Archive | November, 2015

The New Negress Film Society

26 Nov

Last Friday, my wife and a couple of my students went to a New Negress Film Society event at the Made-In-New-York Media Center in Brooklyn, where we saw five short films and then participated in a conversation between the directors and artists and the audience about their work. The name “New Negress” alludes to Alain Locke’s seminal book The New Negro, published in 1925, that perhaps more than any other single book defined the Harlem Renaissance as it was happening. Locke’s purpose was to overturn the prejudicial paradigm assumed by politicians, social scientists, poets, and artists who understood the “negro” as an uneducated former slave or as a “social problem.” Against this assumption, Locke’s book instead reveals the rich culture of intellectual and artistic achievement. His dialectical argument draws attention to the historical forces that transform society, most especially the migration of black people from the rural south and Caribbean to cities where they could develop a community identity and support each other’s art. No longer was art and literature created with a white audience in mind, as if the purpose of art was merely to justify black’s humanity to the white hegemony. In the 1920s, in New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, and other cities, they were creating for each other, forging a dynamic artistic culture in order to engender a new, vibrant, community whose understanding of its blackness was diverse and innovative.

New Negress Film SocietyThe New Negress Film Society creates a space where black women filmmakers can make movies for each other, rather than submit their artistic vision to the demands of a film industry dominated by the white, male gaze. As Nsenga Burton wrote in an article for, and as Spike Lee suggests in his satirical movie Bamboozled, the Hollywood industry limits the potential of black actors and artists in the film industry either to absurd caricatures of black identity such as Tyler Perry’s Medea or to historical dramatizations of “social problems” usually set in the past (because the past is not so threatening to our present), such as Ava DuVernay’s recent movie Selma. Although Jacqueline Bobo has chronicled the long history of achievement in her book Black Women Film and Video Artists, I think what the New Negress Film Society does that is new is create a space where such artists can form a community that nurtures an aesthetic that truly speaks to the diversity of black women and is liberated from the burden of having to explain the black experience — as if there were only one — to the white men who dominate the industry. You can read an interview with two of the members of the New Negress Film Society and watch some of their movies [here].

One of the films that we saw, “savage” by Kumi James, is about a white teacher trying to make a difference in an urban, mostly black high school. I think everyone in America is familiar with the way that Hollywood has told this story over and over again, in which the troubled teenagers are rescued by the inspiring teacher, such as Michelle Pfiefer’s role in Dangerous Minds. Such movies pretend to be about black communities, but in actuality they repeat stereotypes of urban life as a background for affirming the heroic role of the white protagonist. The formula for such movies almost always includes a pivotal scene where the teacher shows up at the student’s house and has a transformative heart-to-heart conversation with the family. Of course, whenever I discuss such films with my students, the ridiculousness of such cinematic fantasy is quickly and easily revealed whenever I ask my students, “how would you feel if your teacher suddenly showed up at your doorstep?” The students always respond  to my question along the lines of, “ew, gross, weird, creepy.” What is brilliant about James’s movie is how it flips the script, by exposing the somewhat creepy desire behind that Hollywood fantasy. In an important scene, James reverses the standard movie plot line and has the student show up at the teacher’s house, which of course unsettles the teacher. You can watch the entire movie [on Vimeo], and below is a “teaser”:

But in addition to reversing the Hollywood gaze, films by black women filmmakers also focus inward on the complexities of daily life. The Haitian-American filmmaker and educator Stefani Saintonge focuses on the experience of teenage girls in her film “Seventh Grade,” which won an award from Essence magazine. As she remarked during the Q&A, her movie is intentionally wishful thinking — imagining how she wished she had responded to questions about sexuality and social stigma experienced she experienced as a teenager. In a way, it seems to me that the film first holds up a mirror to that experience, and then imagines a realistic response to that experience in order to provide an empowering paradigm for audiences. You can watch the whole film below:

The Ghanaian filmmaker Frances Bodomo showed her cinematically luscious film “Boneshaker” about an African family searching for a faith-healer in the wilderness of Louisiana in order to release their daughter from spiritual possession. When they get lost in the wilderness and encounter a group of white men wearing camouflage and carrying guns, one expects a moment of racist conflict, but there is none, and instead the men just give the family directions. After the family finds the church in the middle of the wilderness, the daughter stubbornly resists the faith-healer, and they leave. What the family ultimately finds instead is unexpectedly beautiful. Here is a trailer:

I’d seen Bodomo’s work before at New York’s African Film Festival in 2014 when she showed her short film “Afronauts,” which she is currently developing into a feature-length drama. Here is the trailer for “Afronauts”:

Other filmmakers created experimental films that worked through the symbolism of black identity. Ja’Tovia Gary pursued her interest in what she calls “Afrosurrealism” to explore the complexities of human psychology and black female subjectivity in her poetic film “The Ecstatic Experience.” I wasn’t able to find a clip of that film on the internet, but below I’ve included a documentary film that she did on “Cakes Da Killa” — this film a straightforward documentary, quite different than the more surrealist work she showed us at the event:

Likewise, making full use of her talents as a sound-artist, Dyani Douze collaborated with Zimbabwean graphic designer Nontsikelelo Mutiti to render a poetic sound-image “Pain Revisited” that layers recorded speech and music over a collage of artistic and journalistic imagery to meditate on black identity.

One thing I appreciated is the formal diversity in terms of their style, aesthetics, and vision as well as the diversity of what identities and backgrounds they bring: California, Texas, Louisiana, Ghana, Zimbabwe, New Jersey, and of course, my new home borough of Brooklyn. It reminded me of what I love about Brooklyn as a space where artists and writers from such different cultural locations come together to share the love and inspire each other. I look forward to future exhibitions of their work.

The Spectre of Bond

15 Nov

Last night, a couple friends and I went to see the new James Bond movie Spectre, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Daniel Craig, which has been the number one movie at the box office the past two weekends. As some readers of my blog post know, back in 2009 I published an essay entitled “The New James Bond and Globalization Theory” in the journal CineAction in which I argued that the changing economic and social character of globalization had spurred a new kind of Bond movie in Quantum of Solace (produced in 2008). Although some consider Quantum to be one of the worst Bond movies, I thought it was more sophisticated and interesting than all the previous ones in terms of how it allegorized the problems of geopolitics and responded to a changing world order. Out of curiosity, as I began to compose this blog post today, I did a quick google search to see if anyone had responded to my essay and noticed it has been cited and discussed by other writers [here], [here], and [here], and was even put on the syllabus of a sociology class on globalization at the Charles University in Prague. Cool. When the next Bond movie, Skyfall, came out in 2012, my friends and colleagues asked me if I thought it followed the new paradigm for global action thrillers that I had theorized in my essay, so I wrote a post for this blog. In that post, I suggested that in some ways the genre had to grapple with the shifting conditions of globalization, but that the new director Sam Mendes had not continued the direction of Quantum. Instead, he had created an entirely new Freudian Bond that was in a sense the nostalgic double of its former self (a “self” that was already the nostalgic double for the defunct British Empire, so we have now a double of a double.)

Before I went to the theater last night, the questions I had about Mendes’s sequel to Skyfall, which is rumored to be the last of the Daniel Craig series, were (1) how he could resurrect the Bond ego-ideal after psychoanlyzing it (almost to death) in the previous movie, and (2) how he would situate Bond in the increasingly digitized internet world of global capitalism.

As have so many Bond movies produced after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Spectre obsessively contemplates the relevance of the sort of spy that was invented in the early years of the Cold War. Is the old double-O spy dead (or perhaps merely castrated)? The title and opening-scene metaphorically suggest how the movie is a meditation on death and on how the past haunts the present, as our new world appears to struggle to free itself from the tentacles of the old world. The key plot point is that the British intelligence MI6 is about to be made obsolete by a new computer spy program that networks the intelligence of different countries. What worries the double-O agents is how this inter-governmental computer program is sponsored by a private corporation. Meanwhile, Bond investigates the ghostly traces of a sinister underworld organization at the request of his previous boss M (Judy Dench), who speaks to him as if from the grave like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, or in this case, mother. Something is rotten in the new world order. As it turns out (a minor spoiler alert, as nothing that happens in the movie is in any way surprising), the secret organization whose corporate logo appears to be half-ghost, half-octopus is secretly a part of the new intelligence network.

In this way, the mSPECTRE_Logoovie Spectre actually follows my argument about Quantum because in my essay I point out a fundamental difference between the old Bond and the new Daniel Craig version– the old Bond had to rescue the good global organization (e.g., NATO or the UN) from the evil global organization (e.g., SPECTRE or whoever), but in the new Bond both the good and the evil organizations are not so distinct from each other and are both part of the same complex network, which puts Bond in the awkward position of having to go “rogue” against his own government. Just as the super-villain of Spectre turns out to be Bond’s half-brother who has been monitoring Bond all these years, the evil organization turns out to be the Orwellian “big brother” (or evil twin) of our own governments. What is more, in this new movie, Spectre has been covertly orchestrating terrorist attacks around the world in order to frighten nations into adopting the new digital surveillance program that would override democracy and remove the human face of national security. (Presumably, that human face is Daniel Craig.)

As the reviews in The Atlantic and The New Yorker observe, Mendes seems to have made not so much a Bond movie, but a meta-Bond movie that deconstructs the genre by including as many allusions to the previous Bond films as possible. For sure, it has all the action, all the suspense, and all the sex that we expect — perhaps some of the most exciting action sequences ever in a Bond movie — but the action appears to be entirely performative and perfunctory, as if everyone is simply going through the motions. For instance, after a big fight-sequence is over, the hero and heroine look at each other and say, “what do we do now?” and then start undressing. Just as the sex happens always on cue but without much foreplay, events happen always on cue, but without much narrative that might explain why they are happening or what is motivating the characters. The style of the clothes, the cars, and the women is rarely the style of the twenty-first century and is instead an assemblage of styles from previous movies. It is as if the director Mendes is not making a movie about a secret organization called Spectre, but rather making a movie about how he as a director is haunted by the spectre of the Bond genre. Perhaps that is why Mendes, unlike any director before, makes Bond’s childhood (an Oedipal origin myth) such a key aspect of the plot. Mendes appears to be searching for the origin of his own movie. Hence, as Bond searches for the roots of Spectre, Mendes routes him through the symbols of Bond’s past. In the final scene, Bond revisits the site of MI6 that was blown up in the previous movie, and its ghostly ruins get blown up again in this movie. What could possibly be the point of blowing up something that was already blown up? Such is the repetition of an event that in Skyfall was the tragedy of British intelligence, but in Spectre appears merely as a redundancy or an echo.

In a sense, it occurs to me that the movie Spectre is an example of an amusing point made by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek in his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (published in 2009 and later adapted to a ten-minute, illustrated YouTube video) about how we may know that what we are doing is nonsense — we may not believe in the mythologies of religion or capitalism or whatever that tell us how to live our lives, and we may have cynically demystified their truth — but we act as if we believe in it anyway because we have no choice. In other words, after Mendes psychoanalyzed Bond in Skyfall, the Bond ego-ideal became a character who acted out his role as an agent (including his role as a sexual predator) without actually believing in it. This may explain why all the characters appear so robotic, unmotivated, and sex-less, as several reviewers have noted. Likewise, the evil organization and its super-villain leader don’t seem to have much of a motivation either, in spite of the villain’s lengthy monologue about it, a monologue so villainously long and tedious that Bond requests that he shut up — a request that comes just in time, because if Bond hadn’t asked him to shut up, probably somebody in the theater’s audience would have.

Does that make Mendes’s film a cynical movie? Is it merely a postmodern simulacrum of a deconstructed cinematic form that no longer means anything? Not exactly. For Zizek, the cynical person who mocks the idealist is in fact the most naive because the cynic doesn’t realize the ways in which the symbolic order determines our reality not in a way that is natural but in a way that is entirely ideological. Thus, paradoxically, the idealist is actually more realistic than than the cynical realist precisely because the idealist understands how ideological our “reality” is. The cynic in Spectre is actually C, the head of the join-intelligence service who argues that democracy is dead and digital surveillance is the new world order whether the double-O agents like it or not. Since the audience obviously identifies with the double-O agents, one could read the film to be suggesting a problem with the symbolic logic of the capitalist world-order in which we live today. As the philosopher Jacques Derrida argues in his book The Specters of Marx (published in 1993), the death of communism revealed not the correctness of liberal capitalism, but rather exposed the fundamental untruths of capitalism’s mythology and its inherently self-contradictory form. In other words, once capitalism no longer had a nemesis, it was forced to examine itself for why the world continued to be such a damn mess. One could read the movie that way, but more likely, the obsessively deconstructive style of Spectre may simply indicate how a genre continues to function as a symbolic form even after that form has exhausted its content. The only semblance of a real human subjectivity that James Bond seems to possess in the movie Spectre is his desire to escape the symbolic logic of the Bond genre itself.