Gillespie reflects on ‘the art of Blackness’ in Naremore lecture
André Seewood felt like he had conducted a summons.
It was February and Seewood, a Media School doctoral candidate and award-winning filmmaker, was reading Michael Gillespie’s book, “Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film,” when he learned Gillespie would be delivering the 2021 James Naremore Lecture. In his introduction to the lecture Wednesday afternoon, Seewood said that he found the book vital not only in an academic context, but also as a tool for film practitioners to think about Black cinema. As a Black filmmaker, he found the book freeing and enlightening.
“Black film must be understood as art, not as constriction,” Seewood said.
Gillespie, an associate professor of film at the City College of New York, delivered a lecture that focused the ideas of his work on a range of media object case studies: an item from the “literary and anthropological” art project “Significant Objects,” a video excerpt from the television series “American Gods” and a televised performance by the Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem at a 9/11 memorial service. The case studies will likely make up parts of a forthcoming book, tentatively titled “A Three-Sided Dream,” he said.
But he started — and ended — with a shoutout to Bloomington.
“I’ve got love for Bloomington. I really have love for any place that has fried cheese curds, and also any place that Jason Molina called home,” he said.
Gillespie is the author of “Film Blackness” and a co-editor of “Black One Shot,” a series that publishes 1,000-word critical essays “in response to the art of Blackness, contemporary and/or prescient.” There’s an anecdote he thinks of when he considers his work:
It’s from a James Baldwin lecture at a Washington, D.C., luncheon for the National Press Club, just 11 months before Baldwin’s passing. There’s a sadness to it because of that, and because anything involving Baldwin brings up the question of why the revered author’s work seems to never grow old, Gillespie said. But this moment is decidedly lighter. Having been discussing the Reagan administration’s Latin American policy, he’s asked by an audience member what he thought of Spike Lee’s debut film “She’s Gotta Have It.” He looked incredibly confused.
“I sometimes have these fantasies about what would James Baldwin have said if he had seen ‘She’s Gotta Have It?’” Gillespie said.
Through his work, he tries to stage critical conversations that never happened. Like what Baldwin would have made of “She’s Gotta Have It,” or what he made of the things he revisited as the grinding halt of 2020 prompted him to re-reflect on things.
“I’m wholly invested in thinking about the art of Blackness,” he said.
He started with a “Significant Object” from 2010: a napkin ring in the racist image of a mammy with an unfortunately — or strategically — placed hole in its nether regions where, presumably, napkins belong. Accompanying it is a fictitious letter from one “Ms. Minerva Lee Battle, Esq.” to “Mr. Pennyback” of “Shady Acres Estate” outlining 155 years of subjugation suffered by “Ms. Bethuna” — the napkin ring. The object’s hole, the letter clarifies, is the result of sexual assault.
The letter, penned by author James Hannaham, effectively disrupts the sanitized racial caricature of the mammy — a racist portrait of a cheery, desexualized and domestic Black woman that suggested an enjoyment of slavery, Gillespie said. It foregrounds the image’s associations and links them literally to graphic insinuations of white supremacist violence.
“‘Napkin Ring’ contests the historical erasure necessary, in many ways, for the continued trafficking of the history of slavery, evidenced by memorabilia and collectibles, such as this napkin ring,” he said.
Gillespie’s next object of study was an excerpt from the first season of “American Gods,” a television series adapted from Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name. The clip depicts a slave ship of Africans pleading for freedom to the god Anansi. He appears to them, a “Black dandy in a noir key,” as Gillespie says, and explains that their abduction by Dutch slavers has transformed them from people to Black people.
“You already dead asshole, at least die a sacrifice for something worthwhile,” Anansi says, breaking the slaves’ chains and inviting them to burn the ship.
Gillespie followed the excerpt with a revised presentation of his 2018 “Black One Shot” contribution, “Mr. Nancy’s Story.”
“But the Atlantic is only the beginning of this story,” Gillespie said, “As James Baldwin has told us, ‘It could be said that we know the rest of this story, how it turned out so to speak. But frankly, I don’t think we do know the rest of this story. It hasn’t turned out yet, which is the rage and pain of this country.’”
He followed “American Gods” with American tragedy — a clip from a post-9/11 service where the Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem performs “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “We Shall Overcome.”
“I’m interested in Blackness as misapplied and misused in this post-9/11 moment,” he said.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” began its life as a poem, before being composed as a song. It would eventually be dubbed the “Black national anthem” and adopted as the song of the NAACP. “We Shall Overcome,” too, had a history of solidarity. It began as a slave song and grew into a tune of labor movements, in the U.S., in Beirut, in North Korea.
The use of two songs with such specific political connotations in a moment of collective grief weaponized their specific power as collective, Gillespie said.
He also spoke about “T,” a 2009 film shot in Liberty City, Florida, and Zora Neale Hurston. In 1945 Hurston, a luminary of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote a letter to W.E.B. Du Bois proposing a cemetery for the “illustrious Negro dead.” Her proposed locale for this cemetery was in Florida, her home state, near what would become Liberty City.
“Bodies in mourning become unmoored and unbound from this earthly plane as the arc of the film gestures at something altogether post-cinematic,” Gillespie said of “T.”
“T” was screened Tuesday as part of the IU Cinema event, “Everyday Abstraction: A Film Blackness Collection.”
Gillespie ended his lecture by bringing things full circle, back to Bloomington.
“I need fried cheese curds right about now,” he said.