Dr. Racquel Gates on Curating the Cinema’s Legacy Section for AFI FEST Presented by Audi
As lists of anti-racist movies by Black filmmakers were circulating fast and furiously in the wake of this summer’s racial reckoning, Dr. Racquel Gates, Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the College of Staten Island, CUNY and author of “Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture,” was struck by the inadequacy of such compilations.
“During this reflection on blackness and media, we must focus on the complexity and brilliance of Black Film on its own merits,” she wrote in a New York Times opinion piece. “Now more than ever, we should return to Black narratives that decenter whiteness or ignore it altogether, films that connect audiences with the pathos, joy and even treachery of the Black characters and lives they depict, the films that recognize their complex humanity.”
AFI reached out to Gates to curate a program of Black films for this year’s AFI FEST presented by Audi Cinema’s Legacy section. With her selections she challenges the commonly held practice of regarding Black films only in terms of how they address race.
Gates spoke with AFI FEST Senior Programmer Claudia Puig, explaining the rationale behind her choices, particularly as it relates to (or pushes against) a traditional film canon and the concept of classic.
AFI: The films you chose cover such a wide spectrum of styles, structure and content. The genres are so varied. Can you explain a bit about the films you selected?
RG: Black film is so incredibly diverse and rich and somehow in the process of creating those movie lists it simplifies and flattens them. We’re not talking about genre, we’re not talking about performance, we’re not talking about anything that makes film film. We’re talking about them as if they’re these educational primers on racism in America—which is not what film does, and it is not what Black film does. I used this program as an opportunity, in a small way, to do the work. I like to say that it’s not enough to criticize, it’s not enough to point out a problem if you don’t have a solution. In a small way this was my attempt to offer a solution, which is: Let’s talk about these films in all their complexity and specificity.
It felt important to me to show what I call a capsule collection. To take a really small sampling of films from this one period and show what immense range was there. I started riffing on ideas of “classic” and “Iconic” and all the ways that this is very different looked at from a Black perspective.
You have POSSE and DEAD PRESIDENTS, which are pretty big Hollywood-style films. Then you have THE WATERMELON WOMAN which is an independent film and a Black queer film and is also very meta, reflecting on the nature of Black representation itself. And then there’s JUST ANOTHER GIRL ON THE I.R.T. which was done on a shoestring budget. And both of those lower-budget films are directed by Black women. The films that I picked are very much located in specific genres, but they also complicate those genres in the way that Black film and the existence of Black filmmakers always complicate these forms which were developed by white directors and by white-led studios with white actors in mind. The films sort of walk this line of being both very much grounded in these genres, but also showing the messiness and the slipperiness, when complicated by blackness. Genre can be very tricky because it’s not some apolitical, universally constructed form. There are aspects of genre that are racialized or gendered. Like the femme fatale in a noir. That is a gender type. You can play around with gender or race, but some of those elements, those components of genre themselves are very ideological or political. It’s also about playing with the tropes of the genre. For instance, in POSSE, Stephen Baldwin is essentially like the Magical Negro character. He dies saving a Black guy. Intentional or not, it’s sort of a funny inversion.
AFI: A couple of the films feel really of the moment. Why did you choose the decade of the ‘90s?
RG: On top of wanting to show a range of filmmakers and topics and great approaches, there’s a lot that I think THE WATERMELON WOMAN and JUST ANOTHER GIRL were doing in the ‘90s that people are talking about as being groundbreaking now. The meta-ness of both of them, the direct address, in the way that they pull you in or confront you as a viewer. I’ve always found those really provocative.
I’m always looking for opportunities to say ‘Remember this?’ because the ‘90s are so rich, because that period of production is so diverse and varied I wanted to make sure in whatever way I could that there was a sort of moment of pause to contemplate. So many of those films have direct corollaries now.
We’re in a moment now in 2020 where people are very excited about the discovery of lost Black films like Kathleen Collins’ LOSING GROUND [the first full-length feature directed by an African-American woman, in 1982] or SOMETHING GOOD NEGRO KISS, from1898. There’s so much interest in these lost films, but films from the ‘30s and 40s are still almost taboo in terms of Black representation. The controversy over GONE WITH THE WIND explains how understandably anxious and uncomfortable people still are with that era. That’s what I think is so fascinating about THE WATERMELON WOMAN, that through this mythical character the filmmaker is trying to suggest the full and rich lives of these actors, and also the ways they were bringing some complexity to their on-screen performances. I find that to be such a strong and radical viewpoint.
AFI: The ‘90s were a time of unprecedented filmmaking by Black filmmakers. You picked films that are not necessarily on people’s radar at this moment. Some have been overlooked or even forgotten since they came out. Why do you think that is?
RG: I think the 90s have come to be just understood as BOYZ N THE HOOD and MENACE II SOCIETY– even though those films are much more complicated than people are giving them credit for being.
What I find is that over and over again there’s this subtle attempt to disconnect contemporary Black films from their predecessors. I think that’s something happening within critical discourse. I think it happens a lot with white film critics who treat whatever is happening in Black film as brand new, as opposed to building on a legacy and being connected to something that came before, in some ways departing and in some ways innovating, but never coming up with something out of nowhere. It’s a weird sort of amnesia that happens. If I’m being generous, it seems like benign amnesia. If I’m being less generous it seems like erasing what came before so that what’s happening now can be first.
AFI: You’ve spoken about busting the traditional canon. What do you hope the audience gets out of these films, in terms of busting that canon?
RG: I’ve always wanted us to talk about the canon as if it’s “the canon” in quotation marks. Because it is not a thing that exists outside of people—people who run studios, who acquire films, who restore the films, who distribute them, who write about them, who teach them in their classes. The canon is a construction. I really wanted to push back against that idea that Black film is always this add-on to a pre-established canon that can’t be changed, that can’t be questioned, that can’t be in some ways burnt to the ground and rebuilt. So, the films I selected I hope lead audiences to understand that Black film is not additive, it’s constitutive of film history. And I also hope that the films lead viewers to realize just how white the canon is, that it is not without race. There are genres that are grounded in the default normativity of whiteness. And you can’t make Black versions of them. All of the films that I picked are not Black versions of some white corresponding films. These films suggest all of the ways that Black film can be rich and complicated and messy in ways that are super productive and really evocative.
AFI: What does the concept of Cinema’s Legacy mean to you in regard to blackness?
RG: I think of cinema’s legacy with a question mark, as opposed to a period. I think we’re still determining what cinema’s legacy is when it comes to blackness. I think we’re exploring that and rediscovering things. I think a lot about Allyson Nadia Fields’ book “Uplift Cinema: the Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity,” which is all about early Black cinema that doesn’t exist anymore, because it wasn’t saved. Cinema might be a very different thing had people cared enough to save and write about Black film, for instance. In terms of critical discourse, we’re still thinking about what things have meant. We’re still trying to figure out how we define a Black film. Does it mean it’s made by a Black filmmaker? What about a film that has a white director, but is so clearly culturally Black like COMING TO AMERICA? Where does that fit into all of this?
I think of Cinema’s Legacy as a provocation to think about the ways that blackness has been overlooked, marginalized, excluded, but then has also been present and beautiful and brilliant. That seems like a contradiction, but I think that contradiction is blackness and cinema.
Watch the Cinema’s Legacy films screening for free at AFI FEST starting on Oct. 16. GET TICKET.