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Friday, October 11, 2019

Plotting a Journey Through Race and Time: Programming Garrett Bradley’s America

By Ashley Clark

At some point, most film programmers working in theatrical exhibition will be confronted with a
question: what, exactly, to do with a film of unconventional length? It’s hard to give a concrete answer. At BAM, we’re proud to showcase short films at our annual BAMcinemaFest. We’ll sometimes slot a short or mid-length film alongside a feature, or include multi-artist shorts programs in our curated series. We might also dedicate an evening to celebrate the short- and mid-length work of a single filmmaker, as we’ve done recently with brilliant artists like Sky Hopinka, Ephraim Asili, and Kevin Jerome Everson⁠.

This question was at the forefront of my mind at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in January, when I emerged into the chilly Utah air after experiencing Garrett Bradley’s extraordinary visual poem America, which in 30 wordless, balletic, ceaselessly arresting minutes does nothing less than construct a joyous alternative history of African-American representation on screen.

I knew that we had to showcase this film at BAM, and the answer I came up with⁠—working in concert with Garrett herself, my BAM colleagues, and Field of Vision⁠—is the program you’re reading about now. America will screen once on seven consecutive days, each time accompanied by a different complementary component geared toward further enriching Bradley’s ambitious cine-historical project. (On closing night, we’re also pleased to present a retrospective of Bradley’s non-America work to date.)

The series begins on October 11 with two stunning slices of film Blackness separated by 106 years. America is preceded by the oldest-known Black-cast feature, Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913), which stars the legendary Black vaudevillian performer Bert Williams (1874—1922). Williams—a complicated and compelling figure whose legacy has been wrestled over by film historians—appears as an inspirational, archival flicker in Bradley’s film, but is the main show in this lost-and-found feature, which was restored and first presented by Museum of Modern Art in 2014. The live score for Lime Kiln Club Field Day will be performed by percussionists Darrian Douglas and the legendary Jimmy Cobb, a one-time player with Miles Davis. The films will be followed by a discussion between Bradley and the historian Dr. Saidiya V. Hartman, who was recently named a 2019 MacArthur Fellow for her outstanding work "tracing the afterlife of slavery in modern American life and rescuing from oblivion stories of sparsely documented lives that have been systematically excluded from historical archives."

On night two (Oct 12) America pairs with two shorts by the legendary LA Rebellion filmmaker Julie Dash—a dance performance set to the soulful sounds of Nina Simone (1975’s Four Women; Dash’s debut), and Illusions (1982), a haunting study of power, privilege, and racial “passing” set in the classic Hollywood era. Dash and Bradley will be in conversation following the screening.

Via carefully chosen archive footage, the spirit of Bert Williams infuses and animates Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018), the Oscar-nominated debut documentary by RaMell Ross, which screens with America on day three (Oct 13). Following the screening, Ross and Bradley will discuss how their aesthetic practice, and their drive to plot a new course for Black onscreen representation, has been informed by plunging into the archive.

On night four (Oct 14), America's beautiful balletic energy—its two main stars Edward Spots and Donna Crump are professional contemporary dancers—is complemented by the classic Hollywood musical Stormy Weather (1943), which boasts an amazing wealth of Black talent including Lena Horne, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Cab Calloway and, most memorably, the legendary Nicholas Brothers. Their climactic performance here contains several gravity and logic-defying moves: please don’t try to replicate them on your way out of the cinema!

Night five (Oct 15), meanwhile, places America on a continuum with "Race films," hundreds of which were made specifically for Black audiences and featured predominantly Black casts, in the first half of the 20th century. Many are now lost, but some remain. Here, two vintage, eccentric portraits of Black life animated by religion and jazz (Yamekraw and Hellbound Train, both 1930) complement Bradley's exquisite vision of a lost past. This program will be introduced by Ina D. Archer, Media Conservation & Digitization Assistant, Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History & Culture.

More esteemed guests will gather on the series’ penultimate evening (Oct 16), a collaboration with, and precursor to, this year’s edition of the Black Portraiture[s] conference, which runs at NYU from October 17—19. Following a screening of America, professors Michael B. Gillespie, Nicole R. Fleetwood, and Racquel J. Gates will converge to reflect on the historical and contemporary significance of the sumptuous images and compelling themes offered up by Bradley’s film.

The program’s closing night (Oct 17) is dedicated to spotlighting Bradley’s work, including a shorts program, and a rare screening of her luminous debut feature Below Dreams (2014). It’s the final stop—for now—on a journey of race, time, and superlative filmmaking. We hope you come along for the ride.

Ashley Clark is BAM’s senior repertory and special film programmer

© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.


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