A BlackStar Film Festival panel

Black filmmakers confront the ‘burden of representation’

The first question John Jackson asked his four speakers on the Media and Social Justice panel at the BlackStar Film Festival dug deep.

Panelists (from left): Parkerson, Massiah, Cabral, Nance, Jackson; did Ferguson change everything? (Photo: Alaina Mabaso.)

Dr. Jackson — dean of Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice — said he’d been dean for only about a year, but it’s turned out to be an agonizing and momentous one for social justice in America. When he started, he said, “I didn’t know we’d have Ferguson. I didn’t know we’d have Garner and Staten Island.” These and other similar cases of black people victimized by white police since then have galvanized the school’s mission in ways even he didn’t expect.

Jackson recalled the first time he encountered the phrase “the burden of representation” as an undergraduate at Howard University. For the uninitiated, or maybe just those accustomed to seeing images like themselves everywhere, the “burden of representation” refers to the idea that artists or makers or public figures from any marginalized group can’t simply produce their work. They must also assume the additional role, wanted or not, of representing their entire group to the dominant culture, and of having their work judged in that context and not simply on its own merits.

Jackson asked four contemporary filmmakers whether they feel that burden in their own work.

Stereotypes

“It doesn’t feel like a burden; it feels like a responsibility,” said Nuala Cabral, a Rhode Island native who has taught at Temple and is the cofounder of FAAN Mail, a media literacy project whose acronym stands for Fostering Activism and Alternatives Now. Its leaders are young Philly women of color pushing for “more diverse, fair, and fully human representations” of who they are.

Cabral said she’s seen her own white film students producing work that stereotypes people of color — and in some cases, she said, the victims of that stereotyping play along. If we’re going to rely on racial stereotypes in film, she insisted, we need to acknowledge what we’re doing and be clear about what the purpose of using that stereotype is.

Louis Massiah, founder of Scribe Video Center, took a similar tack. “’Burden’ is the wrong word for it,” he said, “because that’s the nature of work.” At heart, he contended, “cultural work,” including film, is all about the ways we move the world forward, so that representation isn’t a burden of the work; it’s just a part of it.

Where’s the power line?

Documentarian and Temple assistant professor Michelle Parkerson, for her part, stressed the question of who has the power — the audience or the people on-screen? “Where’s the power line?” she asked. Are black filmmakers and performers changing or challenging the audience, or are they bending to the audience’s expectations?

“I’ve never even heard it phrased as a burden,” said Terence Nance, one of the group’s younger filmmakers. He called this phrase a kind of trick from people outside the film industry or from people who don’t feel secure in their own cultural identity.

“The vastness of the black universe” doesn’t need to be at odds with whiteness, or juxtaposed against it, he added later.

Massiah emphasized the importance, especially for black artists, of never forgetting the bigger context of their cultural history. Just as in the case of single tragic news items, like the death of Sandra Bland in police custody in Texas last month, it’s important not to focus on apparently isolated incidents at the cost of a nationwide historical narrative.

“We have to challenge the received history” from TV, movies, and other major cultural media, he argued. For that matter, he continued later alongside Parkerson, why can’t black filmmakers invite a black perspective on any world issue, from Palestine to nuclear power to cosmology?

Somebody’s sister

The forum also included showings and discussions of short films by Cabral, Nance, and Parkerson.

Cabral’s “Walking Home,” at four minutes long, is a powerful and eloquent look at street harassment that combats an all-too-common approach: framing this abuse of female-identified people as something that is repugnant because the victim is somebody’s partner, daughter, or sister — not because she is a person in her own right who deserves to walk safely down the street regardless of whom we may think she belongs to. In Cabral’s film, women face the ugliness of this harassment secure in their own perspectives and empowered to walk on as individuals in an improving world.

Nance’s “Worry No. 473 of 1000 Worries That a Black Person Should Not Have to Worry About,” which you can watch on his website, captures the stakes when a young black man accidentally gets into the wrong car (“something that really happened”). Parkerson’s offering was a work sample produced to raise funds for her current project, a biography of Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964), daughter of an enslaved North Carolina mother and a white slaveholder, who became a lifelong activist, author, teacher, and scholar (she earned her master’s degree in mathematics in 1887, and her doctorate from the University of Paris in 1924 — America’s fourth black woman to earn a Ph.D.).

She said it in 1906

Parkerson’s clip focused on Cooper’s 1906 testimony on behalf of the historic African-American M Street School in Washington, DC, where she faced her own removal as principal for fighting for a quality academic program for her students, rather than an education geared solely to manual trades, as the school board of the time mandated for black students.

Cooper’s story is especially relevant now, Parkerson said, because back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she was saying, “Black lives matter.”

Jackson asked whether films bring about new social awareness or change in ways that other mediums don’t, but the panel didn’t have a clear answer.

“Everyone should be charged with deploying whatever their skill set is,” Massiah said. Nance said he doesn’t know how effective making movies is in this struggle, “but it’s what I know how to do.”

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