Affecting Geographies of Blackness and
Non-representationality in Documentary Film

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Image Credits:  http://www.cinemaguild.com/theatrical/halecounty_press.htm (Left Image) and screen capture by author from A Love Song for Latasha (Right Image)

Jamie Ann Rogers

A southern plantation house half-hidden by trees; an empty pool semi-obscured by the bars of a gate; children leaning against yellowing stucco walls papered with posters advertising 40-ounce bottles of beer; these are among the images that mobilize affecting geographies of Blackness in RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018) and Sophia Nahli Allison’s A Love Song for Latasha (2019). Affecting geography in film, as I am conceiving it here, refers to the manufacture and circulation of affect through evocation of associative relations between images of space, place, and time (by way of cutting, montage, and duration, for example).[1] Ross’s shots of the plantation, for example, are cross-cut with found footage from a silent-era film featuring a blackfaced Black actor peeking out from behind a line of trees.[2] The sequence opens with a “phantom ride” filmed from a car as it quickly makes its way up the palatial house’s gravel driveway. Whatever visceral response might be mobilized for a spectator by the apprehension of a plantation house, which at once signifies histories of wealth, beauty, and captive, enslaved bodies, is linked to affects that are mobilized by the evocation of silent-era minstrels, which are then linked to the present moment by way of the contemporary vehicle driving up the lane. The sequence is free from any of the expository discourse that is typical of the documentary form, save for one question posed via an intertitle card – “What happens when all the cotton is picked?” – and instead opens meaning through affecting images that reference, but do not represent, spaces, places, and times.

 

By “affect” here, I loosely distinguish between emotion, a named (although not necessarily reliably named) response to stimuli, and affect, a pre-cognitive, unnamable, and physical response to the proximity of objects.[3] Affect, in other words, is generated at the point of immediate perception – conscious naming or contemplation of affect translates it into emotion. The aesthetics of affect in film involves cinematographic techniques (manipulation and manufacture of images and sounds) that function to generate visceral spectator responses to subjects, objects, and sounds on screen without necessarily aiming to attach them to specific emotional interpretations. The affecting devices might involve expressions of emotion on screen (through gestures, sounds, or words – a person crying, for example), but film affect is unnamable, something experienced bodily by spectators rather than, or prior to, being experienced as cognition or interpretation.[4] Steve Pile similarly describes the distinction between the field of emotional geography and affect geography. Emotional geography is interested in the study of professed or observable emotional responses to spaces, places, and other geographic or architectural objects. The field of affect geography is interested in the ways in which affect functions independently of expression; that is, the way it functions “below” expression or cognition as a bodily response to particular spaces, places, or geographic objects (2009, 8). The delineation is, of course, tenuous and slippery – the moment in which affect becomes a named or recognizable emotion is not necessarily clear, nor is it true that affect stops when emotions are named or that emotions remain static during encounters with ongoing and changing affect. That being said, thinking through the distinction, as Pile notes, has political and critical implications. Affect can be manipulated to produce particular emotional responses, and this manipulation is frequently at the hands of powerful elites and institutions whose aims are to produce those emotions for political and economic gain (2009, 6). This description of the manipulation of affect might appear simply to be another way of describing emotional manipulation, but affect is the thing or the pre-cognitive “intensity” that is manipulated, while emotion is the result.[5]

 

Affect geographers are interested in the ways that the manipulation of affect takes place; they are interested in the social, economic, and geopolitical function of affect – how might affects attached to a plantation house like the one imaged in Hale County, for example, be manipulated for political, social, or economic gain? My interrogation of place-based experimental Black documentary film draws from this approach of affect geographers, as well as from film scholars such as Michael Boyce Gillespie, whose analysis in Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016) insists on the irreducibility of racial Blackness and complicates the tendency for Black film, regardless of its genre, to be viewed primarily through the lens of historical facticity and racial authenticity.[6] I argue that Hale County This Morning, This Evening and A Love Song for Latasha manipulate affects that are attached to specific Black spaces and places – spaces and places that are inevitably tied to histories of racial and gendered trauma – and do so in order to produce cinematic forms that counter the types of flat, stereotyped, and subordinated representations of Blackness that have long dominated media histories to the benefit of white hegemony. Put another way, the films deploy affect associated with Black space through images and soundscapes that humanize and historicize the worlds and structural conditions in which the Black subjects on screen live and move through their lives. While the elicitation of affect in documentary film is not new, an emphasis on affect in Black documentary is especially significant because, on the one hand, Black emotions are already dictated by anti-Black patterns of image making, and on the other, Black filmmakers are frequently met with an imperative toward realism and “authenticity” that their white counterparts are not and that undermines creative and experimental endeavors to work through the complexities and disjunctions of Black life.[7]         

 

Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a quiet, lyrical meditation on the ways in which everyday lives inhabit the spaces of Hale County, Alabama, a site that has a long history of entanglement with the documentary form. It is the location of James Agee and Walker Evan’s famous photobook that documents poor white sharecroppers in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), as well as the location of Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio, whose experimental architecture uses salvaged materials to create chapels, houses, and community centers and was documented in Timothy Hursley’s richly composed photographs. Before both of these, it was the site of writer Martha Young and J. W. Otts’s 1901 Plantation Songs for My Lady’s Banjo, in which the poetry and photography in the book “represented an attempt to salvage vestiges of a nostalgic plantation past” (Matthews, 2016, 35). Scott L. Matthews has described the obsession with Hale County as a site for “revealing the realities of life in rural Alabama, and, by extension, the South” as contributing to a “broader twentieth-century romance of the rural South that turned the faces, landscapes, and architecture of the poor into art that resonated with educated, middle-class audiences eager to see and experience islands of vernacular beauty and authenticity in a sea of standardization” (2016, 33). Ross’s treatment of the location, on the other hand, self-consciously refuses spectacularized, ready-made, and controllable images of Black life in this southern rural count; images that would be authenticated within this constellation of texts by way of a romanticization of poverty. Instead, he offers glimpses into passing moments in the lives of individuals as they navigate the geography and structural conditions of Hale County, allowing experiences to unfold at their own pace and in their own relationships to space and time.

 

A Love Song for Latasha, on the other hand, is a sensitive homage to the life of Latasha Harlins, whose death at the hands of a convenience store owner in South Central Los Angeles was among the catalysts for the 1992 Los Angeles Uprisings. In its narrative structure, the film also pays homage to Black girlhood more generally. Memories of Harlins are narrated by her two closest friends while “re-enactments” of moments in Harlins’ life, shot on location in present-day South Central Los Angeles, are performed by local, non-professional actors. Aged film effects in the sequences index long histories of racial tensions in South Central, including between Black and Korean community members, the latter of whom began migrating to Los Angeles and buying business in Black neighborhoods in increasing numbers in the late 1970s. The film effects reference histories of popular culture as well, through which South Central and Compton have come to be equated with violence in the popular imaginary, particularly since the rise in the 1990s of “hood films,” such as John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991), and West Coast hip hop, perhaps best represented by Dr. Dre’s Death Row Records. On the other hand, the staged scenes of girls at play in A Love Song for Latasha follow a different genealogy of Los Angeles media culture, one that develops out of traditions such as those inaugurated by the L.A. Rebellion film movement in which directors such as Barbara McCullough, Zeinabu irene Davis, Alile Sharon Larkin, Charles Burnett, and Haile Gerima offer counter-images of Blackness in their films. Along the lines of these forebears, Allison’s film explores Blackness and Black girlhood in all its potential, even while the specter of Black girlhood interrupted haunts the context of the scenes.

 

The complex and nuanced ways that both A Love Song for Latasha and Hale County This Morning, This Evening image and sound histories and memories that the landscapes hold disclose spatial designs marked and demarcated by anti-Black structural conditions. At the same time, both films mobilize affect in ways that refuse to reduce Black life to those conditions. The preliminary questions that prompted my study of these films are as follows: If, as we know, Black life in America is marked by racial trauma – by recurrent confrontations with horror and crises so unfathomable that their wounds cannot be located within a single originating event – then how might documentary film account for the pleasures, passions, loves, and nameless joys that reside within trauma’s interstices?[8] Or perhaps more accurately, how might it account for trauma that resides within the interstices of joy? What documentary mechanisms might be employed to ethically and aesthetically work through the relationship between these interstitial encounters and the spatial – and, by extension, temporal – configurations in which they are formed? And finally, to what end?

 

It is this last question – to what end? – that I would like to first address before returning to my discussion of affect and geographies of Blackness in film. This is in part because I am often skeptical of my own embodied responses to Black film affect as a white cis-woman spectator. My responses to affect mobilized around Blackness in film are inevitably shaped by my subject position and experiences of whiteness and thereby risks something akin to the voyeurism implied in Matthews’ critique of histories of documenting Hale County. Unlike in mainstream cinema, my position as a white spectator is not a primary concern of the filmmakers at hand, if it is a concern at all. Regardless, I would like to suggest that the aesthetic designs of A Love Song for Latasha and Hale County encourage a type of self-reflexive participation by attentive spectators, including those spectators who are not of the spaces, places, lives, and communities that are displayed on screen. Such aesthetics ask spectators to consider the relationship of their viewing practices to the relationships of power that condition the spatial politics of the films, as well as the relationships of power that condition histories of filmmaking, more generally, especially documentary filmmaking.

 

In their co-edited anthology on racial geography, Craig Evan Barton and Dell Upton interrogate power dynamics within racial spatialization. According to Barton, Black history is invisible because of where it resides; placing it (through cultural work like film and literature, or academic study such as that done in cultural geography) within legible cultural and political representations through careful attention to racial spatialization thereby has the potential to make Black history and its invisibility visible (2001, 1). The intention is to wrest control of the means and practices of political representation from white cultural and social hegemony and place it instead into the hands of those cultural workers who, and Barton is quoting Cornell West here, have “a view toward the coalescence of black and white peoples based upon a commonality of moral and political intent” and who have acquired “the requisite cultural capital necessary to produce and survive” (2001, xix).

 

Paradoxically, however, are the ways in which making visible risks making spectacle, packaging for viewing consumption the pains and pleasures that were once intimate to their bearers alone. While Black life is often obfuscated within geographies of enclosure and exclusion (through, for example, housing discrimination and uneven policing practices), Blackness is historically aligned with hypervisibility, surveillance, and display – on the auction block, in the carceral state, in appropriated and exploited forms of cultural performance.[9] If cultural workers must acquire the requisite capital needed to both produce and survive, they must also do so in ways that sidestep the exploitative practices of dominant cultural, economic, and political structures that package Blackness as spectacle, commodified for the profit of media industries that control its image.

 

Power, Barton suggests, is the ability to render the world visible and invisible (2001, 1). In the Preface to Sites of Memory, Upton notes the tension that resides between memory and experience, a tension that is made more complex in a “pluralistic society” where “cultural identities arise from a discourse – sometimes an argument – that pits identities assigned by outsiders against those defined by insiders” (2001, x). The ensuing struggle between imposition and adoption, Upton goes on to suggest, emphasizes active agency on the part of both the outsiders and insiders to control the narrative of memory and experience. When Barton later asks, in his forward, by what means can cultural manifestations of the Black landscape be “documented, preserved and interpreted” – in other words, be made visible – I am prompted to think of both Upton and Barton’s evocation of the struggle for power. To add to Barton’s question, I would like to consider the means by which cultural manifestations of Black landscapes can be documented, preserved, and interpreted in documentary film with a recognition that it does so within an inevitable struggle for power, especially when spectators and/or filmmakers are frequently outside agents.

 

This is precisely where I see the aesthetics of affect emerge in films such as Hale County This Morning, This Evening and A Love Song for Latasha. Each of these films self-consciously work through relations to space, including their own relations to the spaces they film (Allison as a native to South Central, Ross as a newcomer to Hale County) in order to produce narratives of memory and experience that are wrested from the control of white hegemony. Much of this is done by way of affecting associative images that omit as much as they display. It is through what is not imaged and what is not heard – through unnamable affect – that the films each produce a quiet poetics of resistance.


 

“How do we not frame someone?”: Reflexivity and Spectatorial Ethics in Hale County

In the example of the Hale County plantation house sequence described above, the loose, associative narrative does not offer any commentary through which to make meaning of the montage, save for the one intertitle question about cotton. The strategy eschews attempts to frame a “reality” or “truth” on screen about the particular location or house in question, and instead poses images of objects or references to objects (the plantation house, the blackfaced actor, the question about cotton, the car) in order to produce an affecting moment. Absent the expository signposts that typically characterize documentary film, making meaning of the sequence and its affect is left to the cognizing process of spectators through their own associative frameworks. In some ways, what I am describing is simply the logic of montage – early experiments with montage were about the production of particular states in the viewer by way of simple changes in images. But this is a montage aimed at producing and sustaining fluid, embodied sensations in spectators, rather than at quickly guiding spectators toward any one truth or meaning in a sequence.[10]

 

Such strategies are a deliberate part of the film’s theorizing. An intertitle card early in the film asks: “How do we not frame someone?” The double entendre of framing here – the framing of Blackness on screen, the framing of Blackness in the criminal justice system – indicates an interest in subverting the risk of documentary’s participation in the violence of visibility. Rather than frame, Ross’s aim is to “use time to figure out how we’ve come to be seen,” as another intertitle card reads. This one comes in the film’s opening sequence, just before the first montage begins its slow dance of shots that establish the affecting spatial poetics of the film: men at extreme close-up filmed from the back seat of a car; a church, filled with worshipers filmed from behind the shoulder of the minister as he anoints foreheads with oil; a slow phantom ride through the center of town as people gather on the sides of the road, as if waiting for a parade. Faint, ambient sound is gently overtaken by soft piano as the montage moves from the town center to a rural setting. Here, sped-up frame rates are made noticeable through lens flares caused by car headlights as they pass behind a field of cows at rest, who themselves seem to hardly move at all. Time is, indeed, “used” to frame the ways in which spaces and places are made visible and audible throughout the film. The strategy avoids putting the places and people of Hale County on display as anthropological curiosities, and in doing so shifts the register of the documentary form away from an emphasis on facticity and observational objectivity, and away from quick recourse to explainability or pre-determined emotions. Instead, it aims toward a documentary form that sustains pre-cognitive sensations and emphasizes experience, perception, and possibility – all of which has the potential to move audiences toward new conceptual possibilities in their thinking or meaning-making.[11]

 

This shift toward sensation rather than facticity encourages spectatorial participation in the process of meaning-making. Hale County is structured through a vague narrative organized around sunrises and sunsets, as well as major and minor life moments in the worlds of its two main subjects, Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant. The type of physical segregation and economic and spatial subordination that George Lipsitz, in his study of how racism takes place, describes as “nodes in a network of practices that skew opportunities and life chances along racial lines,” are gestured toward, particularly in the film’s references to histories of the antebellum and postbellum South, over-policing practices that tend toward surveillance and social control rather than emergency services, Daniel’s fear of working for the area’s largest industry, the catfish plant, and Quincy’s reality of working for the catfish plant (2011, 6).[12]

 

One scene in particular stands out, as a jubilant Daniel cheering at a basketball game cuts to the lights of a police car at night viewed from a rearview mirror. The sound of Collins’ cheering bridges the cut and is made all the more chilling through its slowed and pitched down effect. His cries of “Ooooh Lord!” and “Oh my God!” are repeated extra-diegetically while Daniel watches a police officer from the mirror and says to an unknown driver, “Man, I don’t think if you were white, you’d be dead already,” a mis-phrasing that paradoxically expresses exactly what Daniel is feeling in this moment, heavy with nerves. The scene cuts with Daniel’s eerie extra-diegetic voice serving as bridge again. This time, the repeated slow-motion voice cries out again and again, “Whose child is this, man?” over a montage of bright scenes of children at play, the moon and stars crossing the horizon, a woman repeating Daniel’s look into the review mirror, but now simply checking her face, and men goofing around outside, one laying in the street with his arms and legs spread wide, feigning assuming the position to be arrested. The sequence ends with a woman preaching on the street, her arms raised and her face in shadows as she cries: “I am gonna raise my hands to God and whatever it take, I’m going to do; to protect our children out here in this community . . . We will not have another child losing their life over mess. Over situation, circumstances.”  The cut then moves to a man playing the flute, his image situated in the bottom-left corner of the screen. The rest of the screen is taken up by the image of an enormous tree as its leaves blow in the wind.

 

The entire 179 minutes of the film moves in this way, as if it were one long series of montages, constantly seeming to be setting up some sort of climax – in this case, suggesting that all-too-familiar violence at the hands of the police is to come. But that expectation is forever interrupted or deferred by new images and another montage. When this sequence cuts to the subtle beauty of a man playing flute beneath a tree, it disrupts anticipated tragedy, and as such, refuses to reduce Black life to the structures of gratuitous violence that theorists such as Frank B. Wilderson III (2020) argue are its ontological condition. The associative images, at the same time, never let spectators lose sight of the ways in which those structures of violence shape various conditions of Black life. Rather than reduce the lives in the film to their spatial determinations, the dominant principle of Hale County is one of movement and time – a long take of smoke rising through a tree; the moon passing over the sun during a solar eclipse; teenagers dancing, children laughing, musicians playing. There are no body counts here, no statistics, and no mourning, at least not for the spectator to intrude upon. Instead, there are muted voices, conversations that drop in and out and fade away, hidden smiles and off-screen laughter. Fireworks and the sound of a dance team’s stomps and shouts. When there are tears, they are shed far off. When a baby is buried, pain is left private, shielded from the camera’s direct gaze as Ross films from a distance, trees and shrubs in the foreground.

 

By observing but not intruding, particularly on moments in which a spectator might want or most expect to be close (What are they saying over there, after the baby is buried? How are they coping?), the film disrupts familiar narrative structures. Instead of lingering on faces in grief, for example, it lingers on images of absence, such as the small space of dug out earth where the baby will later be laid to rest. When the parents grieve, it is in quiet, contemplative moments. The sound design seems to be as much about what is not heard as what is heard. Ambient noise melds with far-off voices and bits of conversations that move in and out of range. This aesthetic encourages an active – a straining – participation by spectators as they glimpse fleeting and floating moments of life unfolding. In doing so, spectators (at least, spectators who are not of this space, place, or time) experience the effect of not knowing, of looking in as an outsider, and of what it means to not be invited to fully know. This is of particular relevance for non-Black spectators, or urban and middle- and upper-class Black spectators who are not from the rural south, and who might assume the right to know, or assume documentary’s right – even responsibility – to show and tell.

 

The strain of not knowing is not borne by spectators alone, but is a position in which the filmmaker finds and exposes himself, as well, as both an outsider and insider subject of the film. Another opening intertitle card establishes the perspectival frame for Ross: “The discovering began after I moved to Alabama in 2009 …” The site of Ross’s discovering, the 657 square miles of Black Belt land populated by roughly 15,000 people, the majority of whom are Black, is the space in which he uses “time to figure out how we’ve come to be seen.” Ross’s slippage in his intertitles between the collective pronoun “we” and the first-person pronoun “I” emphasizes his consciousness of his outside/insider position. For Ross, his time in Alabama is marked by discovery, both in terms of what he learns as documentarian/ethnographer and in terms of what he, as part of the “we” of Blackness, learns about being seen and framed by the camera. Savannah Shange remarks that the move from the “I” of the ethnographic gaze in the first intertitle card to the “we” insider status of the second indicates Ross’s liminal position in the film as documentarian seeking knowledge, a theorist considering time and representation, and a subject being scrutinized. This is a troubled and troubling position, she notes: “The tensions between the first-person ‘I’ who discovers and the first-person ‘we’ who are trapped in racialized visual logics is at the heart of Ross’s insider-outsider status as a Black non-Southerner building a career off of representation of poor Black folks” (2020, 178-79). While Shange points to the potential problematics of this position – the ways in which class and power distinctions can get “papered over in the gulf between ‘I’ and ‘we’ in the cultural (re)production of Blackness” – she also notes the ways in which Ross plays with point of view, structure, and film convention to draw attention to the filmmaking process (2020, 179). That is, as Ross himself winds up implicated in the semantic frameworks of his own questions – how to not frame someone and how to use time to figure out how Blackness has come to be seen – the film brings forward the paradox of his project to document Black life free from the trappings of the documentary film medium.         

 

His technique in doing so is to limit direct address. Rather than exposition, Ross favors disassociated montage. Rather than interviews, Ross favors ambient sound. The handful of moments in which subjects directly address the camera stand out for their length of address, which in a more traditional documentary, would not seem long at all. And even here, during direct address, the camera is nearly always positioned just to the side, below, or behind the subjects, or the scene is filmed in a darkened space, thereby avoiding a direct or lucent gaze. When Quincy expresses grief over the loss of his child to sudden infant death syndrome, he is filmed in extreme close-up from the side and slightly behind in a darkened car. When Daniel’s mother explains her intermittent absence from his life, she does so in a darkly-lit room, her face obscured by shadow.

 

While Ross as filmmaker and subject of the film is present in every one of the film’s scenes, he is rarely directly addressed. His work as teacher and coach remains largely off screen, and he is only occasionally “there” in a sequence by way of his off-screen voice or his being gestured to by an on-screen subject. One of the most notable moments is when Ross is asked by a subject, “am I going to be a star for this?” while he performs antics on horseback, and another is when an unseen subject engages Ross in conversation as he films smoke from a junk fire rising over trees. In the first case, the subject follows up by saying, “They might want to get me in a movie doing this shit, right? Niggas can’t do this everywhere ya go.” The image of an urban-appearing Black youth on horseback in front of a housing project is indeed an unfamiliar one to standard Hollywood fare.[13] The subject’s direct address to the camera about this fact brings attention both to the static ways in which Blackness is more frequently portrayed on screen and to the filmmaking process at hand. In the second instance, Ross explains to an unseen man that he is filming the light, the daggers that shoot through the tree’s branches, and smoke as the sun sets. The man notes that his grandson just received a scholarship for photography. Ross responds: “We need more Black folks making photos in the area, and taking pictures and stuff, you know?” The comment again gestures subtly to Ross’s project as well as to the history of white documentary in the area.

 

Catherine Wheatley describes reflexive aesthetic techniques such as these as fundamental to “ethical” or “morally consequent” cinema. They work through forms of spectatorial address that “disturbs and ultimately cannot be contained” (2009, 45). This technique disrupts the “secure position of refuge” we take up as cinema spectators and turns our attention towards our own bodies and our own bodily responses, encouraging us to then engage our moral perspectives. That is, the body of the spectator is hailed by disturbances produced through self-reflexivity in film – for example, through the ways that film might at once draw attention to itself as a representational form and work in a non-representational, affecting mode – to participate in the film experience, rather than passively consume the film as spectacle. This runs counter, in many ways, to principles of continuity, unity, and closure that characterize so much “Hollywood” fare and that, following Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey, lull spectators into unthinkingly accepting the systems of values promoted in a film (2009, 3).    

 

Wheatley is discussing specifically the unpleasant affect produced in the feature fiction films of Austrian director Michael Haneke. Nevertheless, her observations have particular significance when applied to the documentary film genre, as this brings forward the fact of documentary as a traditionally representational form. That is, her observations can be used to point to the ethical dilemma of documentary film whose imperative has classically been to capture the “real” or the “true” by presenting selections “from life itself” and “opening up the screen on the real world,” (Grierson, 1971, 146-147). Wheatley’s ethical aesthetic of cinema, however, implies that meaning lies somewhere else, in the relationship between the film, the filmmaker, and the spectator. In Hale County This Morning, This Evening, this relationship is developed through the shared experiences of not knowing that Ross constructs by way of careful movement between intimacy with the subjects’ domestic and communal lives – an extreme close-up on a baby playing in a bubble bath, for example – and the type of sensitivity to privacy he displays in sequences such as that of the funeral.

 

Linda Williams has described self-reflexivity in documentary as a technique for signaling trauma, which is otherwise understood to be inaccessible and inapprehensible. Self-reflexivity in documentary “operates powerfully as the receding horizon of the documentary tradition,” utilizing creative strategies more often associated with fiction in order to approach “relative truths,” or the underlying depth to the notion of truth (1993, 11, 20). Such strategies consciously point to representation’s limits in order to produce meaning. That is, they deliberately point to “truths” that cannot be captured on camera, but rather that lie somewhere else, perhaps, as she describes, in the reverberations between representations of events, or, as I described earlier, in the manufacture and circulation of affect through evocation of associative relations between images. The point is that “truth” or “meaning” in these contexts is multiple and lies out of the visible or auditory space of the film. Taken together with Wheatley’s description of ethical spectatorship, we might see meaning as lying in circuits of affect as they move between filmmakers, between subjects and objects, and between films and spectators.

 

A theory of affecting geography in documentary is, in part, a theory of the unseen as it relates to space. That is, it is a theory of non-representational address of the political and social function of spatial configurations. A theory of affecting geography in Black documentary addresses also the (im)possiblity of representing Blackness within a white scopic regime that determines space and dominates media.[14] Spatial determinations and representational politics in Hale County are explored, but through non-representational, affecting aesthetics that pose ways of relating to and documenting space that are other than determinate and subordinate. Another of the film’s early montages follows an intertitle card, and together they explore this complexity. “What is the orbit of our dreaming?” the card reads before continuing the series of establishing shots described earlier, from the phantom ride down main street to images of neighborhood boys on horseback in front of a housing complex, ending with a tight, almost claustrophobic extended scene of an extremely bored-appearing Daniel sitting across from an older woman, possibly his grandmother, as she bounces a baby on her lap. From here, the film moves to a sequence in which boys in a gym repeat a layup drill where they move in a circle around the court in a seemingly endless series of shots off the backboard. The orbit, as Shange notes, appears impossibly tight: basketball, family, church, Friday night video game sessions with the neighbors. Daniel’s focus on making the NBA, despite his playing in a small league for Christian colleges, and Quincy’s determination to make it in music, football, or basketball (it doesn’t matter which one, he notes), are caught up in a repetition of stereotyped modes of escape for Back men and boys (2020, 179).

 

These dreams, however, are not framed as tragically naïve, even in gesturing toward the impossible horizon of their orbit. When Daniel sits out the big moment of a game, he is filmed cheering ecstatically from the sidelines, not lamenting his sidelined position. While Quincy and his partner Boosie move through the grief of the loss of their infant son, they do so while gazing lovingly at his photo in interstitial moments and spaces of their lives, such as while waiting for food in a drive through. Duration in these scenes draws out their affect. The camera holds for what feels like a beat too long, leaving the spectator waiting a climactic moment or emotional outburst that never comes. In an interview, Ross said that his question about framing was a genuine one: “Is there a mode of representation that allows for infinite possibilities?” (2019, 32). Perhaps not, he answers. Perhaps the representational nature of documentary does not allow for infinity (34). These long duration shots, however, imply a multiplicity of possibility that perhaps can only be evoked in the documentary form through a turn away from representing.

           

“And I saw it”: An Archive of Nondisclosure in A Love Song for Latasha
 

In response to Williams’s argument that trauma can be effectively rendered in documentary film by way of self-reflective reference to the limits of representation, Finn Daniels-Yeomans argues that “representing” representation’s limits nevertheless maintains an attachment to the regime of representation as a methodological premise for understanding documentary. Focusing on non-representational qualities of documentary film, Daniels-Yeomans suggests, opens possibilities for better understanding dimensions of documentary that exist outside these regimes. His interest is specifically in the ways that non-representationality – that is, those encounters with affect that “cannot be fully captured in the cognitive or explanatory language of representation” – might open routes for better understanding the potential for documentary to address and engage trauma (2017, 89). I, too, am interested here in the specific ways in which non-representationality can engage trauma, but equally I show how it engages that which occurs on or around the edges of trauma. Specifically in the case of Black documentary film, non-representationality, or what might otherwise be thought of as that which drives film affect, produces “disturbances” in spectators that encourage participatory spectatorship, and potentially, ethical engagements with Blackness and Black space in cinema. Similarly to Hale County, A Love Song for Latasha theorizes how Blackness has come to be seen on screen, although specifically in relation to the ways in which Black girls have come to be seen, and importantly, how they could be seen outside the scopic economy of Black trauma as spectacle and commodity. This deliberate reflection on Black girlhood subverts dominate narrative structures in which Black people are seen and produced as “surrogate and enabler” for white subjects and characters (Morrison, 1992, 51). Black characters, according to Toni Morrison, tend “to define the goals and enhance the qualities of white characters” (1992, 53). I would add also that Black female characters tend to serve to define the goals and enhance the qualities of male characters, regardless of their race. Shange points out that even in Hale County, where the concern is to “witness Black life outside the anti-Black scopic regime that governs cinematic practice,” Black women and girls end up being used as a framing device for the otherwise unstructured narrative of Daniel and Quincy: “Women are seen often in the film, but in ways that largely align with conventional cinematic roles for Black women – dancing, teaching, singing, ministering in a church, caring for children” (2020, 179). While Black women are directly addressed in the film – and directly address the camera, on occasion – the central focus is on the ways the film’s subjects engage forms of Black masculinities, albeit not stereotyped or one-dimensional masculinities, within the spatial and temporal field of Hale County.

 

Allison’s affecting aesthetic techniques, on the other hand, center Black girls’ and women’s stories within and beyond the traumatic event that is the film’s subject, the death of Latasha Harlins, and within and beyond popular imagery of the story’s spatial location in South Central Los Angeles. While A Love Song includes more standard narrative devices than Hale County, including voiceover commentary and a focus on the single subject of Harlins, it also experiments with form and soundscapes that bring forward spatial designs that shape individual and structural conditions more generally. Also like Hale County, it simultaneously refuses to reduce Black life to those conditions. The film is largely structured by way of juxtapositions between how Harlins has been historically imaged for the public, primarily through surveillance footage of her death, and the ways she might otherwise be remembered, through reference to the intimacy of home video technology. This reflexivity around filming technologies sutures the story of Harlins and her community in the late 1980s and early 1990s to the present, when the ubiquity of cell phone video technology characterizes 21st-century relationality and memory-making, on the one hand, and 21st-century encounters with anti-Black violence, on the other.

 

The establishing shots of A Love Song for Latasha open to the quiet clattering and whirring sound of a video cassette being cued to a blue screen of visual static noise, a time stamp of 0:00:00, and the word “Play.” This reference to home video technology of the 1980s and 1990s cuts roughly to a medium shot of a teenage girl, her back to the camera, wearing a long white shirt and standing on the shore of a Los Angeles beach. Moments later, the camera focuses briefly on an ensemble of subjects – three women in patio chairs, children lounging, a man semi-obscured by shadow in the back – gathered on the front porch of a yellowing house before an overlaid tile card reads “the late 1980s.” The color palate is slightly washed, and the image appears more aged than the previous images. It seems, in other words, more “authentically” of the 1980s, whereas the aged look of the previous sequences appears to be a self-conscious digital process. The strategy implies a sense of timelessness – not ahistoricism, but rather the notion that the young girls in the sequences are both of the present and of the past. The lives that exist and move within the film, in other words, endure. Children continue to dance in the same schoolyard as they once did. They continue to drink soda and eat french fries at Tam’s Burgers at 500 W. Manchester. They continue to gather in front of the corner store at 91st and Figueroa.

 

The visual and auditory static that recalls the imperfections of home videos mark the duration of the film, at times increasing in intensity. These latter moments eerily recall closed caption video technology, which tends to be marked more dramatically by static and imperfection than home videos, due in part to CCTV technology’s use of the same tape over and over again. This reflexive gesture toward repetition in the technology also gestures toward the fact that the video that captured Harlins’ death at the corner store on 91st and Figueroa was also shown over and over again on the nightly news, right alongside home video footage of the Rodney King beating that occurred less than two weeks prior to Harlins’ murder. The allusions to home and surveillance video technology, together with a non-linear structure of time and the subtle indexing of Los Angeles streets and California sun (camera flares against the familiar sight of a pair of sneakers tied together and thrown around a telephone line, kids goofing on the Manchester bus as it travels across the city toward their schools), mobilize affects that attach to a politics of place and time: the place of South Central, with its long history representing Black urban violence on screen and in popular imaginaries, and a time in which the past and present meet one another through images of enduring Black life and references to ongoing anti-Black violence.

 

The contrast between home video and surveillance technology in the telling of Harlins’s story brings forward the contradictory invisibility of Black life, on the one hand, and the visibility of Black death, on the other. The intimacy of home video implies a space of loving and living in community. “Re-enactment” scenes, which Allison says are not meant to be re-enactments at all, but rather “a spiritual archive,” bring forward images of Black girlhood through a rotating cast of local, non-professional actors from the neighborhood. These actors do not “perform” or “represent” Harlins per se in the scenes. Rather, their presence signifies the potential of Black girlhood itself in largely non-sequitur images: a child floats on her back in a pool, girls do each other’s hair, kids shoot hoops. The ghostly presence of Harlins, the reality of Black girlhood interrupted, is imprinted in voiceover as Ty, Harlins’s childhood best friend, and Shinese, Harlins’s cousin, narrate the story of the lives they lived together. The girls on screen occasionally lip synch the words that are narrated in the voice over, again threading together the fullness of Harlins’s life in 1980s Los Angeles with the lives the girls from the community are living in the present.  

 

The surveillance footage of Harlins’s death, on the other hand, came to define Harlins’s life in the popular imaginary. The historical footage includes a violent encounter between Harlins and Soon Ja Du, the wife of the owner of Empire Liquor, after Du had accused Harlins of stealing a $1.79 bottle of orange juice, and ends with Du abruptly shooting Harlins, who was still clutching the $2 intended to pay for the orange juice in one hand. Ty recalls in the film the moment that her father was attempting to tell her that the young girl she had heard was killed was Latasha. As he was speaking to her, she says, the surveillance video came on TV. “And I saw it,” she says, her voice breaking more than 25 years later at the incredulity of being forced to bear witness to her best friend’s murder. “I never knew what terror was until I saw it. And they showed that video over and over.” The trauma of the event is bound to the video. Rather than grapple with the unfathomability of a life taken so gratuitously, the video produces a re-traumatizing, static vision and falls into the representational trap of reproducing traumatic events in ways that deny trauma’s affront to comprehensibility that Cathy Caruth warns against (1991, 417-424). Such reproductions attempt to make sense of senselessness. In the specificity of traumatic Black death, it reifies Black murder as sensible within the socio-juridical constraints of anti-Blackness.

 

In a critique of affect theory’s lack of engagement with Blackness, Tyrone S. Palmer draws from Sylvia Winter to argue that under the emergence of Western humanism in the wake of colonialism and slavery, biological and reasoned Man is constructed as the model of the Human. Blackness, on the other hand, is constructed as the non-human antithesis to reasoned Man. It is the link between humanity and animality through which Black life loses the currency of humanness (2017, 32). As such, “Black affective responses are only legible as signs of pathology, further reifying blackness-as-subhumanity; as a sign of both excess and lack” (2017, 32). Trauma related to anti-Black violences do not only reside in the violence itself, but also in the denial of Black capacity to experience trauma as such. Palmer offers as an example the reactions of police, court officers and lawyers to the emotions expressed by Mertilla Jones in the 2014 trial of Joseph Weekley, the police officer who killed her 7-year-old granddaughter, Aiyana Stanley, during a raid that was meant for the apartment above hers. All charges against Weekley were eventually dismissed, and media outlets and the presiding judge characterized Jones’s expression of grief during the trial as an “emotional outburst.” Video of the court proceedings showed lawyers and officers smiling, rolling their eyes, and checking their cell phones. Black emotional responses to trauma, Palmer says, is consistently characterized as inappropriate, exorbitant, and gratuitous, a sign of social disorder and fungibility (2017, 31).

 

The construction of the Black body as a fungible object outside the realm of the human, and therefore the protection of the court of law, is all too familiar, exemplified most dramatically in recent memory by the characterization of teenager Michael Brown as monstrous by the exonerated police officer who shot and killed him.[15] Less frequently remembered is the commentary of Judge Joyce Karlin during her sentencing of Du after she was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for shooting Harlins. Court video footage shows Karlin, who had only recently been appointed to the Superior Court, sitting stone-faced as she read her decision to sentence Du to a $500 fine for Harlins’ funeral expenses, 400 hours of community service, and no jail time. Her demeanor, it seems, aimed to present a rational, reasonable approach to the decision rather than an impassioned one. She later defended the verdict, saying that she knows a criminal when she “sees one” and that had Harlins lived, she suspected that the district attorney would have considered pressing charges against Harlins rather than Du (Stevenson, 2013, 268-269). The visual logic that Karlin inadvertently outlines is as such: When she saw Harlins, she saw criminality, monstrosity, and fungibility, and she could only assume Du saw that, too and therefore feared for her life. When Karlin saw Du, on the other hand, she saw a middle-aged Korean (read: non-Black) shop owner’s wife whose rights, freedoms, and life, when pitted against Blackness under the logics of Western humanism, are protected within the order of the law of Man. Harlins’s life, her experiences, her dreams – none were visible to the judge. All that was visible to her was a momentary “outburst of emotion” that Harlins expressed when she scuffled with Du. All that was visible was Harlins’s Blackness.            

 

Brenda E. Stevenson has described the ways in which hierarchies of race and gender function together to drive the logic of Du’s sentence. Throughout the trial, Harlins was characterized by attorneys and the judge as masculine, street smart, and threatening toward Du, even though surveillance footage shows that Harlins had turned away from Du after their confrontation and seemed to be attempting to leave (2004, 169).[16] Du, on the other hand, was described repeatedly throughout the trial as a mother, a wife, and a victim. “Mrs. Du had led a crime-free life until the day that Latasha Harlins walked into her store,” Karlin concluded (2004, 169). Karlin herself was a young, blond, and physically small-statured woman who was dubbed “Judge Barbie” by her critics after the sentencing (2013, 266). Having been handed a case that she was arguably not prepared for, as it was the first she handled as a Superior Court Judge and it had already garnered national attention, Karlin most certainly felt the need to prove her capacity as judge. Furthermore, as both Jewish and a woman, she too, had to battle to make space for herself in the hierarchy of Man. Her dispassionate sentencing and “reasoned” response to her visual assessments of the subjects functioned to situate each of their bodies within their proper place in the hierarchies of race that underlie the laws of Man.[17]

 

Palmer argues that affect theory does not account for these onto-epistemological hierarchies of race that abject “the Black” from the realm of the human and the logic of the law. Affect theory “offers no language with which to approach the sensorial dimensions of ontological negation” (2017, 51). An aesthetic of affect in Black art, on the other hand, offers a means to sustain affected sensation, including sensation as it relates to conditions of negation, which is a condition of trauma itself.[18] A Love Song for Latasha, for example, accounts for the sensorial dimensions of ontological negation through its evocation of incomprehensibility. Again, if trauma is by definition unrepresentable, then Black death on screen risks negating it as trauma. The incessant repetition of Harlins’s death on screen, both at the time of her murder and during the trial in which she was characterized as the aggressor, negates the experience of her death as trauma and spectacularizes it as commodity within a media economy that profits from Black negation. Her life on trial “entombed” it, as Saidiya Hartman might say, in a fragmented archive divorced from the fullness of her existence.[19] Allison, however, refuses this entombment. She does not reproduce the video, but instead references it within a series of images that mobilize affects that, in the moment of their pre-cognitive experiences, “touch” the incompressibility of the trauma of both Harlins’s murder and its mediated repetition.[20]

 

The sequence in which spectators most expect a reproduction of the surveillance video comes exactly at the halfway point of the 18-minute film. It opens with images of young girls entering the market, shot at first from a high angle over their shoulders, mimicking the camera placement of CCTV, as Ty narrates her experiences of the day of Harlins’s death. The shot cuts then to a medium range shot of a girl’s back as she reaches into a refrigerator to grab orange juice. A brief moment of static flashes across her body before the film cuts back to the high angle shot mimicking the angle of surveillance. This sequence implies movement again between the distance of surveillance and the intimacy of home videos, with the static cutting across bridging the two. These shots are followed by more static and then another set of distinct, non-sequitur images that pull the spectator out of the representational space of the store: Children on bikes, boys playing in the ocean shore, a longer duration shot of branches of a tree against a pale sky. Each of these images are marked by scratches, movement in and out of negative color effect, and other visual noise. The word “Play” appears briefly, almost unnoticeably, in the upper left corner at one point, building expectation that the surveillance video is, in fact, about to play. Instead, a line of static over a blackened screen gives way to experimental play with negative color that transforms the recognizable images into something increasingly abstract. Soon, the voice narration ceases to be accompanied by live images at all and instead is replaced by line animation drawings over flashes of geometric patterns of light and movement in pinks and blues. The sequence builds audience expectations toward a climactic and spectacularized moment that never comes. The disturbance of audience expectation positions spectators within a space of incomprehensibility that also characterizes trauma. This is not to say that spectators experience trauma as such; rather, spectators experience the affects that are mobilized by the associative images that reference the space of trauma and the life that surrounds it.

The aesthetic of affect just described encourages a participatory relationship between spectators and the film and has the potential to disrupt a visual culture in which the violent death of Black boys and girls is so often rendered comprehensible or legible in popular media encounters. A Love Song for Latasha not only “touches” on the trauma of Harlins’s death and the events surrounding it, but it also “touches” on aspects of Harlins’s life beyond the video that re-traumatizes over and over again. In Allison’s own words, these re-envisionings of the archive that surrounds Harlins “are challenging a system that has historically prevented Black women and girls from having agency over their narrative and public image” (Allison, n.d.). The “spiritual archive” built through the re-enactments reclaims and sustains the potentiality that Harlins’s life held and that the girls’ lives in the present hold. At the same time, grieving the loss of Harlins, and of Black girlhood more generally, is also a part of building this archive. One scene in particular stands out. On screen, two girls sit in a burger shop, speaking to each other emphatically, as young girls do, while Shinese narrates her recollections of frequenting that same Tam’s Burgers with Harlins. “Back in the day, they had the little jukeboxes that sit on each table that you could play. Our favorite song was ‘Stand by Me,’” she says. The image cuts to a close-up on one of the girls who then lip synchs Shinese’s words as she briefly sings the lyrics to the song and then says, “you know, that song right there.” A cover of “Stand by Me” recorded for the film by Kadhja Bonet takes over the soundtrack, and the scene cuts to the two girls, now standing outside the shop facing each other, still deep in conversation. They stop talking abruptly and deliberately turn to face the camera directly. Their gaze back at the spectator is accompanied by the sweet, airy voice of Bonet as she sings, “No I won’t be afraid, just as long as you stand, stand by me.” The montage links experiences of Black girlhood across time, from Shinese’s recollection of the jukeboxes to their absence in the present, from the evocation of the original Ben E. King version of “Stand by Me” to Bonet’s rendition of it. The sequence marks potential and its disruption, Black girlhood’s presence and its absence.

 

The Interval and the Fullness of Absence: A Conclusion

If, as Trinh Min Ha suggests, “meanings” in filmmaking might best be thought of as produced in the space of the interval or the cut, or, following Wheatley, in moments that cannot be contained, then the meaning of Black girlhood that Allison explores resides somewhere between that space of abstraction and narration, between presence and absence (1990, 76, 85). That is, it lies somewhere beneath the remembrances of Harlins’s closest friends, their tears and their smiles, and the color and light that take the place of the images of Harlins’s death. The trauma in A Love Song for Latasha ceases to be spectacle in this space, and instead is touched upon through a kaleidoscope of intimate memories and non-representational images. In a director’s statement, Allison says she relied on the “spirit of memory,” the “secret languages” that Black women share, and the “vibrations” of collective consciousness in developing the aesthetics of the film. “Trust the unseen,” she writes. “Memories that contort around the body, however uncomfortable they may be, breathe into them. This is how we heal, remember, reimagine, release” (Allison, n.d.). 

 

Fred Moten discusses moments of abandonment and break in jazz music in his long essay “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh).” The “interval,” for Moten, is the moment between notes, the silence that is not silence, but rather a nothingness that is the wholeness of life that waits in abjection, that exists in the “hold” of slave ships and their afterlives (2013, 738-739). This “contrapuntal island” between notes exhausts description, Moten says (2013, 743, 752), adding that: “Such musical moments – of advent, of nativity in all its terrible beauty, of the alienation that is always already born in and as parousia, of the disruption in duration of the very idea of the moment – are rigorous performances of the theory of the social life of the shipped, given in the terror of enjoyment and its endlessly redoubled folds” (2013, 744). The hold, then, holds the space in which absence is not silence, and emptiness is not nothingness. Rather, absence and silence are the indescribable, non-representational spaces in which Blackness resides, the spaces between the terror and trauma of social death and the immutable fact of Black life. 

 

The moment in A Love Song for Latasha when abstract imagery replaces the concrete spectacle of Harlins’s death is precisely this space of exhausted description, this space of “parousia” in which Harlins’s life, Black life, exists again as life in memory. This is the space in which an aesthetic of affect has the potential to draw spectators toward the many meanings of her images and the images of girlhood, rather than only toward the fragments of their visibility that are disclosed by mass media accounts of Blackness. So, too, do moments of interval in Hale County This Morning, This Evening – moments of inaudible speech, of musical soundings through bodily movement, of visual non-disclosure – have the potential to mobilize affect in ways that move the body of spectators toward a participatory rather than passive experience with the film. Both films work on and around the edges of grief and struggle, “beneath” expressions of traumas that are historically attached to spaces like 91st and Figueroa in South Central Los Angeles, or Hale County, Alabama, the heart of the Black Belt and the Jim Crow South. So, too, do they work on and beneath expressions of joy and abandonment that exists in these spaces’ interstices.

 

The relationship I am posing here between spectacle and space lies, I believe, in the relationship between Black trauma, surveillance, and framing. Black studies and media scholars have, in the past decades, begun to critically inquire into both the efficacy and the limits of the proliferation of images of violent Black death at the hands of police or other state-sanctioned agents whose actions are supported by legal proceedings that deem anti-Black violence ultimately and always justifiable. Undoubtedly, images of the murders captured on video of people like Latasha Harlins, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, George Floyd, and on and on as the list inevitably continues to grow, have catalyzed resistance movements, including #BlackLivesMatter, arguably the most influential Black liberation movement since the Black Panthers, and have brought Black struggle to the political consciousness of mainstream white America. However, such media at the same time participates in an anti-Black visual economy that is ostensibly “tradition” in the United States, from public whippings and mutilations of the enslaved, to Jim Crow-era lynchings, to the Rodney King video, to the ubiquity of contemporary cell phone footage of Black murder. Such an economy, as Safia Umoja Noble has argued, fixes Black death as spectacle through the creation of Black bodies as commodities for media consumption (2014, 13-14).[21] The production of images of the criminality of Black people is “fundamental to the profit structures of power that are secured by proving over and over again that black life is expendable when it allegedly is where it doesn’t belong” (2014, 14). And, I would add, mass media functions to fix locations where Blackness allegedly does belong as well, through the creation of collective memories of spectacle. In the Trayvon Martin case to which Noble is referring, for example, the location of Sanford, Florida is forever fixed as a place where Blackness does not belong, and where the vigilante policing of it is sanctioned by law. We see in other cases, however, that this “belonging” need not be the prerequisite for proving that Black life is expendable: the names of predominately Black spaces such as Ferguson, Missouri will forever be sealed in the collective memory of our times as the site in which Michael Brown’s lifeless body lay on display in the street for four hours before medical examiners bothered removing it.

 

Since its inception, cinema has functioned largely as a medium through which to frame Blackness within recognizable patterns that signify criminality, irrationality, and excess. Documentary practices, too, have histories of framing Black spaces through the eyes of white filmmakers, photographers, writers, and architects, erasing and revisioning Black life by “superimposing,” to borrow a description from Barton, white cultural landscapes over existing Black ones. The reflexive attention to documentary form and the assembling of affects and associative images in Hale County This Morning, This Evening and A Love Song for Latasha create an aesthetic of absence and incomprehensibility that refuses to reduce Black space and the complexity of the lives lived within it to the spectacle of Black death. Attention to aesthetics of affect and affecting geography, such as developed in these films, points to the potential of documentary filmmaking practices to generate participatory relationships with spectators that resist regimes of representation that are, in history and economy, mired in anti-Blackness.[22]

Notes

[1] While space and place are often used interchangeably, I intend a loose distinction in this article that follows human geographers such as Yi-Fu Tuan and Robert Sack. Using the concept of home to describe the difference between space and place, Sack writes: “Place implies space, and each home is a place in space. Space is a property of the natural world, but it can be experienced. From the perspective of experience, place differs from space in terms of familiarity and time. A place requires human agency, is something that may take time to know, and a home especially so. As we move along the earth we pass from one place to another. But if we move quickly the places blur; we lose track of their qualities, and they may coalesce into the sense that we are moving through space” (1997, 16).

[2] The inserted clips come from the 1913 silent film Lime Kiln Club Field Day, directed by Edwin Middleton and T. Hayes Hunter. This film, which was left unfinished until it was restored in 2014, is believed to be the oldest surviving film to feature African American actors, including Bert Williams and Odessa Warren Grey. Garrett Bradley takes Lime Kiln Club as the starting point for her 2019 short documentary America, a meditation on joy, strength, and beauty in Black American life that, like the films studied here, also offers a compelling exploration of affecting geographies of Blackness in experimental documentary film. 

[3] Part of what fascinates scholars whose work is situated within the “affect turn” that began in the 1990s seems to be the very slipperiness of the term. Affect is affect precisely because it is undefinable. However, a general consensus is that affect involves embodied responses to stimuli. Some theorists do not distinguish strongly between descriptions of these bodily responses as affect versus emotions or feelings, such as Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant. Others, such as Brian Massumi (following Gilles Deleuze), maintain the difference in their theorizing more stringently. For the purpose of my argument here, I maintain the distinction between affect as a precognitive, prelinguistic “intensity” felt in the body (Massumi) and emotion as existing within cognition and description of those intensities. While Massumi describes such “intensities” as autonomous, he notes that they are also “protopolitical” in that there is political force in affect, but it is a force that must be “brought out” and contextualized beyond its autonomy through a process of meaning making within and after an affecting moment (2015, ix).

[4] My primary concern in the study at hand is spectatorial response to film affect. However, as theorists of affect and film have pointed out, affect as it is imprinted within film is no less important. Janet Walker, for example, in her study of affect and geopolitics in post-Katrina documentary film, cites studies of cities and affect in film by Nigel Thrift, Cameron Duff, and Sean Carter and Derek McCormick, respectively, when she notes: “of no less importance [than spectatorial affect] are the cities themselves as ‘roiling maelstroms of affect; the faces, bodies, and perambulations of actual urban inhabitants that both affect the city and are affected by it; and, finally, cinematic technologies and images as ‘bodies of affective intensity’” (204).

[5] Drawing from Deleuze, Massumi describes intensities as the effects of stimuli. Affect is autonomous intensity that is separate from “meaningful sequencing” or from narration. Similarly, “signification as a conventional system of distinctive difference” is the form in which content is manifested or, as Massumi puts it, it is “the form of content” (2002, 25).

[6] Like Gillespie, I understand experimental Black film as both art and discourse. In this regard, a definition of the category “experimental Black documentary film” is as slippery as the definition of “affect.” For my purposes here, I consider experimental Black documentary film to be those non-fiction films that center Blackness and Black worlds, with the understanding that the category “Blackness” and the concept “Black world” are myriad and shifting. The definition of “Black documentary film,” then, is myriad and shifting as well.

[7] Courtney R. Baker analyzes this latter history most recently in her discussion of Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2020, 38-39), as does Gillespie in Film Blackness.

[8] This definition of racial trauma is adapted from Cathy Caruth’s more general psychoanalytic of trauma (1996, 3-4).

[9] For more on the histories of Black hypervisibility, see Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjections: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997) and Simone Browne’s more recent Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015).

[10] This representational strategy is not unique to experimental Black documentary film, but also is notable in other recent experimental Black film, video, and music video, including Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message and the Message is Death (2016) and The White Album (2018), and Cauleen Smith’s body of work. Smith’s Sojourner (2018), which reimagines space in Watts and Joshua Tree, California, as a Black feminist utopia, is especially relevant to the study at hand in its disruption of standard narrative flow through affecting montage. I would like to thank the anonymous reviewer of this article for pointing out the connection to Jafa’s work, and for pointing out that Black music video as a medium is perhaps most dependent on affecting montage. The reviewer notes videos by artists such as Kelsey Lu, Moses Sumney, and FKA Twigs, especially. I am prompted to also think of videos by directors such as Khalik Allah (whose documentary films are also noteworthy for their experimental use of montage and affecting geographies), Lacey Duke, and Melina Matsoukas.

[11] Throughout his body of work, Deleuze has connected affect or intensity to bodily sensation, and bodily sensation to possibilities in thinking. Sensation is, for Deleuze, the sensory experience of intensities and can be sustained through contact with the material of art (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 167, 193). Sustained sensation through contact with intensity can then form the bases of thinking or “concepts.” In What Is Philosophy?, for example, Deleuze and Félix Guattari write “the concept . . . has no energy, only intensities” (1994, 21).

[12] On the relationship between policing practices and the making of segregated urban spaces, Daanika Gordon argues, “In racially segregated cities … the aggregated activities of officers shape the experiences and meanings associated with place: whether an area feels secure or dangerous, cared for or neglected (2020, 2). Policing practices, she says, tend to “overgeneralizes the presumption of criminality based merely on where people are and what they look like” (2020, 6). The result is the creation of high crime areas through over-policing and structural neglect in neighborhoods of color (2020, 6).

[13] There is, however, a genealogy of film featuring Black horse riders and “cowboys,” from 1930s “race” films that included Westerns starring Black actors such as Herb Jeffries, to made-for-TV Westerns such as Black Fox (1995), to Westerns coming out of the Blaxploitation tradition such as Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974), Adiós Amigos (Fred Williamson, 1975), and Posse (Mario Van Peebles, 1995). Charles Burnett’s work also frequently features relationships between horses and his characters, such as in his coming-of-age short, The Horse (1973), and his early student film Several Friends (1969), where urban horse riders, more akin to the subject here in Hale County, also make unexpected appearances. Largely, however, Black cowboys have been erased from Hollywood storytelling, something that is noted with particular pointedness in Ricky Staub’s 2020 feature Concrete Cowboy, which centers Black urban horse riders as its main characters.

[14] See Raquel Gates’s Double Negative (2018), Kara Keeling’s The Witch’s Flight (2007), and Valerie Smith’s anthology Representing Blackness (1997) for recent and foundational scholarship on the possibilities and impossibilities of representing Blackness in a media form so long dominated by anti-Black, white supremacist ideologies and economic structures.

[15] See Frank B. Wilderson III (2020) and Orlando Patterson (1982) for more on the concept of Black fungibility and its relationship to the concept of social death.

[16] Stevenson provides a detailed account of both the surveillance footage and eye-witness accounts of the encounter. From the footage, it is clear that Du was the primary aggressor, grabbing Harlins’s backpack and sweater to pull her over the counter prior to Harlins hitting Du. After being released, Harlins placed the orange juice on the counter and bent down to get her backpack before turning to go and subsequently being shot in the back of the head. Eyewitnesses describe a verbal confrontation in which Du accuses Harlins of attempting to steal the orange juice and Harlins replying that she was trying to pay (2019, 169).

[17] See Stevenson’s The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origin of the LA Riots for an incisive and critical study of the raced and gendered dimensions of Harlins’s case.

[18] Palmer provides an extended discussion of the ways in which Claudia Rankine accounts for such negation through the affecting aesthetic of her 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric.

[19] Hartman describes archival lack in relationship to Black women’s histories as an entombment and another type of death through which only fragments of women’s lives are put on display: “The archive is, in this case, a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body, an inventory of property, a medical treatise on gonorrhea, a few lines about a whore’s life, an asterisk in the grand narrative of history” (2008, 2).

[20] Daniels-Yeomans points to Jill Bennett’s discussion of trauma-related art and traumatic realism as a model for understanding the potential for non-representational aesthetics in documentary to “touch” on traumatic events. The affecting quality of non-representational art does not aim to produce the “secret meaning” of a text but instead works “transactively” between artwork and spectator to “sustain sensations” (Bennett is drawing from Deleuze here) that are the groundworks for bringing to spectators experiences of the multiplicity and incomprehensibility of trauma (2017, 92-93).

[21] Noble is drawing from Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle in her analysis (1967). Debord argues that in capitalist societies, all of life “is presented as immense spectacle, with everything that is actually lived receding into representation” (1967, 2). Views of reality are fragmented and reformed as a “pseudoworld” that can only be looked at (1967, 2). This spectacularization of society, according to Noble, “delivers to us a version of race and race relations, in many ways divorced from our own lived realities” (2014, 13).

[22] I would like to thank the editors of The Projector for providing this article a home. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers in particular for their thoughtful comments and for drawing my attention to several fruitful points of inquiry.

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