Ephraim Asili’s "Diaspora Suite" explores the influence of African culture throughout the world


Ephraim Asili The first time that I really thought about the African diaspora was in college. During a Caribbean literature class, the concept of diaspora was ever present. Despite having taken several American history classes, considering the Caribbean diaspora is what led me to attempt to understand myself as a part of the African diaspora. 

Ephraim Asili’s Diaspora Suite -- shown March 22 at the Michigan Theater as part of the Ann Arbor Film Festival -- presented an excellent opportunity to examine someone else’s take on the topic. This collection of five films explores the interaction of past, present, and place it relates to the African diaspora. The films were shot in a variety of locations, among them Ethiopia, Harlem, Ghana, Philadelphia, Brazil, and Detroit. 

I hadn’t read the descriptions of these movies before attending. Forged Ways, according to the AAFF program, “oscillates between the first-person account of a filmmaker, the third-person experience of a man navigating the streets of Harlem, and day-to-day life in the cities and villages of Ethiopia.” While the short film initially made me think about participation, the question of when one is the spectator versus when one is the spectacle, the thing that stood out to me about that movie was the part that depicted the protagonist in his home. It’s immediately apparent that something strange is happening. There are several boxes of American Spirit cigarettes adhered to the wall. He takes a cigarette from one of them and lights up. Then we see his girlfriend tries on clothing as if for a fashion shoot. He photographs her. Then, he puts on a pair of glances. She photographs him. The viewer observes affection and intimacy between them as they interact with each other. I found myself thinking about performance, the acts we put on as we interact with the world, and how much of that performance enters our most personal relations. 

One of the themes that noticed I across the films was water. Within the concept of the African diaspora, the Middle Passage quickly came to mind. I was distracted momentarily by this idea, wondering if I was reading more into the image than was intended. I would find out during the Q&A session with the filmmaker that in addition to the Middle Passage, he was using water to communicate that water is everywhere, that it is a part of everything. 

It turns out that I hadn’t taken my thoughts far enough. 

It is time for all African-Americans to become an integral part of the world’s Pan-Africanists and even though we might remain in America physically while fighting for the benefits the Constitution guarantees us, we must “return” to African philosophically and culturally and develop a working unity in the framework of Pan-Africanism.
--Malcolm X

American Hunger more or less opened with a Malcolm X quote about the black American’s relationship to Pan-Africanism. This movie moves back and forth between street scenes in Ghana, Philadelphia, and the Jersey Shore. Here you saw a variety of people living their lives within their contexts. Sometimes, the people on screen seemed very aware of the camera, other times, they did not. The quote that plants this film in my mind was this one that flashed across the screen toward the middle of the film:

It is said that the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else.” This made me think about the ways that we interpret moments and imagine spaces. The second half of James Baldwin’s thought, which isn’t included in the movie is this: “…since the camera sees what you point it at: the camera sees what you want it to see.

Many Thousands Gone presented summer afternoons on the streets of two cities: Philadelphia and Salvador, Brazil. Throughout the film, I was taken with the scenes of what I thought were people engaging in capoeira. As I watched these athletes, their interaction with each other and with the drummers we saw playing, I found myself mesmerized by the movement of their bodies. Then, I froze. After all, I don’t want to be another pair of eyes fixated on the black body. But what if it was innocent admiration? This is a part of what it means to be a part of the diaspora, always looking at yourself in relationship to it and to the dominant culture.

When reading, I usually think that writing about black bodies is a crutch. It is used as a color, or a weather report to communicate something about a collective mindset. So, I guess I’ll use my counter-crutch and talk about how I wonder how long it took these people to learn what they were doing. Nobody learns to control their bodies in that way without hours and hours of practice. 

I have joked with friends and colleagues that I am allergic to Q&A sessions. This time, however, I didn’t feel like a breakout of hives was imminent. When asked how the success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and the commercial success of Black Panther impacts Asili, the filmmaker pointed out that he doesn’t necessarily see the crossover, joking that he doesn’t think that someone leaves Black Panther and then comes out to see independent, experimental film next. He also pointed out that there is a tendency to see a “moment” for a handful of successful black people and think that it extends to everyone, that everyone has had the success when that’s not the case. 

I admit that I thought about Black Panther for a moment during the screening. It was during the movie Kindah that talked about the founding of Accompong, Jamaica. The city was founded after rebel slaves and their descendants united in order to engage in a protracted war with the British. Here, Cudjoe, a leader of these enslaved people and their descendants united groups of people for their collective well-being, much like the different groups in Black Panther’s Wakanda.

Fluid Frontiers features a variety of individuals reading poems written by a variety of black writers. This film seemed like a very logical way to think about the African diaspora. Here you have the condensed evocative world of poetry delivered to the audience refracted through a reader’s delivery.  These moments of representation, moments of refraction and moments of reflection turned out to be the perfect metaphor for the experience of viewing Asili’s Diaspora Suite.

Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.