and released by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY label.)

So, in the pre-lightweight digital days, Gerima took Sankofa to thirty-five different cities, and it ultimately grossed nearly $3m. It was especially successful with black audiences. As Gerima writes on his website, “I witnessed theaters across America turn into night schools, as intense discourse was sparked among audience members … the black image was re-framed on-screen.”

In 1997, using the Sankofa windfall, Gerima and his family upgraded their operations to a large property unit in Washington, located a stone’s throw from the prestigious Howard University, where Gerima has been a professor of film since 1975. They converted it into Sankofa Video and Books, a venue which, as I discovered on a recent visit, still thrives today. Its walls are lined with DVDs and books about black history, literature, and culture, while Gerima frequently hosts screenings in the spacious parking lot, and schedules open mic nights for poets and musicians.

A cafe was added in 2007, where one can purchase food items named after esteemed African and African-American directors (“a ‘Charles Burnett’, for example, is a panini filled with pesto, smoked mozzarella, dill, tomato, and olives, suggesting that no sheep were killed in its creation.) Of his venue, the stocky, white-bearded, softly-spoken 69-year old tells me, “When the black community meet here they call it ‘liberated territory’, which means a place where folks can come to study and think critically.”

Sankofa Video and Books is also a crucial part of Gerima’s independent filmmaking apparatus, fitted with editing facilities where he and Shirikiana can cut their films, and educate students. Gerima, who was extremely generous with his time, showed me to his downstairs editing suite and ran me a series of a clips from his ongoing project, The Children of Adwa, a documentary about the Second colonial Italo-Abyssinian War, which lasted from October 1935 to May 1936. Gerima inherited the project from his father, playwright and historian Abba Gerima Tafere, the author of books like Gondere Begashaw, a chronicle, written in the Amharic language, of anti-fascist uprisings during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in World War II. Gerima has been recording the testimony of Ethiopian fighters for around 20 years, and intends to make the entirety of his research available to historians.

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Teza

The Children of Adwa is a companion piece to both Teza (2008), his award-winning historical epic, and more specifically Adwa (1999), a lyrical documentary about the victory of the Ethiopian patriots over Italian colonial powers in the eponymous concluding 1896 battle of the first colonial war. Gerima screened Adwa at the Venice Film Festival, and its conscious reframing of history through the director’s national lens, plus its unsparing exposure of Italian brutality, offended local sensibilities. “People stormed out,” he recalls. “Here was an Ethiopian history coming, and it ruined their ideas. Italians always say to me, ‘we built roads, we built clinics and hospitals, we weren’t as cruel as other colonialists’, and I would say ‘Oh no, I remember my father’s book!’”

Gerima’s father was his first conduit to a life in art, and a key figure in introducing him to liberationist, anti-colonial politics that would definitively sequester him from the mainstream. When Haile moved from Ethiopia to Chicago in 1967, he attended drama school, studied as a playwright, and would act in his father’s plays. It was at UCLA, however, where he developed his filmmaking chops. After making a pair of ruminative, dreamlike shorts which filtered black liberation struggles through the respective individual consciousness of a college basketball player (Hourglass, 1971) and an imprisoned woman (Child of Resistance, 1972), Gerima made his feature bow with the staggering Bush Mama (1975). Broaching questions of class, race and gender in a manner rarely seen, this riveting blend of vérité-style docudrama and Brechtian agit-prop centres on a black female welfare-recipient (the charismatic Barbara O. Jones) and her broken family surviving in LA’s impoverished Watts district. Its opening authorial credit gives the game away regarding Gerima’s intentions: Rather than “directed by”, a scrawled legend daubed in white reads “Answerable: Haile Gerima, 1975”.

While extraordinarily relevant in a modern climate of #BlackLivesMatter and student protests at the University of Missouri, Bush Mama was the product of a specific political context (the Vietnam war, anti-colonial struggle, institutional racism) which deeply impacted the filmmaking approach of Gerima and his colleagues: “In the early 1970s there was a rainbow of people who had been casualties of racist cinema, who wanted to countermeasure,” he says. He cites filmmakers like Jorge Sanjinés from Bolivia, Glauber Rocha and the Cinema Novo from Brazil, Miguel Littín of Chile, and Fernando Solanas of Argentina as influences. “Their films mediated our ambiguous relationship to cinema; saying ‘Yes, it can be used against itself.’ The fact that cinema was a perpetrator of imperialism created a very ambiguous relationship for me. I wanted to use film against its own established legacy of what it had been doing to non-white people. This came down to the idea of intensely questioning the cinematic grammar itself.”

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Bush Mama

Another huge influence on Gerima was Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, widely regarded as the father of African cinema: “When I saw [Sembene’s 1963 debut] Borom Sarret”, he says, “I thought, ‘Oh, I can make an Ethiopian film! It doesn’t need to have an English script.’ English is a very imperial language, and [its prevalence] makes you feel like all your characters have to speak it to be in a movie. I saw Sembene’s film, and that very same night I stopped writing my next movie Harvest: 3000 Years in English and started writing it in Amharic.”

Filmed in Ethiopia in the direct aftermath of the overthrowing of Emperor Haile Selassie, this stunning monochrome drama chronicles a peasant family toiling under the scornful eye of a wealthy landowner. Alongside Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), Larry Clark’s Passing Through (1977), Julie Dash’s Illusions (1982), and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), it’s one of the indisputable high points of the “LA Rebellion”, a term retroactively coined by African-American historian Clyde Taylor in 1986.

As it happens, Gerima is not overly fond of the moniker: “It’s not truthful,” he says. “The very people who endorse this movement now rejected it when it happened — the establishment negated and undermined every innovative form we stumbled through, like jazz.” Gerima is also skeptical of the notion of the Rebellion as solely a black cinema movement, as it is widely regarded (for example, a recent Tate Modern retrospective was entitled LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema). “Initially it had Latin Americans, Asian students, and even some white kids who were into this idea of a cinema of liberation. But then, typical of the black bourgeoisie in America — and the pitfalls of black nationalism — it was excised from its historical context to make it a ‘black’ phenomena because America deals in race relations only.”

He continues, “I had more identification with a Brazilian filmmaker who I did not even like as a person, but he was a proponent of the liberationist cinema we were all thinking of.” (For his part, Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive and mastermind of the ongoing LA Rebellion restoration project, has written: “I believe the name is not only historically justified, but accurate … To ignore the specific cultural and political context of post-Watts Black America would do an injustice to all African and African American filmmakers at UCLA.”)

Gerima is circumspect yet piercingly honest about why the UCLA school of filmmakers have not enjoyed the careers their talents should have ensured: “We could not sustain a communal, collective co-existence beyond our school days, and that has impacted on all of us. Also, we were naive on the business aspect. We were alienated with the ugly culture of capitalism, but we never converted a socialist business idea, to co-produce each other’s movies, to co-exist, in a very formidable way; it’s a shame.” Gerima recently took to website Indiegogo in an attempt to fund a new narrative feature (Yetut Lij), but fell well short of the ambitious $500,000 goal. The process of finding funding may not get easier as the years go by, but Gerima keeps busy, and will remain an inspiration for all advocates of non-mainstream, anti-colonial, liberationist cinema.

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Auteur and author at Sankofa Video Books and Cafe

A centrifugal force: the magnetic sounds of Trevor Mathison

Author’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2015 print edition of Sight & Sound Magazine.

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Black Audio Film Collective, 1989

The trailblazing Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) officially formed in 1982, but began working together as a loose group of fellow students and friends at Portsmouth Polytechnic two years prior. Comprised of seven multimedia artists and thinkers from backgrounds in fine art, sociology and psychology, they curated programs of avant-garde and anti-colonial world cinema, and made their own work using film, slide-tape texts and video.

It’s no accident that the word ‘Audio’ shared level billing with ‘Film’ in their name: sound held equal importance with image in the realisation of their multilayered output. This remained the case when the group disbanded, and three founding members — director John Akomfrah, producer Lina Gopaul, and sound designer Trevor Mathison — re-emerged in 1998 as the collective Smoking Dogs Films.

Mathison was born in London, of Jamaican heritage, in 1960. His intricate work incorporates elements of dub and musique concrète, and functions as a binding agent for the stylistically disparate visual information featured in the group’s work. Akomfrah cites Mathison as a crucial collaborator: “The musical worlds of these films take the form they do partly because I’ve worked for so long with Trevor,” he told Sound on Film’s Daniel Trilling in 2011. “We’re both very interested in noise, for want of a better word: what Trevor at one point called the ‘post-soul noise’. These are sounds that take their cue from pre-existing black musics … but they’ve been defamiliarised, put through a sonic box that renders them strange and unusual.”

“Strange, unusual sounds” pepper the landscape of Akomfrah’s directing debut Handsworth Songs (1986), an essay film about the social unrest in the eponymous West Midlands district, which invites the viewer to reflect on how mainstream news grossly simplified the complex roots of the conflict. Mathison’s meshing of vocal loops, political broadcasts, dubby beats and surging electronics evokes specific musical influences — reggae soundsystem pioneer Jah Shaka (whose music appears in the film); industrial pioneers Cabaret Voltaire; David Byrne and Brian Eno’s cut + paste classic ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, for example — while heralding a radical approach to imparting information in a nonfiction context. As suggested by Jean Fisher in excellent BAFC compendium ‘The Ghosts of Songs’, the film boasts “a polyvocality of recorded testimonies and intercessional poetic voiceovers that, contrary to the ‘explanatory’ panoptical impulse of the documentary narrator, build an oblique relation to the audiovisual track.”

As well as conjuring fractured, haunting aural landscapes (see/hear also: 1989’s Twilight City), Mathison excels at integrating existing music to imaginative effect. In Who Needs a Heart (1991), a bleak docudrama about London-based 1960s self-styled revolutionary Michael X (aka Michael DeFreitas), avant-garde jazz largely stands in for dialogue. Why imagine words, the film seems to ask, when the feral, squawking horns of Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy evoke the pain and paranoia of the characters and the era appropriately enough? Jazz is also to the fore in The Stuart Hall Project (2013), which matches the melancholy-suffused music of Miles Davis against various archival recordings of the eponymous scholar in a moving, time-collapsing duet (“When I was 18 or 19,” says Hall in the film, “Miles Davis put his finger on my soul”).

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Trevor Mathison

In postcolonial-historical collage The Nine Muses (2010), Mathison’s scope is at its widest, forcing the viewer to challenge received canonical wisdom: he blends a vast range of classical texts (read by actors in voiceover) with Arvo Pärt liturgicals, negro spirituals and Indian courtly music to bewitching effect. Mathison also appears in front of the camera, playing a silent, deadpan wanderer stranded in a succession of ice-white Alaskan landscapes.

In essay film-cum-Afrofuturist fantasy The Last Angel of History (1996), meanwhile, interviews with esteemed black writers, cultural critics and musicians (including George Clinton, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Derrick May, Carl Craig etc.) are interwoven with the fictional story of a “data thief” who must travel through space and time in search of the code that holds the key to his — and the black diaspora’s — future. Yet subversively, almost none of the cited artists’ music is deployed in the film. “Last Angel proved conclusively to both me and Trevor that you could actually use your own sounds to bring [these worlds] into being,” Akomfrah told Trilling.

Mathison’s work isn’t limited to the BAFC/Smoking Dogs continuum. In March 2001 he, ex-BAFC member Edward George, and Anna Piva, under the name Flow Motion, created a digital audiovisual installation entitled Dissolve based on Michelangelo Antonioni’s lysergic countercultural adventure Zabriskie Point (1970). Mathison has also recently celebrated ten years of collaboration with fellow sound designer Gary Stewart under the moniker dubmorphology. Based in London, they conceptualise, produce and perform audiovisual events and installations largely based on themes of race, nationhood and memory.

Mathison, softly spoken and self-effacing in person, explains the difference in approach between BAFC/Smoking Dogs and his collaboration with Stewart: “When it comes to working with John, my thing is not to compete with the rest of the way the film has been set up — to complicate the situation by putting rhythms against another set of rhythms. The films have a very precise alchemy, a different kind of poetry. When Gary and I are doing our stuff, we can wig out,” he says with a wry smile.

One of dubmorphology’s most recent projects was the ambitious Mission to the Land of Misplaced Memories, a “memory collection spaceship” installation at Tate Britain. It’s a collaboration with writer Gaylene Gould, who told me about their process: “We sat piecing together ideas and concepts, trying to map the complex mess of human behaviour. Trevor, who is also an accomplished artist, would quietly draw a sketch that perfectly encompassed what we’d been trying to grasp. The swiftness with which he is able to embody a complex idea is astounding. I’m convinced he’s a wizard.”

Mathison may be reluctant to sing his own praises, but others are keen to highlight his crucial role in the artistic landscape of the past three decades. Culture critic Kodwo Eshun has hailed Mathison’s pioneering use of tape loops for their ability to make “the imperial anxieties of the early twentieth century resonate… with the multiple fears of the present.” Gould, meanwhile, lauds Mathison as “the quiet centrifugal force behind what we now recognise as a black British aesthetic. Essentially he helped re-imagine how sound and image can work differently to carry an African diasporic motif.” It’s heady, justified acclaim for a quiet man behind a sustained revolution in sound.

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Eyes on the Prize—a rough guide to Civil Rights cinema

Author’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in the March 2015 print edition of Sight & Sound Magazine.

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Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2013)

The African-American civil rights movement is broadly agreed to span a period between 1954, with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education court case to end segregation in public schools, and 1968, the year of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the subsequent signing into law of the Fair Housing Act.

The movement has proved to be fecund ground for filmmakers to explore, interrogate and recreate. The latest to do so is Ava DuVernay, whose Alabama-set Selma depicts events leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a crucial piece of legislation which outlawed racial discrimination in voting. The film is significant for many reasons: it’s the first feature directed by a black woman to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar; it paints an unusually detailed portrait of the process of nonviolent, direct protest action; it reframes the thrust of the movement from an exceptional ‘great man’ to a grassroots plural, in the process foregrounding the role of women; and — with controversy raging over the unpunished police killings of black males including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Akai Gurley and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 — its messages are particularly timely.

Selma, surprisingly, is also the first major cinema release to feature Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a central character, indicating that other filmmakers have been daunted by his legacy. While King’s assassination (and the subsequent riots) in April 1968 have been repeatedly invoked as a marker of place and cultural climate in documentaries and historical films (Ali, Get on Up) the only other notable recent incarnation is Nelsan Ellis’ cameo portrayal in Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013), about a real-life African-American manservant who served in the White House between 1957 and 1986. Instead, significant portrayals of King have been confined to TV movies. Abby Mann’s six-hour biographical miniseries King (1978) featured Paul Winfield in the role; its provocative suggestion that King was the victim of a conspiracy prompted an inconclusive congressional investigation. More recently, In 2001, Jeffrey Wright assumed the role with gravitas in HBO film Boycott, a dramatisation of the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama (1955-6) which prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to rule segregation on public buses unconstitutional.

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The Rosa Parks Story (Julie Dash, 2002)

Television has traditionally been the preeminent arena for filmmakers to tell historical stories about the key events and figures of the movement, perhaps because the medium is more suited to a pedagogical approach. This is true for uplifting, informative films like Charles Burnett’s Disney-produced Selma, Lord Selma (1999), which covers much of the same ground as DuVernay’s film, but with a softer touch; and Julie Dash’s biopic The Rosa Parks Story (2002), in which Angela Bassett gives a layered performance as the eponymous community organiser and catalytic figure of the Montgomery protests. In 1991, Sidney Poitier brought his star power to George Stevens Jr.’s TV epic Separate But Equal to play lawyer Thurgood Marshall, the key figure in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Eduction case.

Conversely, when Hollywood has tackled civil rights, the films have tended to prioritise the experience of white saviours, or sweeten the pill with soothing depictions of interracial friendships. The former is evident in traumatic historical dramas like Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), a 1964-set tale of FBI agents (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) investigating the killings of three civil rights workers; and Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), which foregrounds the role of an assistant District Attorney (Alec Baldwin) attempting to convict a white supremacist (James Woods) for the 1963 murder of activist Medgar Evers. The latter, meanwhile, characterises fictional fare like Richard Pearce’s The Long Walk Home (1990), which turns on the decision of a well-to-do white lady (Sissy Spacek) to support her black maid (Whoopi Goldberg) in the mid-1950s Montgomery protests; and Tate Taylor’s The Help (2011), a Mississippi melodrama set in 1963, one year before the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. Selma, refreshingly, refuses to extend this trend—the role of Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is deliberately not overstated. In this respect the film has more in common with Malcolm X (1992), Spike Lee’s epic portrait of the charismatic orator who, after initial skepticism, eventually began tentative participation in the movement before his assassination in 1965.

Much of the best contemporaneous civil rights-era cinema focused not on the machinations of protest, but on the lived realities of African-Americans in the segregated south (Michael Roemer’s superb, neorealism-inspired 1964 drama Nothing But a Man), and in the north, where de facto discrimination in housing and employment blighted black family life (Daniel Petrie’s beautifully-performed, faithful adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s Chicago-set play A Raisin in the Sun [1961]). Meanwhile odd, daring films utilised high concepts to explore both the absurdity and terror of racism. Carl Lerner’s earnest Black Like Me (1964) told the fact-based tale of a white Texan journalist who spent six weeks travelling throughout the racially segregated south while disguised as a black man. Melvin van Peebles’ Watermelon Man (1970), meanwhile, starred comedian Godfrey Cambridge as cocky, racist white man who one day awakes to discover – to his horror – that he is black. By the end, he’s come to terms with his blackness, and is seen practicing combat with a black militant group: a harbinger of the burgeoning Black Power movement, and a jarring reminder that legislative gains did not end racism. Set in the direct aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jules Dassin’s criminally under-seen, Cleveland-set Uptight (1968) – a remake of John Ford’s 1935 film The Informer – follows the final days in the life of a troubled young black man (real-life civil rights activist Julian Mayfield) who finds himself hopelessly caught between his family, the police, the bottle, and his radical activist friends.

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I Heard It Through The Grapevine (Dick Fontaine, Pat Hartley, 1982)

Away from fiction, contemporaneous low-bugdet documentary filmmaking — like Haskell Wexler’s The Bus (1964), Charles Guggenheim’s Academy Award-winning Nine From Little Rock (1964), and Ed Pincus and David Neuman’s Black Natchez (1967) — accounted for some of the most bracing insights into the movement’s internecine and procedural complexity. The great black independent filmmaker William Greaves was commissioned to make a documentary about “good negroes” for public television during a time of growing unrest, but bucked the assignment to deliver, in Still a Brother (1968), a non-pat investigation of the mental revolution that was transforming the consciousness of black people of all classes. 1970 saw the (sadly limited) release of Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s exhaustive, three-hour archive footage film King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis (1970), which won an Academy Award, and is now thankfully available on DVD. The civil rights documentary ur-text, however, remains PBS’s mammoth Eyes on the Prize, which covers the movement in forensic detail across 13 hours.

The passage of time has seen a flourishing subgenre of documentaries adopting a reflective approach to assessing the era. These include Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley’s I Heard it Through the Grapevine (1982), in which author James Baldwin retraces his time in the South during the movement to see what’s changed; Spike Lee’s galling Four Little Girls (1996), about the racist bombing of a baptist church in Alabama in 1964; and Brother Outsider (2003), a study of the openly gay Bayard Rustin, a key figure in organising the famed 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Finally, The March (2013) is both the title and subject of John Akomfrah’s superb commemorative account of the event on its 50th anniversary. It, like Selma, sheds valuable light on a thrilling, terrifying and instructive time in contemporary history.