Twenty years ago today, or, rather, tonight, the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired on The WB. Amanda made me start watching Buffy maybe two seasons in. Up until that point, my favorite TV shows were Daria, Aeon Flux, The Simpsons, South Park, and Ren and Stimpy: nothing live action and certainly not anything called ‘Buffy’. But, Amanda assured me in that unassuming, take-it-or-leave it way that she has, “You’ll like it.” It was love at first sight, and I still love Buffy. Funny, sad, morbid, optimistic, there’s a rhythm to the writing that feels like work to me. I think that’s the thing that’s kept me devoted to the show all these years. The mission – even in the face of personal drama, family responsibilities, financial burdens, and social issues – is the thing. I get that. However, the reverse is true, too, which is why I respect Buffy; the mission isn’t a life in and of itself, either.
Buffy has its flaws: race is one; gender, interestingly enough, is another. As when dealing with a family member I love but who refuses to self-reflect, I wince when I think of the portrayal of Blacks and other people of color in the show. I ‘get’ that Buffy and the other female characters’ ‘traditional’ women’s appearances and actual agency in the narrative are intentionally juxtaposed, but all that leather and fluff and pink and lace and hair, eh. As a result, my favorite episodes spoof identity or are reflexively aware of the show itself:
- Lie to Me 2.7
- Band Candy 3.6
- The Wish 3.9
- Dopplegangland 3.16
- Pangs 4.8
- Something Blue 4.9
- I was Made to Love You 5:15
- Life Serial 6.5
- Tabula Rasa 6.8
- Doublemeat Palace 6.12
- Him 7.6
- Storyteller 7.16
- Lies My Parents Told Me 7.17
‘killed’ for ‘kissed’
It isn’t that Moonlight is perfect or that Bobby Rogers is wrong: Moonlight, as far as I remember, doesn’t pass the Bechdel test; thinking through Rogers’ statement makes me wonder if all the times I’ve credited myself with being a ‘good’ photographer of Black skin, I was simply unconsciously bending myself around the medium’s bias.
The corrections are subtle. They’re like doing five minutes of yoga everyday for three months and suddenly realizing that your feet are strong on the ground (arches active, weight distributed evenly from big toes through to baby toes and back to the heels).
So I ask myself, at what point is it unnecessary for two women to appear in a movie together and have a conversation that’s not about a man? At what point is it important for two women to appear in a movie together and explicitly have a conversation about a man? And, what, in fact, do I think of the two women featured in Moonlight?
People don’t mind when I take their picture. I’ve rarely had complaints about the end results. I’ve always tried to see people as they’d like to be seen and work with my tools to portray a sort of joint vision of my subjects. But even that language, ‘my subjects’, is problematic, and I am conscious of that before, during, and after image making. It is hard to be looked at, watched, studied, adjusted, and so I try to reassure and remain trustworthy.
Paula, Chiron’s mother, nags at me; I’ve seen her before, with particular reference to Halle Berry’s Vivian in Jungle Fever. I wrestle with Paula. I know she existed, exists. The moment when she lashes out at Juan rings true to me, as does Juan’s reaction when he’s questioned by Chiron about Paula. Even the way Chiron is later able to reconcile with Paula feels honest. But Paula as a construct in the movie feels like a plot device. Teresa feels better, more human than Paula’s wraith, still… There’s an archetypal hollowness in both female characters that isn’t a result of the way the actors portray them.
In the beginning, as soon as I could, I worked in black and white. On the rare occasion that I did work in color, I hated Kodak’s mass market film – it was too rose gold no matter who processed my negatives and printed my images.1 I preferred Fuji’s products as their film, to my eye, printed neutral or slightly cool. In those early days, I never photographed using a flash or artificial light; hot pops of light flattened, and both Kodak and Fuji’s color negative reversal film’s white balance were totally unforgiving when it came to color temperature. In both black and white and color, I always used the slowest film available; I like smooth grain and subtle shifts in tone. I hate high gloss, so I always printed on matte paper. Could it be that all of these ‘preferences’, these habits of my photographer’s mind, these steps that made me a careful, patient practitioner of my art were really only my way of subconsciously working against an inherently racist system?
One of the things that I like best about the whole James Baldwin/Richard Wright dust up is that it happened. Among Black public intellectuals, there is a long history of line-drawing, side-taking, and, ultimately, dukes up verbal and written brawls over theory and practice in politics, public service, and art. A monolithic approach to living cannot/does not/should not exist, and is most certainly not a part of Black diasporic experiences. Thus, our own intellectual assessments of these experiences must encounter and occasionally butt heads with others’ interpretations. It is in that spirit that Mrs. Thomas lodged her one complaint about the novel Sula, it left her cold: ‘there is no redeeming quality to Sula’, even as I raved about the way the novel goes to the mat for the importance of Black women’s friendships. It is in that spirit that I consider the role of women in Moonlight even as it is abundantly evident to me that what it does with its male characters is extraordinary. Often, critiques are seen as a tearing down, as though it is impossible to have a good thing without finding something, something wrong with it. But the thing is still there. Sula and Moonlight are still virtuoso works of art. Sula isn’t the Bible, Moonlight isn’t a novel, but, as a community, we still need full representations of the myriad disparate notions and individuals that make us a ‘we’. The novel and the movie – and the whys and wherefores and hows of both – must face rigorous critical consideration even as they are simultaneously celebrated. Or, put another way, why is it so hard to represent Black women in our fullness rather than requiring us to be saints or deeming us sinners?
To date, my greatest satisfaction in color photography was when I worked with Connie at a Fuji product-based MotoPhoto. We maintained the chemicals and printed the images ourselves. Connie taught me how to balance color image-by-image – no automatic runs for us – because light will change from frame to frame on one roll of film. She emphasized that, in terms of color balance, the people in the images had to look as real as possible. Connie is Black like me, a woman like me, an artist like me. Perhaps her attention to detail stems from the same sources as mine. Perhaps she, like me, knows how bad we can look in a photograph taken and processed by someone who’s uninformed or careless or how satisfying it can be to be rendered by a thoughtful, proficient photographer and printer. Perhaps, however, as seems implicit in Rogers’ statement, white photographers never ever had to have these conversations.
And then, three months later, you start to think about the ground…
You your best thing, Sethe. You are.
- When released, I used Kodak Portra – it lived up to its name and, in my experience, rendered all skin well. ↩︎
Toward the end of film version of The NeverEnding Story, the Childlike Empress tells Atreyu that Bastian “doesn’t realize he’s already a part of the never-ending story…” I just read a young Black artist’s claim that photography is “a medium initially created to not recognize blackness as worthy.” This sort of statement is what happens when we – any ‘we’ – don’t know that we are a part of the never-ending story.
Should I work my way backward or forward through the relevant photographic history? Forward.
Ansel Adams and Fred Archer’s Zone System was designed to ensure that a photographer thinking through the creation of a negative would use the light meter to make the adjustments necessary to record a full range of tones. In black and white photography, correct application of the Zone System prevents ‘muddy’ shadows and ‘blown out’ highlights. Essentially, it encourages the photographer to think about and mirror the way the eye really sees, the pupil constricts or dilates to take in as much detail as possible in bright or low light. That some photographers maybe wanted ‘light’ skin to appear even lighter than reality in prints – potentially at the expense of accurate portrayals darker skinned companions in those images – is indicative of those photographers’ predilections, not the medium’s short comings.
At Howard, Professor Kennedy made sure to point us in the direction of Roy DeCarava’s work for exactly this reason. In his photographs, DeCarava rendered every possible shade of shade. Looking at his images on a computer screen is good, but one of the reasons I will always go to the big art fairs is because every year, something that’s a revelation is on view. In December 2015, Jenkins Johnson Gallery‘s booth in the main fair had on view Selected Works by Roy DeCarava. Imagine seeing the opening image in person. I saw it. Mind blowing.
This is DeCarava’s self-portrait from 1949:
Did DeCarava use the Zone System? Perhaps, but I do know that when I worked in black and white photography, DeCarava’s work and the standard that a good print purposefully represents everything it renders anchored my image making.
Color photography’s is a different story. People working for specific companies actively configured the technology to suit their racist ends; perhaps both Polaroid and Kodak‘s checkered history is the source of Bobby Rogers’ assertion. Looking at photographs of my mother and her siblings in the 60s and 70s or my mom and dad in the 70s, I don’t see evidence of Kodak’s narrow light sensitivity, and that’s likely because they aren’t using Kodak film and paper – they weren’t in the US. And, I do know that I was born in the middle of the decade in question and that mine and my sister’s and our Black peers’ childhood snapshots show us pretty much as we were.
We aren’t the brownest Black people, and that’s important to consider. It’s also important to think about color photographs of Black people made by Black photographers:
Like DeCarava, Parks was a photographic genius, and, as a professional, he had better material (Kodachrome) and processing that the layman. These images are perfection. In them, Black people are regarded with warmth, in them, we are loved.
It hurts me to hear a young someone who’s just starting to work in photography begin with the idea – without nuance – that the medium has always worked against us when, from James VanDerZee to DeCarava to Parks to, from African and Caribbean photographers working in their community-based commercial studios, and from Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems and Adrian Piper, other artists – artists who, on some level, many levels, share his history and experiences – have worked diligently – as he is – to witness our lives beautifully through the medium.
At what point do ‘knowers’, like Rogers who ‘knows’ the racist history of the medium, become seekers? Knowing is only the first step; to think critically, the next step must be methodically, faithfully questioning what is known.
I saw it as soon as it opened in South Florida.
You don’t understand.
When I was in high school, Boca Raton got independent films – only at Shadowood – well after they’d been released in Los Angeles, New York, and other ‘major’ cities. Although every once in a while Miami was on the ‘major’ cities list, back then, for me to go to there to see indie movies was a logistical impossibility. So, I would read about a movie in Harper’s Bazaar or Spin and then I’d obsessively check for its openings and showtimes in XS, South Florida’s alternative weekly magazine.1 That’s how I found and saw My Own Private Idaho.
My Own Private Idaho was the ‘movie’ portion of the notably awkward dinner-and-a-movie date I went on with REDACTED REDACTED our junior year. After that date, I knew my own priorities didn’t include ‘keeping up appearances’ with petty performances of white-derived upper middle class Blackness.2 And, from then on, I came to expect a helluva lot more from movies and culture in general.3
And so it was that, two weeks before college classes began, I came to debate either a last minute switch to Howard University in Washington DC or the planned but dreaded move to University of Florida in Gainesville, and, at one point, I literally thought to myself, ‘DC is the nation’s capital. It must get first run indie films.’ (For that and a myriad of other reasons) Howard it was.4
But you still don’t understand.
I enjoy critique; it is my language. Analysis and reflection are why I study and teach and part of why I make art. John and Andre make fun of me because I read reviews before I watch movies or buy records or read books or see art. But reviews are how I found maybe half of my library. And while reviews often help me see things with new eyes, sometimes they help me see through my eyes with sharper focus.
I have few words to describe the experience of reading Hilton Als‘ review of Moonlight or Wesley Morris‘ essay Last Taboo. I can only say that a heartbreaking, self-affirming ‘Yes!’ filled my whole being as I journeyed through both pieces. I cried when in Als’ I read, “But, at the end of every outing, Teresa and Juan show their respect by returning Chiron home.” I broke a smile when Morris’ 9 or 10 year-old self declared, “Yours is so much handsomer than mine!” They are erudite writers, and that matters. But it isn’t just their skill and sophistication and insight that move me; the way they write through personal experience about community and family, attraction and love moves me.5 After reading both pieces, I felt it was my duty, nay, my honor, to see Moonlight and complete a circle of witnessing.
Just as I had searched glossy magazines and disposable weeklies 25 years before, I hunted online for release dates and locations and showtimes. I found and saw Moonlight. Toward the end of the film version of Interview with the Vampire, Brad Pitt’s Louis goes to the movies and sees, for the first time since he was turned into a vampire, the sunrise. That was me watching Moonlight, except what was returned to me on the screen wasn’t something I had lost but something I’d been looking for and hadn’t found in a movie: an accurate reflection of integral parts of my self.
And yet, you can’t possibly understand.
It wasn’t just the story, although the story is as unfathomably profound as Als and Morris proclaimed. I know the Florida in Moonlight. I know those streets – not in the ways that the characters in the movie or the real people who live on them know them, true. Still, they are my streets. I know that atmosphere, that swim in the ocean, that late night trip to the diner, the color of all of those artificial lights indoors and in alleyways. I know those relationships; the catalysts for me are different, yes, but the dynamics and the patterns, I know those well. I know those conversations, the impulses behind them. Oh, I know those feelings.
And, as an artist, I know the thrill of committing to Moonlight‘s languid pace, its explicit structure, its lush cinematography (and the waiting involved). And I know the ramrod faith in that casting of Chiron.
I know I know I know I know I know I know.
And now, maybe, you understand.
- Washington City Paper in the 90s remains, in my opinion, the gold standard for alternative weeklies. ↩︎
- It was a very bad date. He was attentive and polite, but I found him stodgy and boring. Someone should have reminded me that he, as I, was young and inexperienced and likely nervous. In fact, I think someone did say as much, but I do remember dismissing her opinion. ↩︎
- It was a great movie. There was a morning dewiness, a flushed fleshiness to it, a longing and an aching that pulled at me that night and every time I’ve watched it since. ↩︎
- Perhaps it seems contradictory that I chose Howard, the premiere bastion of “‘keeping up appearances’ with petty performances of white-derived upper middle class Blackness”, but, I’d also reasoned that unlike UF, Howard would be home to very broad and deep spectra of Blackness. ↩︎
- For the same reason, I wonder if Glenn Ligon has written about this film. ↩︎
If there’s to be any change at all toward health in this world, I doubt, very seriously, that it’s going to come from existing institutions; people – individuals and communities – will have to want and create different things. I started reading the news again, and, although there are glimmers here and there that the media can cover the current political situation with rigor, it remains clear that pandering on some level to advertisers and the wealthy remains the media’s modus operandi. Powerful interests are invested in controlling the terms of our local and global civic conversations.
While I myself am too cautious to just cut and run from this system, I can no longer ignore the creepy feeling that a.) the system can never be healthy and b.) even though others, too, see that, know it, feel it, they (we?) will keep the machine hobbling along in some way, shape, or form rather than build something else. Images of President Obama on vacation w/ Richard Branson come to mind. President Obama’s face is open, direct. He looks like he can inspire die-hard capitalists to think about – and perhaps even act on – how their money and resources can shape a brighter world. Definitely, life under his presidency was the best case scenario for working within the system and with institutions to, however glacially, improve the quality of life for a vast majority of people here and abroad. I am terrified by the fact that those same systems and institutions have now been co-opted or attacked by the new Administration and are, rather than re-envisioning their possibilities, doubling down on their worst practices. Are we really that dependent on the cult of personality? Oh, wait. Yes, yes we are.
This isn’t entirely true. I imagine (read: hope) that the judiciary and legal scholars and attorneys throughout the land are on it on their end. But, for the most part, I think that what’s generally happening is what’s happening in my neck of the wood: people are waiting to see if what is over there makes it over here before we do anything. And by then, it will be too late.
So I want to talk about the way we communicate. I want to talk about being face-to-face with other people, loved ones and strangers, and knowing what’s going on in each others’ lives. I want to talk about genuine learning. I want us to work together. I want us to enjoy community. I want us to dream – together – about what an engaging, healthy life might be like.