2019 Film Essays

Life Past Proof: Negotiating Visibility in ‘The Hate U Give’ and BFI London’s Experimenta Films

Schrödinger’s cat — the quantum paradox, an experiment that proposes that a thing exists in multiple states until it is observed (the “superposition”). It is our act of looking that confines it to a single reality. No two-fate Freddies. In the original experiment, a cat is locked in a chamber of poisonous gas. Before you look and see, the cat could be dead, or alive, and hence is neither, and both, simultaneously. The experiment works as a stand-in during movies, wherein the act of looking becomes a violence that imparts either life or death on the subject-in-question, and robs it of its privileged “superposition.”

The prevailing narrative runs that visibility is an index of social progress. A representational approach seems to do good work by increasing visibility and, by extension, the understanding of a subject. But, as the old cat shows us, the two don’t necessarily correlate, especially when it comes to POC and queer people. Supposing that we are the cat in this scenario, who does visibility serve? A number of the films featured in the Experimenta programme at the recent 62nd BFI Film Festival in London challenged viewing conventions. The experimental films in Performing Invisibility offered a critique of the visibility paradigm.

(Note: Performing Invisibility was programmed and curated by Qila Gill. The Experimenta debate “Representation and Praxis” was organised by curator and researcher Taylor Le Melle of not/nowhere, an artist’s workers cooperative committed to supporting the “sustainability and enfranchisement of POC artist practices.”)

Is it possible to reclaim the superposition, the quantum state of Schrödinger’s cat living past proof? In the associated Experimenta debate, contributor Rabz Lansiquot (a filmmaker curator, programmer and DJ), whose work is informed by Black Queer studies, asked “what can moving image practice do for [POC and queer] liberation?” — a key question. This piece draws heavily on the points raised in the debate. As Lansiquot also noted, author Toni Morrison argues that “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do…”

Another Movie

To echo Morrison, showing yourself, proving that you exist, becomes the work instead. Theorist Nancy Fraser has also spoken in the New Left Review about recognition-as-distraction, that as more people buy into the idea of recognition, and are seemingly accepted into the existing schema, the drive to change the same (limiting) schema goes down. The first two movies in the Performing Invisibility programme — Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958) and Morgan Fisher’s Another Movie (2017) — allow images to breathe in a different way. In Another Movie, we wait. We wait. And we wait. A single image of a full moon over 22 minutes. A single frame, a moving image but little visual development. Is this a biopic? Is it even about the moon?

Shouldn’t something be happening? Is this mediation? Rest? Protest — a refusal of spectacle? The image becomes a placeholder. Time slows down and our attention heightens… to any little thing. Our anticipation becomes its own protagonist in the anti-drama. Another Movie says no to being moved. A moving image that fails to move: does this change what we’re looking for when the lights come up?

Slumberparty

Cait McKinney and Hazel Meyer’s Slumberparty (2018), also shown in the Performing Invisibility programme, indulges anonymity. Here again, the audience must work hard to compose a picture. Blurred queer porn from the archives. Paint-by-numbers, abstraction, aliases. So much activity — a queer orgy through a vaseline lens. Viewers are placed outside the action with only an audio description for guidance, and the scene, much like Schrödinger’s cat, becomes a blur of probability and suggestion. The film forgoes traditional ideas of visibility, and instead it’s the audio that titillates and instructs. The amnesiac, amniotic aesthetics of Slumberparty privilege a different model of visibility, one that centres the people in the conversation who show themselves to themselves — a cooperative? Slumberparty gives agency to other kinds of witnessing and gestures towards a wider realm of “unseen” imagery — unseen, or unverified by who? There’s no need to repeat the experiment or check the pulse of the players. There is no lack. The room is full.

The festival also featured a special presentation of George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give (2018); an adaptation of Angie Thomas’ novel centred on the Black Lives Matter movement. Amandla Sternberg stars as young Starr Carter in the aftermath of her friend’s murder at the hands of the police. Writing on the possibility of reclaiming black subjectivity, feminist theorist Jennifer Nash argues that the (black) body in the visual field is always called upon to do something — to produce labour. In The Hate U Give, Tillman Jr. chronicles Starr’s struggle with the complex implications of testifying — of making herself seen — including the very real threat of death; of erasure, for doing that work.

The Hate U Give

*SPOILERS*

In the final montage, in a shocking twist of viewpoint, a gun finds its way into the hands of a toddler, who stands ready to shoot. A frozen stretch of moving image. In these few moments, the camera pans around the circle. Everyone is just-as-visible. There are multiple witnesses, and a panopticon of responsibility. These few moments are the before and after. Tillman Jr. suspends viewers in a darker imagining of the “superposition”; the moment when either possibility could be true — the victim could be dead or alive — with the POV coming from the eyes of a child. Titled after the 1994 studio album THUG LIFE 1 ( which stands for The Hate You Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone) by Tupac Shakur’s group of the same name, the film forefronts the social entrainment by which pervasive ideologies — ways of seeing — work to reinforce a cycle of premature death. Tillman Jr.’s suspending of the frame allows viewers to recognise its contours, and the material fragility of those trapped inside its structure. Here, liberation — the eventual restoring of the moving image — is reliant on one first stepping outside the experiment. No more casualties.

Suspended animation, blurred motion and resurrection at the tipping point. In different ways, these BFI London films experiment with visibility, elucidating the struggle, but also suggesting alternative strategies to achieve freedom, and to live past “proof” — creative ways of working with moving image and shrugging off debilitating expectations.

Tamar Clarke-Brown is a London based artist, writer and curator. Her interdisciplinary practice is focused on experimental futurisms, intimate choreographies, technology and the black diaspora. Check her out on Instagram (@licklemore_) and at tamarclarkebrown.com.

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