New York

Sankofa Film/Video Collective and Black Audio Film Collective

The Collective for Living Cinema

The Workshop Declaration emerged in Britain in 1981, giving support to nonprofit media production units. These workshops function as community focal points for education and training and help produce media projects which could not be made through commercial channels. Sankofa Film/Video Collective and Black Audio Film Collective are two of the workshops which emerged through this moment of racially sensitive cultural policy.

In The Passion of Remembrance, 1986, directed by Isaac Julian and Maureen Blackwood, Sankofa looks for the place of sexuality amidst the prioritizing of Black identity and nationalism, and tries to skew the surety of the clenched fist as signage: to loosen up what can be seen as the machismo implicit in this body language. Divided into urban and landscape sections, Passion focuses on the Black family, showing us the Baptiste clan glued to a TV game show which features a young black couple as contestants. As her brother criticizes their performance, his sister Maggie suggests that, “Everytime a black face appears we think it has to represent the entire race. We just don’t have the space to get it wrong, that’s the problem.” And this problem is dealt with in a wave of episodic passages: brown bodies splash through a crisp aquamarine pool, diagonalized aerial views of demonstrations dissolve into a kind of image-processed phosphorescence, guys have heart-to-heart talks, girls try on earrings. All of these images are spliced and edited within a rhythmic container of powerful musicality. In fact, it is this musical accompaniment which sets off one of the film’s finest visualizations, a to and fro between rooms in the family apartment: one holding two young women preening to party to the backbeat of rock and roll while their father and brother dance and story out to the time-tested pleasures of calypso. This dueting is even more prominent in the film’s “landscape” segment, in which a young woman and man perch in a remote canyon and angrily debate the problem of finding one’s way “home,” of getting around a system which “lives our lives for us.” This enraged tussling powerfully foregrounds the debates around nationalism, identity, and mastery which have arrogantly foreclosed a consideration of gender.

In Handsworth Songs, 1986, directed by John Akomfrah, Black Audio attempts to interpret the 1985 Handsworth riots by asking several questions through a variety of voices: How is one enfranchised? How does one buy into the social contract? What is England? Echoing throughout the film is the statement, “There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.” With this, Black Audio suggests that explanatory accounting, the spine of conventional reportage, produces a singular depiction of “truth,” whereas events are actually a conflation of multiple framings, readings, and sightings. Purporting to “scrape the bottom of the barrel of British archival memory,” Handsworth Songs sports old newsreels from a 1939 Labor Day demonstration, oblique shots of statues commemorating the heroes of exalted Anglo history, a chorus line of cops crouching behind bullet proof shields, an old interview with one-time “King of Calypso” Lord Gibson, talking heads of Blacks and Asians speaking of the symptoms and causes of the riots, and footage of photographers frantically scavenging the funeral of a Black victim of the disturbances.

The opening segment of the film is repeatedly interrupted by the image of a laughing mechanical clown, whose churlish grotesqueness punctures this parade of pictures and functions as a kind of ludicrously ironic concretion: a residue seeping out of the force field of anger which is constructed and perpetuated through the image repertoire of a culture. Handsworth Songs puts into question the discriminatory power of these images and their ability to emblematize both “empire” and “black threat;” it shows us the war of naming the problem, of assigning the blame, of renewing the exclusion of the excluded. Black Audio seem to prefer working in a hybrid manner, packing their bags with bits of Foucault, psychoanalytic theory, Afro-Caribbean discourse, and colonial and neo-colonial narratives. They are insistent in their critique of the binaryism of the negative/positive image riff which has frequently been the limit text of much work concerning “otherness,”whether it is race-and/or gender-based.

Both Black Audio and Sankofa address head-on the assumption that the power of Black expression must reside within an oral, performatory tradition, an assumption that limits the project of Black subjectivities by privileging the said over the seen. They are attempting to break down the conventions of what is “appropriate” Black visual production, be it film or art object, and are trying to put into crisis the possibility of “telling it like it is.” Caught between the clichés of Eurocentric theoretical language and Black transgression and “plain talk,” they question both the demands of social urgency and the seductions of an empowered image culture.

—Barbara Kruger