Diaspora Dimensions: The films in URe:AD TV grapple with black representation


“The diaspora is a cultural continuum. An ever-evolving consideration of Blackness is its vehicle.”
--Ashley Stull Meyers

The United Re: Public of the African Diaspora Television (URe:Ad TV) special program at the Ann Arbor Film Festival was an experience. 

URe:AD TV is a network of creators who make print and audiovisual work by and for the African diaspora. Curated by Shani Peters and Sharita Towne, the works grapple with the meaning(s) of black representation. By "grapple," it could be said that these works record meaning, and make meaning.

“The concatenated videos, writings, and actions are shades of what is possible when Black is a term divorced from nationality.”
--Ashley Stull Meyers

This collection of 18 films reminds the viewer that there are as many ways to be black as there are black people, that there are as many ways to interpret the lived black experience(s) as there are black minds. This was a lot of films to take in and attempt to synthesize, and I was punching above my weight to try. Still, several of these films left me thinking long after I left the theater.

Upon entering the screening room, the viewer received a guide to the films. In other contexts, this work is screened in a way that allows the viewer to select what they’d like to view based on this TV guide. Here, the booklet serves to provide context for what is being viewed. It’s the road to more information should you choose to follow up on anything you’ve seen. It also serves to remind the viewer that different people within the African diaspora identify differently. Each artist’s chosen identity(ies) is represented in the booklet. Black American, Afro-Brazilian, African-American, Native Black, Surinamese-Dutch, were all listed along with several other identities. This reminded me of a conversation that I overheard the same weekend as the screening where a nearby man loudly “explained” to his dining companions the best words to use to describe people in groups that he doesn’t belong to. I wonder what he could have gotten out of this screening.

I’m always a little taken aback when I see something on a big screen that I recognize. In Masimba Hwati’s Kynyutura, it was the familiar images were of Detroit. Here Hwati is filmed in an incredible outfit against the backdrop of steamy manhole covers and street names the Southeast. It’s really the outfit that we need to talk about. There’s the golf-ball necklace, worn alongside another necklace that appears to be made of large wooden beads.  Here, Hwati seems to be playing with what it means to be seen. Here, he is courting being viewed as opposed to other times when he can’t avoid the spectator’s gaze. Hwati was one of the artists available for a Q&A session at the end of the event. He is originally from Zimbabwe and said that it was in the United States where he realized that he was black. This is not to say that he didn’t know that he was a black person, but here, he was confronted with it in ways he hadn’t anticipated in the course of his interactions with the world around him. 

Anchor by Melanie Stevens draws a parallel between Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath and the ongoing saga of the Flint water crisis. She uses news footage to explore how these two tragedies have been covered. The house that my father grew up in no longer exists due to Hurricane Katrina and I ate my Easter dinner in Flint, so this film did not feel like an abstraction. As I considered this, I wondered who else in the screening room shared this feeling, directly tied to both of these locations. 

For the mother of a tall, black, teenage son, Carrera is the stuff of nightmares. "Carrera" is Spanish for the word "race." The film is an Afrofuturist meditation on violence perpetrated against black people throughout the diaspora. When I watched the film, I saw nothing but boys feeling hunted. And having had personal experiences where, for example, a professor during a final mistook me for one of the few other black students in her class, it is far too easy to imagine my son on the wrong end of such a hunt. While the movie was interesting and visceral, I was ready for it to end. I wanted to escape from it. 

Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world, imported the most African slaves during the transatlantic slave trade and was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to end slavery. With that in mind, it is no surprise that Brazilian racial politics have a deep, complicated history. Beatriz Vierah’s In Search of Léila celebrates Léila Gonzales, an important voice in Brazil’s black movement in the 1970s/1980s. Watching the passion with which the movie’s subjects discuss her, and what she and her work meant to their lives and to their sense of self, is a good reminder to American viewers that reckoning with the way slavery left its mark on a nation also exists outside the history of the United States. I found myself disappointed when I made an entirely lazy attempt to do more research.  Let’s just say that the Wikipedia page was lacking. I’ll have to work a little harder if I’m going to learn more. 

As someone in possession of black hair, Carrie Hawkes’ Negro Hair Petting Zoo is very relatable. I could tell a million stories about the things experienced because of this hair, but I could tell a million different stories about things that, over time, I’ve allowed to happen. Carrie Hawks’ movie made me remember just how many other people share this weird, weird experience. The petting zoo part of it gets right to the point. She was one of the filmmakers who participated in the post-screening Q&A and told the story of her brother who had a large Afro in his youth. For those unfamiliar, a round, well-shaped Afro takes work; no one wakes up like that. His friends in high school would put their hand in his hair, leaving a handprint in his style, a frustrating experience for him and an inspiration for her.

Ezra Wube’s Mela might have been too smart for me.  In it, it looks like a paperclip is being used to trace a variety of New York’s buildings. Wube states in the program that in this piece she's “exploring the idea of belonging by tracing the outline of the shifting skyline. Through imagination, learning and a continuous adjustment, I strive to relate to the communal with the personal identity.” Without the help of the program, I wouldn’t have picked up on any of that. Yet the idea is a haunting one. How does one bend to the shape of one’s surroundings? What does it mean to belong?

Pamela Council’s 5:24 Pizza Shop Johannesburg made me tilt my head just a little. The movie was exactly what the title said: It was a movie shot early in the morning in Johannesburg, South Africa. While I am personally the type of person who is generally early to bed and early to rise and do not relate, at all, to the notion of being in a pizza shop at that time of day. This video of black people just being black together doing a mundane thing made me think: I see this sort of thing all of the time, black people living their lives, doing what they do; but were there were people in the audience for whom this was a novelty? 

In Sitting With a Blind Man Trying to Describe Yellow, Joseph Cuillier explores the limitations of language. During the Q&A session, he described this film, in part, as a response to the trauma of his graduate school experience. At Pratt Institute, as he earned his MFA in graphic design, he often found himself in situations where language simply wasn’t enough to communicate what he was trying to say.

There are several times in the course of reading and consuming other mediums when I am jolted from the narrative by something, be it blatant or subtle that communicates to me that I am not the intended audience. URe:Ad TV describes itself as “fresh, contemporary audiovisual work by and for the African Diaspora.” Through this presentation of a truly broad selection of films that, for me, successfully created an open-armed interpretation of the diversity that exists within the African Diaspora, it felt like trying on a garment that wasn’t merely wearable -- it felt like it was made specifically for me. It fit.

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.