REconstructing Identity: A Shorts Program

May 26, 2017 & June 1, 2017
Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium
Portland, Oregon
For the Northwest Film Center

As part of the series Constructing Identity: Black Cinema Then & Now and in conjunction with the exhibition Constructing Identity at the Portland Art Museum (January 28-June 18, 2017).

Reconstructing Identity: A Shorts Program
As a way to investigate and work through the oppression that stereotypical images in the media can cast upon people of color, the artists whose short films are featured in this program have re-processed, re-purposed, re-imagined, and re-enacted archival footage from news, entertainment, and educational outlets. For some of these filmmakers, like Ina Archer, it is a way of “[r]econciling the desire to be included in a medium that seems determined and in fact built on exclusion.” Archer’s 2002 short Hattie McDaniel: Or a Credit to the Motion Picture Industry, focuses on the acceptance speech(es) made by Hattie McDaniel (the first African-American to receive an Academy Award), and suggests that the “documentary” footage of her 1939 speech was in fact re-staged. Alternatively, artist Ja’Tovia Gary, whose 2015 An Ecstatic Experience combines footage of actress Ruby Dee reciting a slave narrative during a 1960s TV broadcast with 1950s footage of Blacks in a rural church, sees her method of manipulating film footage as “a meditative invocation on transcendence as a means of restoration.” By re-making these images as one’s own, the work in this program seeks to both reveal the destructive power of images (and sound) in the media as well as re-construct the identity of those represented.

Mass of Images, US, 1977 dir. Ulysses Jenkins (4 mins, digital)
Bus Nut, US, 2015 dir. Akosua Adoma Owusu (7 mins, digital)
Rita Larson’s Boy, US, 2011 dir. Kevin Everson (11 mins, digital)
Hattie McDaniel: Or a Credit to the Motion Picture Industry, US, 2002 dir. Ina Archer (6 mins, digital)
Reckless Eyeballing, US, 2004 dir. Chris Harris (13 mins, 16mm)
An Ecstatic Experience, US, 2015, dir. Ja’Tovia Gary (6 mins, digital)
RW, US, 2004 dir. Ina Archer (3 mins, digital)
Emergency Needs, US, 2008 dir. Kevin Everson (7 mins, digital)
Secrecy: Help Me to Understand, US, 1994 dir. Ulysses Jenkins (8 mins, digital)
TRT: 65 minutes

Introductory notes:
The thrust of the program is the re-interpretation of popular imagery—from tv, movies, magazines, etc—by artists working within the experimental mode. These are images that inevitably inform understanding of identity.

The program starts with a 1977 video performance by the LA-based artist and educator Ulysses Jenkins, entitled Mass of Images. In the four minute video, Jenkins repeats the phrase “[y]ou’re just a mass of images you’ve gotten to know through years and years of tv shows.” This phrase, which becomes a kind of incantation, acts as a prompt for the rest of the program. Given this mass of images that constructs one’s identity—and obviously here we are talking about Black Identity—where do we go? how do we investigate that? break it down and reconstruct it?

The rest of the program includes other short film and video works that attempt to ask those questions, either by taking archival footage and manipulating it through re-editing or actual physical manipulation of the film surface (if the artist is working with celluloid film) or by re-enacting, re-embodying, or inserting themselves into the footage. Sometimes it is a combination of all of these things, as a way to insert oneself, see oneself, in a media, that as filmmaker Ina Archer puts it is “in fact built on exclusion.”

I just want to quickly go through each of the pieces that we’ll see in order to give some context to the footage. After Ulysses Jenkin’s Mass of Images is Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Bus Nut. In it, she combines archival footage from a 1980s educational film on school bus safety alongside footage that Akosua shot herself of the actress Maame Yaa Boafo who imagines herself now as the titular “bus nut.” The audio you hear with Miss Boafo is from a press conference and interview given by Rosa Parks following the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Then we have Kevin Everson’s film Rita Larson’s Boy, which is a re-enactment of an audition tape for the tv show Sanford and Son, a show that ran from 1972 to 1977.

Following Rita Larson’s Boy is Hattie McDaniel: Or a Credit to the Motion Picture Industry from 2002 by Ina Archer. The video dissects the footage of the acceptance speech made by Hattie McDaniel (the first African-American to receive an Academy Award), and suggests that the “documentary” footage of her 1939 speech was in fact re-staged.

After that is Reckless Eyeballing by Chris Harris. This film will be shown as a 16mm print courtesy of Canyon Cinema. The term “Reckless Eyeballing” refers to the Jim-Crow era prohibition against black men looking at white woman. The film was hand-processed and optically-printed. The archival footage in Reckless Eyeballing includes images of Pam Grier, Angela Davis, and DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915).

After that is Ja’Tovia Gary’s An Ecstatic Experience from 2015. The name of the film was inspired by a line in the Kathleen Collins 1982 film Losing Ground, which played earlier in the Constructing Identity film series. Ja’Tovia uses a variety of archival footage, including some of the actress Ruby Dee, known for A Raisin in the Sun (1961), The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), and Do The Right Thing (1989), performing a dramatized version of a slave narrative in a 1960s television broadcast. There is also 1950s documentary footage of a Black rural church, and a quote from Black Panther activist Assata Shakur.

After An Ecstatic Experience, we get to see another short video from Ina Archer, called RW that combines footage from American gangster movies and black musicals.

Next is Emergency Needs, another short from the prolific filmmaker Kevin Everson. In Emergency Needs, Everson has a (female) body double re-enact a 1968 speech given by then Cleveland, Ohio Mayor Carl Stokes. Carl Stokes had been elected mayor in 1967 following a year marked by racial tensions and riots. In late July of 1968 when Stokes was in office, more violence had erupted between police and a black militant group in the Glenville neighborhood of Cleveland. The incident lasted three days and ended with seven people dead and 15 wounded. In Emergency Needs you’ll see the original footage of Mayor Stokes along side the re-enactment.

Then finally, we go back to another work by Ulysses Jenkins called Secrecy Help Me to Understand. The most recognizable footage you’ll see is from the OJ Simpson trial. The video is from 1994, which is the same year as the OJ Simpson trial, so at that time it felt extremely fresh.

— Mia Ferm